Exploring the Neighborhood


On September 27th, 2018, 18 students from Mt. Vista Elementary School set out to explore Catalina State Park. This adventure was designed to let the students explore beautiful lowland Sonoran Desert landscapes, and teach them how to identify the different places the flora and fauna call home. Using arroyos, mesquite forests, and open rugged trails, we searched high and low, using our imaginations to discover. We even embodied the animals themselves, using play to understand how and where the animals might hide. It was a warm day of deep fun and learning.

Our adventure started by dropping into an arroyo. This gave us our first clues as to who might be living here. We followed tracks and signs down the wide wash until we came upon a large Arizona willow. We spent some time building small sit spots so we could relax in the shade with ease. Once everyone had a shallow dig, I described what it means to be in the “outdoor classroom.” The students seemed excited that, out here, their attention can fall on nearly anything, their voices can be loud or soft, and they can be as interested and inquisitive as they’d like. With this came the agreement of respect, followed by very important conversation about safety and the risks we might experience in this landscape. Once everyone understood and we were prepared to move forward, we filled in our small sitting holes and began our march forward.

Following the arroyo, we began to see the first signs of desert homes. Small holes built into the bank provided shade, moisture, and even some chewable roots. A variety of desert rodents, reptiles, and arthropods claim these places. Together we discussed what their homes may look like, and how they resemble our own homes. The students thought it seemed like pretty scenic property to have, but they quickly realized these places are right at snout level for coyotes, skunks, and bobcats – all predators and neighbors of these residents. We then moved out of the dry wash to explore the green mesquite canopy.

The mesquite forest (bosque) provided a very different habitat than what we previously observed. The students were surprised to learn that birds do not sleep in their nests year around, but roost on ideal branches for shelter. The fallen branches and leaves create habitat for snakes, while the density of the forest is ideal for large mammals. Here we decided to play a game of hide and seek, only we changed the rules so that half of the students were predators and half of the students were prey. We discussed how camouflage works, for both the predator and prey and how each moves in order to succeed in their goal. The students went off, the prey hiding still and silent and still while the predators moved quietly and carefully. The students had so much fun with so much success they were very disappointed when the game came to an end.

After lunch, we pushed into an open and familiar Sonoran Desert landscape, where saguaros and other cacti rule. Here the homes became bizarre, with birds building dense nests in vicious cactus. Tall cliffs were stacked with crumbling boulders around us, littered with deeps hole that acted like a skyrise apartment. The heat was growing, and the lessons of homes and houses were starting to disappear under the pressure of the sun. The intense heat was a tangible lesson as to why animals rarely rest or move under the open sun. They were happy when the lesson ended because it meant we could move back into shade and shelter. We spent some time wrapping up our day, recapping what we learned and what our favorite moments were. It was wildly successful, and a day the kids couldn’t wait to repeat.

Thanks to Resolution Copper for their support of this outing!