Seeley Swan Pathfinder -

By Bridget Laird
SLE Outdoor Education Coordinator 

Nudging Kids Outdoors


Bridget Laird

Fifth and sixth graders explore Clearwater Lake.

As a mother of four kids myself, I've been guilty of the common complaint that "kids these days" just don't play outside or have opportunities to explore and figure things out on their own like we used to when we were kids. They're so often plugged in, over scheduled or over managed.

I feel lucky to have grown up in Montana in a simpler time, before the internet and social media, when our parents nudged us out of the house in the morning and called us back in for meals. What happened in between was rugged, magical, sometimes frightening, challenging, even empowering.

Unstructured time outdoors nurtured our independence. I've often pined for those "good old days" for my own kids, trying to recreate that lost setting amidst the buzz of a contemporary electronic society. A mounting body of research has recognized this disconnect between childhoods past and present and the movement to get kids back outdoors learning and exploring has firmly taken root.

Place based education, experiential education, adventure education -- whatever we choose to call it -- is helping bridge the gap and bringing nature back into our daily lives (or rather, bringing our daily lives back out to nature). The rigorous modern classroom meets the relevance of real world approaches to learning, including outdoor education.

For the past five years, SLE Outside, the Outdoor Program at Seeley Lake Elementary (SLE), has been "nudging" kids outdoors during and after school, on weekends and in the summer.

Why? Because we wholeheartedly believe in the research supported benefits of a place-based, hands-on approach to learning. Although our specific activities have evolved, our goals have been consistent: to provide our students with hands-on educational and recreational experiences that expand learning opportunities beyond SLE's core curriculum, and the tools to learn directly from the outdoor world.

So what have we been up to lately?

In September, the seventh grade class made the annual camping trip to Glacier National Park as part of our Junior High National Parks Project. The three-day course focused on Glacier Park's unique geology, wildlife management, fire ecology, outdoor leadership, human history and impacts on the landscape. Students and chaperones participate in Park Service citizen science monitoring projects.

In the spring, SLE's eighth graders will travel to Yellowstone for the second half of the National Parks Project.

These trips are funded in part by the 21st Century Community Learning Center grant, as well as donations and funds raised by each participating class.

Our fourth through sixth grade classes attended the Blackfoot Challenge field day at the Rolling Stone Ranch in September and learned about various aspects of ranching.

The junior high participated in the annual Trumpeter Swan Release, also organized and sponsored by Blackfoot Challenge.

The kindergarten through sixth grade bimonthly Outdoor Education focus for the fall was habitat and watersheds. Classes traveled to Clearwater, Rainey and Seeley Lakes to explore the watershed, search for macroinvertebrates and learn about the lake monitoring project with fish biologist Bruce Rieman.

As soon as the cold weather hit and the snow mounted up, classes returned to the Seeley Creek Nordic Ski Trails and the warming yurt provided by Seeley Lake Regional Outdoor Center for Kinetic Sports (ROCKS). Winter ecology is the focus for winter Outdoor Education field classes. Starting in January, instructors from Swan Valley Connections will join our fourth through sixth grade classes, exploring snow science and animal tracking on snowshoes.

Every Thursday after school, our 21st Century program takes kids outside with Outdoor Adventure Club. This fall we were one of 15 Montana programs selected by a competitive application for a hands-on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) educational program called Science Action Club developed by the California Academy of Sciences.

SLE teachers Kelsi Luhnow and Patti Bartlett, SVE teacher Erica Carroll and I completed a training workshop hosted by Montana State University Extended University in Bozeman on Oct. 20 on the Science Action Club program. We became part of a nationwide group of STEM educators supported by the California Academy of Sciences and received free scientific equipment and curriculum that helps our students explore their local environment and conduct active research as citizen scientists.

SLE staff will attend another training in February on birds and will receive another resource kit to use in the spring.

Bridget Laird

Seventh grade class at Glacier National Park.

Now that it's snow season, the Thursday after school Adventure Club program has shifted back to Snow School. Offered to students in second through eighth grade, Snow School takes kids on winter outdoor adventures including Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, broom hockey and snow sculpture building, while reinforcing the academic lessons on snow science learned in the classroom and during outdoor education field trips.

Another full menu of outdoor learning and exploring opportunities is offered at SLE this year. I feel extremely lucky that my own children and I are part of the SLE community. When our students look back on their childhoods, it is my sincere hope that they will remember a magical time when they explored their wild back yard with their classes and their families, participated in meaningful research and got their hands dirty while connecting academics to their environment.


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