You, Too, Can Teach Outside!

A few months ago, I shared a piece on this program called “Why I Teach Outside.” In it, I discussed the academic research and my personal anecdotes that reaffirm the education community’s movement toward experiential learning and learning beyond the four walls of a classroom. But it was mostly theoretical—an explanation more of WHY experiential learning in nature works than HOW it can be implemented. Then, my third graders were sent home for the year. And I started getting emails. Parents needed ideas to supplement the online curriculum and to ultimately get their children unplugged on a regular and healthy basis. So, here are a few of my ideas.

There is probably no greater privilege as an educator than to witness the natural and emphatic curiosity of youngsters. Use that to your advantage. You’ll find that it’s rather simple. Let’s start with that most boisterous and emphatically curious age group of all—the lower elementary students: Kindergarten through 2nd grade. Science is the low-hanging curricular fruit for this age group outside, but it’s also rich with wonder—things in the natural world that make kids say “Huh?! What? WHY? HOW?” We call those things phenomena, and you can find them in your backyard. Have your Kindergartner explore the plant life around your home, making observations about the similarities and differences they notice between the various species. Ask guiding questions of them to help them arrive at an explanation for those patterns they find in nature. Help your first grader investigate the various sounds made by natural objects found in your yard or neighborhood. Why, for instance, does a rock make a sharp, high-pitched cracking sound when hit against another rock but creates a dull, low-pitched thud when dropped onto the ground? Second graders can move into more complex explorations of properties of matter. Have your child make a house out of leaves and sticks. Then, have them explain why they used particular materials in specific ways? What is their reasoning?

Upper elementary students in grades 3 through 5 or 6 can begin making connections between the natural world and their own lives. Moving beyond the science curriculum, I sent my third graders on a socially-distanced driving tour of Cache Valley. Without leaving their vehicles, students were able to study their communities and identify necessary natural resources that humans in the area require to survive. Fourth grade social studies curriculum is focused on Utah. Wherever you live, there is an important and noteworthy social artifact nearby that you can explore while also observing conservative social distancing measures. That research I mentioned earlier tells us definitively that even just being outside helps our brains make new connections and create better understandings. Fifth and sixth grade social studies focus in part on the rights and responsibilities of humans. What better time to sit beneath a tree and think and write about those questions of liberty and social responsibility. That journal will become a primary resource for future generations eagerly asking, “What was it like? How did you handle everything?” I for one, have to get out into the bright, green world to be able to handle life quarantined indoors.

We can’t forget socialization, either, which is one of the most important parts of middle and high school. How do we combine the natural world, social networking, and social distancing?! My school’s staff discussed Earth Day activities recently as a way of getting kids and families unplugged and active. Have your older students brainstorm with friends via video conference, text messaging, phone calls, or social media ways in which they can, individually but as a group, promote the welfare and stewardship of our planet. Pick up trash around the neighborhood; plant a garden; write a letter to a legislator. They will find what’s important to them.

These suggestions are not an exhaustive list of course. But, no matter what you end up doing with whichever age group children you have, remember, more important than the academic rigor of your homeschooling is the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of your children. Help them flourish during this difficult time. Unplug the computer. Get them outside.

I’m Josh Boling, and though I’m stuck at home, I’m still Wild About Utah!

Credits:

Photos: Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling
Sound: Courtesy & Copyright
Text: Josh Boling, 2018

Additional Reading

Boling, Josh, Why I Teach Outside, Wild About Utah, November 11, 2019, https://wildaboututah.org/why-i-teach-outside/

OutdoorClassroomDay.com, https://outdoorclassroomday.com/resources/

Third Grade Nature Activities, Education.com, Inc, a division of IXL Learning, https://www.education.com/activity/third-grade/nature-activities/

40 Wet and Wild Outdoor Science Projects and Activities, wearteachers.com, Shelton, CT, https://www.weareteachers.com/contact-weareteachers/

Imaginary Wanderings

Imaginary Wanderings: The edge of the Great Basin, top of the Bear River Range Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
The edge of the Great Basin, top of the Bear River Range
Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
I’ve fancied a certain type of wandering lately—to grab my pack and boots and walk the lines of Utah’s political border—a trail made not of dirt and stone, but of imaginary lines of latitude and longitude. But, as of yet, I haven’t found the time or resources to do so beyond my own imagination and the 3 or 4 minutes I have with you now. Come join me in a stroll around Utah, at least the way I’ve imagined it.

