Embracing the Cold & Bringing Outdoor Ed into the Classroom

On December 17, 2019, 14 fifth graders from Mrs. Chapman’s class at Flagstaff Junior Academy Middle School braved a particularly chilly morning in pursuit of adventure, discovery, and expression. Our goals were to identify why we felt connections with certain special places, to deepen our sense of place in Flagstaff’s local environment, and to create meaningful collages using natural materials.

During our warm up activity, students drew and wrote about places that were special to them. Their special places were unique to each individual, including beaches, a grandparent’s backyard, Elden Spring, a back porch, and even places within their imaginations. Students discussed what made their places significant and ultimately discovered that their special places were defined by memories, company, repeated visits, opportunities for solitude, and sensory experiences. One student stated, “To feel a connection with a place, you need to have an emotional experience there.” This was music to my outdoor educator ears!

We geared up to be outside for about an hour in below freezing conditions. Thankfully itwas sunny, and we came equipped with many warm layers (plus hot cocoa in a crockpot waiting for us upon return). From the school, we hiked out past the Frances Short Pond–where we were warmly greeted by mallards and geese–towards Observation Mesa. After talking about how to ethically and respectfully collect natural materials, we began gathering items for our nature collages. The students were excited to search for interesting textures, diverse shapes, and varying colors. During our search, we were lucky to stumble upon tracks, scat, and a squirrel pencil! While I thought students were implying that a certain stick looked like it was fit for a squirrel to use as a pencil, they taught me that a squirrel pencil is actually a ponderosa twig that has been gnawed by an Abert’s squirrel. Squirrels remove the outer bark of twigs, eat the inner bark, and then leave the remains on the ground, which are sometimes browsed later by mule deer.

When we returned to the classroom, students composed their collages, themed “Flagstaff’s natural world and me.” Some students arranged bark and pine needles to look like landscapes, some made abstract pieces, and several constructed animals. We listened to music and sipped hot chocolate as we worked on our pieces.

Though the cold weather wasn’t conducive to going on an all-day expedition, with some adaptability, preparation, a spirit of inquiry, and stellar attitudes, we were able to get outside and bring nature into the classroom. It was a fantastic lesson that one need not travel far in Flagstaff to find wildness and adventure; there is endless outdoor learning to be had right outside of Flagstaff Junior Academy’s doors. We just needed to open our senses and curiosity to the places that we see everyday and stop wondering about in order to transform the ordinary to the extraordinary. To develop new connections. To make this perceptively commonplace spot special, too.