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  • Writer's pictureBrooke Landis

Bundled Up and Ready to Trek: Winter Adventures with Sagehen Outdoor Education Program

"We are here because we love to get you outside and connect you to the environment.  We believe that the experience of hugging a tree, or tasting a fir needle, or running in the snow will strengthen your connection with this place and that will inspire you to take care of it and our planet.”  - Ashley Phillips, SWEP Project Director

SWEP Project Director, Ashley Phillips, is talking to a class of 5th graders on a blustery, snowy day in the Tahoe National Forest behind their school.  SWEP envisions a future in which all students in the Tahoe/Truckee region understand the environment in which they live and are empowered to take action to sustain and protect it. We believe strongly that outdoor education is an important way to reach that vision.

Outdoor education deepens students' connection to nature and care for nature. It supports mental and physical health and can increase kids’ focus in school.  It fosters the use of social skills and cooperation while providing engaging and fun learning experiences. Outdoor education programs in TTUSD allow all students to experience being outside, even those who might not have the opportunity to do so on a regular basis.

Jumping for joy! A student attempts a 360 on snowshoes.

We are here for Winter Trek, part of the Sagehen Outdoor Education Program which provides all TTUSD 5th graders an outdoor education experience in the Fall, Winter and Spring.  The class splits into smaller groups, puts on snowshoes and heads out into the forest.  At the first station groups are challenged to make the biggest snow pile they can in 3 minutes.  They work together and strategize, feeling how snow packs tightly or noticing it can be cut into blocks.  We smell the wet forest duff from the bare spots under the trees. They are hearing and feeling the wind as we talk about weather systems. We talk about water molecules, how they got here and where they will go from this pile when they melt.  Kids catch snowflakes on their tongue and think about how the water molecules that form them may have come from the Pacific Ocean and are billions of years old.  Learning is fun and exciting and kids are using social skills as they cooperate. Kids are making a connection to their own life living in mountains by understanding weather patterns, where we are getting the water we drink and why it is important.

As we talk with students it is clear they have studied some of these science concepts in their classrooms.  By being outside we are helping them build upon that knowledge and connect it to something tangible and close by, the snow in the forest near their school, and allow students to use all of their senses and their whole bodies. 

We hike on through a snowy forest to our next station.  Snowshoes can be awkward but students are getting the hang of it. Outdoor education helps students' mental and physical health.  In our area we picture many students getting out for snow sports, but there are also many who do not. We are hoping that by giving all kids this experience they realize that snowshoeing can be a way of being outside in the winter that is an option for all. 

How far can you slide when the snow is frozen? Students were eager to find out!

We reach the next station where students dig a snow pit down to the ground.  It is much easier in this year’s low snowpack compared to last year’s 6 feet at the same time!  Kids use the tools that snow scientists use; shovels, snow probes and laser thermometers, as we dig snow pits and collect data.  We look at layers of snow from different storms, measure snow depth and discuss the importance of snow science and how our Sierra snowpack affects not only our communities but all of California and the nation’s food.  After taking temperatures at the top and bottom of the pit we talk about thermal layering and the importance of the subnivean zone between the ground and snow for animals who live here. We then collect snow which will be melted in classrooms to measure the Snow Water Equivalent.

Not only are students learning concepts first-hand but being outside accommodates different kinds of learning. They are learning through movement and getting their hands on real tools. They get the opportunity to use different skills than in a classroom, and apply classroom skills, such as math, in new ways. 

As we head back to the trailhead the group races on snowshoes and we talk about how animals such as the snowshoe hare adapt to this environment.  The kids themselves have adapted pretty well to snowshoes by the end of the program.  Not only are they outside connecting to this place physically but are experiencing it through different lenses: as scientists, as engineers, as molecules of water, as animals surviving the winter, all of which give them a deeper understanding of our environment and help them see how everything, including themselves, is connected.

We thank the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District (TTUSD), the Sagehen Outdoor School, UC Berkeley Sagehen Creek Field Station, Placer County Office of Education (PCOE), Tahoe Mountain Resorts Foundation, CLIF Family Foundation, Northstar California Resort in partnership with Vail Resorts EpicPromise, and The Patchwork Collective for supporting SWEP Programming.


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