Walking north out of Logan, I’ll wander through the grid-patterned neighborhoods that pepper the flanks of the Bear River Range, the still-snowy peaks that serve as sentinels over my daily commute and the adventure on which I embark now. They serve another, greater purpose, too, though. Without the Bear Rivers, the Rocky Mountains would be otherwise dissected. The snowy peaks I adore and which now pass in slow motion over my right shoulder form the only range of mountains that connect the northern and southern Rockies. Though they only measure about 70 miles in length, they provide a critical ecological thoroughfare from the south end of Cache Valley, Utah, north to Soda Springs, Idaho.

I won’t follow them that far, though. I’ll turn left (west) at the Idaho border toward the Great Basin.

I’m technically already there. We all are if we live along the Wasatch Front. And there are just a few minor ranges—the Clarkston Range, Blue Spring Hills, and the northern fingerling ridges of the Promontory Mountains—to wander across before reaching the Great Basin proper.

My favorite hidden gem of this often-overlooked portion of Utah are the Raft River Mountains. Like the mighty Uintas to the east, the Raft Rivers run East-to-West. So, despite being a stone’s throw from the Great Salt Lake, the tributaries running off their northern flanks drain not into the Great Basin and the Great Salt Lake, but north onto the Snake River Plain toward the Columbia River and, eventually, the Pacific Ocean.

The Tri Corners Landmark is a simple granite pillar sticking 3 or 4 feet out of the sand amongst wind-whipped sage brush. It’s easy to miss, but marks some interesting irregularities. Utah’s political border is not, in fact, made up of straight lines. According to cartographer Dave Cook, surveyors who created the state’s initial boundaries hastily covered ground with their crude survey instruments. They were paid by the mile, so they were more interested in finishing quickly than correcting any errors they made along the way.

The border wiggles at least four times by my calculations—one of which comprises two right angles—as it wanders across ridgelines and through the dusty draws of the basin and range mountains toward the Mojave Desert of southwest Utah.

Imaginary Wanderings: The wrinkled topography if the Colorado Plateau Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
The wrinkled topography if the Colorado Plateau
Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
I won’t be there for long, though. The border only runs for roughly 50 miles along the two legs of the right triangle that constitutes Utah’s allotment of the Mojave Desert before it climbs up onto the Colorado plateau. Ed Abbey famously compared the wrinkled topography of Utah, particularly his beloved canyon country of the Colorado Plateau, to the two largest of our states. “Alaska is our biggest, buggiest, boggiest state,” Abbey wrote. “Texas remains our largest unfrozen state. But mountainous Utah, if ironed out flat, would take up more space on a map than either.” Ropes, technical climbing and canyoneering gear, and a fair amount of fortitude would be required here.

The eastern border we share with Colorado is a varied expanse of high desert plateaus, rugged cliffs, out-of-place riparian zones, and a few spectacular snow-capped mountain ranges leading through some of the most beautiful and gloriously desolate places on the planet. The Book Cliffs, Dinosaur National Monument, and the La Sal Mountains come to mind.

A short walk distance-wise would require heaps of route finding across the Green River’s Flaming Gorge and along the northern toes of the Uinta Mountains. Here is perhaps the greatest of Utah’s geologic juxtapositions. Low basins adjacent the Intermountain West’s highest peaks.

Imaginary Wanderings: A view of the high Uintas from their northern foothills Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
A view of the high Uintas from their northern foothills Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
I’ll take my first right turn at the western edge of the Uinta foothills. Here I might skip the formalities of a longitudinal walk—stick my thumb out instead, and make a bee-line for Bear Lake, Logan Canyon, and home: the walks I’ve already known for some time.

Perhaps you’re inspired now to know parts of this walk better yourself.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah!

