Pint-sized naturalists in rain ponchos, rubber boots and woolen hats bent over their journals, deep in concentration in the woods of Moran State Park.
“Look at this!” exclaimed second-grader Freya Mattson, bringing over a cocoon nestled in a piece of wood to show her classmates.
Since 2018, with funding from the Orcas Island Education Foundation, public school elementary students have participated in “Wednesdays in the Woods” to explore and engage with the natural environment.
New this year is additional money from both OIEF and an endowment to build the program. Mary Gropp, Carolyn Cruso and Sarah Ross have been hired to create a curriculum and bring in naturalists to build a program that will continue for the next decade. Thanks to the state legislature, additional funding is available to public schools, and the elementary school is also likely to receive money from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction for outdoor experiences.
“We want to put systems in place so this program could be sustainable,” said Orcas Elementary Principal Lorena Stankevich. “We also wanted the outdoor experiences to be connected with what they are learning in the classroom.”
The program has been held at Camp Orkila but is now branching out to other places like Moran State Park and Camp Four Winds. The school is also hoping to partner with the San Juan Preservation Trust and San Juan Conservation Land Bank to lead field trips on their properties.
“It is going to really help provide additional richness and diversity for them to get out into other spaces,” Stankevich said.
The kindergarten class will participate in 20 short outdoor trips in the school year while the first through third graders will engage in 10. The third through fifth graders will embark on five full days of learning, scattered throughout the year.
“We are starting to find as a school what really works and what we can sustain,” Stankevich said.
Students will learn about such topics as bats, water and its cycles, trees, microscope studies, community service and the impact of humans on the world around them. All of the kids are provided with water-repellent ponchos.
“I love our natural environment here and I feel really strongly that I want to share that with kids. You protect what you love,” said Gropp, a long-time naturalist and former OISD teacher.
On Nov. 2, Anne Ford McGrath’s second-grade class spent their morning at Cascade Lake, hiking, learning about trees and nature journaling. They were led by Gropp and outdoor educator Linda Sheridan and joined by two parent volunteers.
“I love getting them outside because it’s such a video game culture and they can learn to play outside unstructured,” Ford McGrath said. “They get really creative when you give them free time in nature.”
In between short excursions around the park, the Cascade Lake day shelter provided a cozy respite from the cold with a roaring fire and the camaraderie of friends.