Growling owls, a fleeing fox, and tiny crab spiders are just a few of these first graders’ encounters during their weekly outdoor learning days.
Guest post by Angus Mossman
First graders encircle a large tree during their weekly outdoor learning day. Photo courtesy of Angus Mossman
Illuminated in a glimmer of sunlight sifting through the hemlock canopy, five first graders have encircled a glorious white pine. Arms outstretched, faces pressed to the bark, they can barely reach each other around the old-growth giant. Between their bark-imprinted cheeks are silent smiles of amazement, wonder, and happiness.
To my left, Carter is sitting on the frozen stream, sorting a pile of rocks into metamorphic vs sedimentary. “This one’s a conglomerate! I guess it goes in the middle,” he calls out.
Natalie and Dex are bear-crawling up a hill toward a glassy wall of icicles dripping off a sandstone overhang. A discarded orange mitten and bag of trail mix mark their path. Just ahead, Mia is bouncing on a fallen branch, chewing on the minty bark of a yellow birch twig. “I love hiking!” she exclaims.
Luna from Tower Rock Elementary enjoys her lunch under a tree. Photo: Lisa Hartman
But stomachs are beginning to rumble, and so with a quiet ‘Howoooo’ our group of 12 joins back together. We head onward through the quiet, fresh snow towards the voices of our classmates who have already reached the meeting place.
Soon, snow-covered branches give way to purple hats and bright blue coats, and a few wafts of smoke. As we approach the group, Dylan comes in with a load of dead branches for the fire.
SpongeBob and princess backpacks hit the ground and lunches come out. Some kids join those already sitting around the small campfire to warm up and listen to stories. Others take their lunches over to the stream bank for some peace and quiet.
Students gather around a small fire in the snow as part of one outdoor learning day. Photo: Angus Mossman
Mrs. Sorg is leading a warm-up challenge and Mr. Edwards has begun a game of hide-and-seek among the big trees. Mrs. Hartman is helping students cross a fallen log.
I look around. There are a few shivering kids who need to get moving, but mostly people are comfortable, having fun on a 20-degree day in the middle of the forest. I smile. We can do this. We’ve been doing this all year!
First graders William and Wyatt investigate the signs of Fall amidst the cool stream. Photo: JoAnnah Sorg
Outside. Every. Single. Week.
With the help of gracious community support and a team of creative educators, Tower Rock Elementary School‘s first graders have spent a full day of every week outside since the beginning of the school year. The days have given students an opportunity to connect classroom ideas and vocabulary with real-world experiences, build background knowledge, and develop unique senses of place and belonging within the environment and class community.
The idea came about last spring when I sat down with fellow first-grade teacher JoAnnah Sorg to brainstorm how to involve students in a school-wide prairie planting. “Wouldn’t it be cool,” she mused, “if we could spend one day each week totally outside?”
Students lean in during Mr. Edwards’ aquatic invertebrates lesson during an outdoor learning day. Photo: Lisa Hartman
The kids’ response
Five months and a few meetings later, Tuesday September 7th rolled around and there we were, 38 first graders and a handful of teachers seated in a circle on the grass explaining how that day, and all the upcoming Tuesdays would go.
38 outdoor learning days later, the kids are used to the routine and most come to school on Tuesday mornings particularly excited.
As one parent shared, “Brooks is always the first one up on Tuesdays, making sure he has layers and good shoes so he’s ready for outdoor learning day.”
Parents have been overwhelmingly supportive of the days, noting how their students’ observation skills and curiosity have grown through the year.
Students nature journaling with their families on the last field trip of the year. Photo: Todd Persche
Learn outside, learn inside
Units of study for first grade correlate with our local environment and phenology. And because students dive deeply into each topic for several weeks, we’ve been able to focus each outdoor learning day on topics students are studying in the classroom in ways that build on and contribute to future classroom learning.
In addition to academic skills like math and reading, the outdoor days also give students lots of opportunities to build social-emotional skills.
When asked about something she’d learned during outdoor learning days, Loriah shared “You get to face your fears. Sometimes it’s scary, but when you learn something from it, it’s not so scary after all.”
We’re grateful for financial support from several sources, including the NRF Teachers’ Outdoor Environmental Education Fund, which helped purchase winter gear for students and offset transportation expenses.
Angus Mossman and two classroom teachers, JoAnnah Sorg and Dylan Edwards, organized the outdoor learning days project for the school. Photo: Brigitta Brickl
Making Outdoor Learning Days Happen
Dylan, JoAnnah, and Angus all grew up sifting through rotting logs and peering into streams around Wisconsin. Their passions for teaching, learning, and outdoor exploration have brought them to Tower Rock Elementary School where they’re excited to share their excitement and curiosity with their students, who may well represent the future of this place.
Interested in applying for one of NRF’s environmental education grants?
Check out NRF’s Teachers Outdoor Environmental Education Fund (applications due May 1). The Teachers Outdoor Environmental Education Fund was established to provide meaningful outdoor environmental education learning experiences for public school students. Or, check out NRF’s Go Outside Fund (applications due quarterly). Email our Conservation Programs Coordinator, Lindsey Taylor, if you have questions about the application or a project idea.
Thank you to NRF’s donors for making this possible.
Guest Post by Angus Mossman, Tower Rock Elementary School 1st Grade Teacher