Credits:

Imaginary Wanderings:
Photos: Courtesy and Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
Audio: Includes audio from
Text: Josh Boling, 2020, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University

Sources & Additional Reading

Boling, Josh, Why I Teach Outside, Wild About Utah, November 11, 2019, https://wildaboututah.org/why-i-teach-outside/

Kiffel-Alcheh, Utah, National Geographic Kids, https://kids.nationalgeographic.com/explore/states/utah/

The Geography of Utah, NSTATE LLC, https://www.netstate.com/states/geography/ut_geography.htm

Fisher, Albert L, Physical Geography of Utah, History to Go, Utah Division of State History, https://historytogo.utah.gov/physical-geography-utah/

Why I Teach Outside

Why I Teach Outside: Josh and his students study outdoors Courtesy & Copyright Steph Juth
Josh and his students study outdoors
Courtesy & Copyright Steph Juth
In February of this year, researchers published an integrative review of the literature on nature’s role as a catalyst for academic growth in children. They had this to say about their findings: “In academic contexts, nature-based instruction outperforms traditional instruction. The evidence here is particularly strong…” (Kuo, Barnes, and Jordan, 2019). For a long time, great thinkers such as renowned educator John Dewey and conservationist Aldo Leopold have recognized and professed the power of situational, hands-on learning—especially in the natural world, and especially among children. This sentiment is something we all share, I think—something bordering on instinct. Now, scientific research has caught up to a truth we all know in our bones.

This is a topic close to my heart; I’m a third grade teacher who got his start leading groups of kids into the backcountry, canoeing and backpacking the lake-littered northern latitudes of the mid-west. Adventure and education always seemed necessarily intertwined to me. “Education is not preparation for life,” said John Dewey; “education is life itself.” And life, I’ve always thought, is out there. The authors of the literature review agree, writing that “experiences with nature…promote children’s academic learning and seem to promote children’s development as persons” (Kuo et al., 2019). One of the key logs for this increase in learning and development is the increase in students’ motivation once they’ve left the walls and classrooms behind. According to the researchers’ report, “learning in and around nature is associated with intrinsic motivation, which, unlike extrinsic motivation, is crucial for student engagement and longevity of interest in learning” (Kuo et al., 2019). Even more “[e]ncouragingly, learning in nature may improve motivation most in those students who are least motivated in traditional classrooms” (Kuo et al., 2019).

I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with students in the field. While out there, I’ve had that instinctual knowledge we all share reaffirmed while sitting next to a dammed-up beaver pond, watching third-graders reverse engineer the beaver dam out of rocks, sticks, silly putty, and freshly-chewed wood chips from a beaver log. I know my circumstances are not the norm, though—not yet, at least. So, how might teachers utilize the natural world when there’s no beaver dam on campus and they can’t get the funding or administrative support to go find one? It may be simpler than one thinks! There is an abundance of evidence that indicates students can reap the same benefits just from being outside while they learn. “In multiple studies,” the researchers point out, “the greener a school’s surroundings, the better its standardized test performance—even after accounting for poverty and other factors—and classrooms with green views yield similar findings” (Kuo et al., 2019). To supplement the views and the greenspaces, though, teachers can consult research-based resources like UC Berkley’s teaching guide, School Yard Ecology, and the National Science Teachers Association’s inspired 10-minute Field Trips.

If the increasingly robust academic research into nature’s role in student learning is any indication, though, I foresee a not-so-distant future replete with an even wider diversity of resources and opportunities for teachers and students to explore the natural world in pursuit of academic rigor. “It is time,” the authors of the integrative review write, “to bring nature and nature-based pedagogy into formal education—to expand existing, isolated efforts into increasingly mainstream practices” (Kuo et al., 2019). It seems incumbent upon us to trust the truth we feel in our bones.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright Steph
Sound: Courtesy & Copyright
Text: Josh Boling, 2018

Sources & Additional Reading

Kuo, Barnes, Jordan, Frontiers in Psychology, Do Experiences With Nature Promote Learning? Converging Evidence of a Cause-and-Effect Relationship, 2019, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00305/full

Barrett, Katharine, Willard, Carolyn, SchoolYard Ecology, GEMS (Great Expections in Math & Science), Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, Berkeley, http://lhsgems.org/GEMSschooleco.html

