6 outdoor education programs where you can get your hands in the dirt in Alabama


(Dauphin Island Sea Lab)

Nature education in Alabama is more than reading a textbook, watching videos or going to a museum, especially for kids and families. Sometimes you have to get your hands and feet in the dirt.

Verna Gates, the founder of the Birmingham-based Fresh Air Family, explains:

“We want to return children to their natural habitat, which is outdoors. We want to introduce many of them who’ve never been outdoors to playing in the rain, in the creek or digging for worms in the woods. 

Children love it. Children have loved it for millennia. It is so much fun.”

Series on nature education in Alabama

Nature Camps
(Fresh Air Family)

Our previous two stories connected you to the 29 Nature Centers across Alabama and watchable wildlife programs.

In this, our third installment about nature education, we feature six programs in Alabama that help kids get outside, explore the natural world and grow their own food.

Join us.

1. Grossing Out with Fresh Air Family

Fresh Air
(Gross Out Camp (Fresh Air Family)

Talk about truth in advertising. The good folks with Fresh Air Family call their award-winning field trips and camps “Gross Out.”  Despite—or maybe because of—the name, they’re very popular.

This summer alone, the group will hold 64 Gross Out Camps in 22 communities across Alabama from Monte Sano State Park in Huntsville to the Forever Trail in Dothan, Alabama.

“It’s basically hands-on field biology, which can be kind of disgusting,” Verna Gates, who founded Fresh Air Family in 2006, told Bham Now about the camps.

Groos Out
Gross Out Camp (Fresh Arie Family)

“What makes Gross Out camps amazing is seeing kids pull their first fish from a creek, find their first millipede or pick up a rock and see a salamander run out. It’s wonderful to see their glee at getting outside and discovering a whole world they didn’t know about.”

Gross Out camps and field trips are also different because they can be held in traditional and non-traditional places. One day, they might be at Oak Mountain State Park teaching kids about snakes; another day they will visit the Vulcan Trail to learn about geology and the materials that built the steel industry in The Magic City.

Beyond the summer, there are daily school field trips, weekend hikes and campouts.

One thing is guaranteed. Expect to be grossed out and love it.

2. Growing food and community

(Jones Valley Teaching Farm)

On the Jones Valley Teaching Farm (JVTF) website there is the statement: 

“We believe in the power of food.”

Since 2012, the group has operated vibrant, student-centered Teaching Farms and a Good School Food education and apprenticeship model. 

JVTF is expanding its internship and apprenticeship program beyond Woodlawn High School to include all 7 Birmingham City High Schools and their students.

What was their impact BEFORE this expansion? Here are JVTF’s 2021-22 numbers:

  • 3710 students reached
  • 15,788 pounds of food grown
  • 46,354 seedlings grown

That’s a lot of hands “in the dirt”

In the summer JVTF runs “Camp Grow” for elementary school children. They also operate two farm stands in Woodlawn and downtown on 6th Avenue and 25th Street where they give out fresh vegetables for free—and donations are welcome. 

If you want to help pick the vegetables and fruits, everyone is welcome to volunteer via the JVTF  “Harvest Hands” program.

3. Alabama’s coastal natural wonders

(Dauphin Island Sea Lab)

“So here at Sea Lab our education philosophy is: Giving our visitors a true hands-on education by providing authentic experiences in the field, in the salt marsh, on the boat, driving underwater robots, collecting and analyzing data. It’s these that give students and all of our visitors a better understanding of the ocean.” ~ Tina Miller-Way, Chair, Dauphin Island Sea Lab (DISL) Discovery Hall Program

They accomplish that task in four different ways:

  • Field trips: Throughout the academic year, Discovery Hall educators and teachers organize field trips for their K through 12 students. They can learn STEM-related topics like underwater robotics or touch, smell and feel critters in the estuary and ocean. 
  • Summer Camps: Much like the field trips, campers will set out and explore the diverse habitats of Dauphin Island, including the beach, salt marsh and maritime forest. Camps are day-long, overnight and residential—4 weeks long. Registration for the camps will begin on February 1, 2024.
  • Educator Workshops: DISL’s Discovery Hall programs also provide professional learning opportunities for teachers and educators through virtual and onsite single-day and multi-day workshops. Another invaluable resource? Teachers brainstorm with DISL staff on ways they can bring marine life and coastal habitat education back to their classroom.
  • College Students: Instead of being fragmented, with every institution doing its own marine sciences and nature sciences course of study, Sea Lab was created to give  undergraduate and graduate students in the state the ability to take those hands-on courses at a college level. Classes like behavioral ecology, marine biology and marine ecology are offered. Graduate and postdoc students also do research.
  • Family Camp: A program birthed after the Covid-19 pandemic, DISL hosts families and individuals in the fall and spring. Activities include a trip aboard the Sea Lab’s research vessel to trawl and learn about Mobile Bay’s inhabitants or a a nighttime crab hunting ‘crawl’, a barrier island beach exploration.

And of course year round on the grounds of Dauphin Island Sea Lab you have the newly renovated Alabama Aquarium, which is open for all ages.

“It’s K to grey.” 

That’s how John Valentine, the Executive Director at Dauphin Island Sea Lab describes their nature education programs—they benefit kindergartners to seniors.

4. Get your feet wet in the Cahaba River

(Cahaba River Society)

Back in the 1990s, the Cahaba River Society (CRS) began the CLEAN Program, a hands-on nature education program that takes kids out on the most biodiverse river in North America. 

Last year, 2007 teachers and students walked the stream banks and took a canoe ride out on the river. Over the history of the program, an eye-popping 58,000 people have spent a day on the river.

La’Tanya Scott, the CRS Director of Education told us, that one of her colleagues calls their program “sneaky teaching.”

“You’re having fun, but you’re also learning at the same time. You retain that information because it’s hands on—you are in the river, feet wet, hands wet. It’s phenomenal and super fun.”

Scott and her fellow river educators connect the kids to the water in special ways.

  • Geography: Learning where they are and how the river flows
  • Chemistry: Dipping their hands in the water and testing it for pollutants
  • Fishing Assessment: Students drop a net into the river, capturing and counting the many kinds of fish that live there
  • Macroinvertebrate Survey: Conducting a river bug scavenger hunt 

Imagine doing this all in one day. Once the teachers and students are all done, they are forever connected to the river.

5. Becoming a guardian of the land

Wild Alabama
(Wild Alabama)

The Birmingham metro area is blessed with three nationally-designated wilderness areas only 50-60 miles away.  Wild Alabama is THE guardian of places like the Bankhead National Forest, Talladega National Forest and our three wilderness areas—Sipsey, Cheaha and Dugger.

In the summer, the group invites families to explore these natural wonders. 

Wild Alabama
Wild Wednesdays with Wild Alabama (Wild Alabama)

Who wouldn’t want to see one of the thousands of waterfalls in the Bankhead? Or take a hike down a trail in the Talladega? The excursions are led by Wild Alabama staff who frequently stop along the way to describe what you are seeing and exploring. The events are appropriately named:

Along with learning about the forests, Wild Alabama is continuously looking for people who like helping steward the land by becoming a Volunteer Wilderness Ranger or a Forest Ambassador.

6. Introducing nature to kids on a college campus

Nadia Tellis and Roald Hazelhoff at the Birmingham Southern College Ecoscape taken in 2017. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

Roald Hazelhoff, Birmingham-Southern College’s Southern Environmental Center Director, knows a thing or two about introducing nature to kids. 

At the college’s Ecoscape Garden, he has been welcoming 10,000+ schoolchildren to the beautiful five-acre oasis on the campus for three decades.

Hazelhoff leads tours through the Ecoscape mostly for urban kids who have rarely ventured in the woods or outdoors. For example, he introduces them to flowers—buttercups—by placing them on their chin, which turns their chins yellow. Soon, everyone wants buttercups on their chins! 

“Getting dirty is a relative term. It’s getting out there—touching, identifying and associating with that seed the kids might find and the pine cone or flower they pick up that helps them explore.” 

Hands in the Dirt  Roundup

Wild Alabama
In the Bankhead National Forest (Wild Alabama)

Interested in these nature programs? These groups offer a number of educational programs and fun ways  individuals can volunteer and participate.

Here is the list:

And don’t forget to access our guide to Alabama Nature Centers 

Get out outdoors and enjoy Alabama’s natural wonders! 

Tell us about your favorite nature program or center by tagging us on social media at @bhamnow 

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Pat Byington
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