Russell, Helen Ross, Ten-Minute Field Trips: A Teachers’s Guide to Using the Schoolgrounds for Environmental Studies, National Science Teaching Association, 1998, https://www.nsta.org/store/product_detail.aspx?id=10.2505/9780873550987

Dinosaur National Monument

Dinosaur: Visitors can see over 1,500 dinosaur fossils exposed on the cliff face inside the Quarry Exhibit Hall. Dinosaur National Monument. Image courtesy NPS, Dinosaur National Monument
Visitors can see over 1,500 dinosaur fossils exposed on the cliff face inside the Quarry Exhibit Hall. Dinosaur National Monument.
Image courtesy NPS, Dinosaur National Monument
My last WAU described the glories of the Colorado Plateau, to which I must return. The very northern reach of the plateau intersects the mighty Uintah Mountains and the Uintah Basin. This magnificent landscape also intersects with a complexity of cultures including Utah Natives, Utah State University, hard core birders, naturalists, paleontologists, mineral extraction, outlaws, and prospectors. This very “out of the way” part of the plateau (meaning well away from an interstate highway and large urban areas) offers scenery and rugged wildlands equal to Southern Utah with far lower numbers of tourists.

Douglass Quarry
Dinosaur National Monument
Courtesy National Parks Service
When my USU students and I first met the enclosed cliff covered with an array of dinosaur debris, our senses were overwhelmed with what stood before us. This incredible display has caught on internationally. Everything remains imbedded in the rock where these giant beasts drew their final breath. Parts of eleven different species are scattered about as you gaze upon this marvel.

A eye popping drive to the Echo Park overlook, view 300 square miles of sublime deeply cut canyons by the Green and Yampa rivers rivaling the grandeur of Canyonlands National Park. Gaze down on the confluence of the Green and Yampa rivers, and far above the Gates of Lodore where Powell’s “Voyage of Discovery” met their first gnarly rapids that laid waste to boats and supplies.

“Advancing and prancing and glancing and dancing, Recoiling, turmoiling, and toiling, and boiling” quoted by a crew member from a poem by Robert Southy.

The Green River enters Dinosaur at the monument’s northern boundary and flows out of the monument 58.5 miles later, just south of Split Mountain. 47 miles upstream from Dinosaur’s boundary, Flaming Gorge Dam has regulated the Green since November 1962. The impoundment has severely altered the river’s natural regime below the dam. Before Flaming Gorge Dam, the Green River was often clouded by dirt, silt, and other sediments; was subject to high spring flows fed by snow melt; and the water temperature could range from near freezing in winter to almost 70°F in summer.
With the opening of the dam, these conditions largely disappeared. Spring flows, temperature fluctuation, and turbidity (the cloudiness of the water) were all reduced. The Green River downstream from the dam became a much clearer, cooler, and calmer river which added four species of fish to the endangered species list.

The Yampa is the only remaining free-flowing tributary in the Colorado River system. It harbors outstanding examples of remnant native cottonwood willow and box elder riparian communities, and it provides critical habitat for these endangered fish.

Prior to November 1962, the Yampa and Green rivers were very similar in their discharge, water chemistry, sediment load, and fish communities. Pre-dam similarity between the Yampa and the upper Green creates offer an unparalleled opportunity for comparison studies that help guide restoration efforts in riparian systems far beyond the monument’s boundaries.

Include Josie Basset Morris’s historic cabin in your itinerary. Josie was a female maverick who set up shop in the eastern Utah wilds. Josie brewed illegal chokecherry wine during the 1920’s and 30s prohibition era. Excellent birding exists in the large cottonwood trees surrounding the cabin and Cub Creek riparian area. From The Hog Canyon trail begins here which leads to a box canyon for more of nature’s delights.

Jack Greene- I’m totally Wild About Utah

Credits:

Pictures: Courtesy US National Park Service, Dinosaur National Monument
Audio:
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Strand, Holly, Earl Douglass and Dinosaur National Monument, Wild About Utah, Oct 2, 2009, https://wildaboututah.org/earl-douglass-and-dinosaur-national-monument/

Strand, Holly, Paleontological Paradise, Wild About Utah, Sep 23, 2008, https://wildaboututah.org/paleontological-paradise/