Outdoor Learning for Tower Rock’s First Graders

By Angus Mossman

Behind me, illuminated in a glimmer of sunlight sifting through the hemlock canopy, five first graders have encircled a glorious white pine. Arms outstretched, faces pressed to the bark, they can barely reach each other around the old-growth giant. Between their bark-imprinted cheeks are silent smiles of amazement, wonder, happiness. To my left, Carter is sitting on the frozen stream, sorting a pile of rocks into metamorphic and sedimentary. 

“This one’s a conglomerate! I guess it goes in the middle,” he calls out. 

Natalie and Dex are bear-crawling up a hill toward a glassy wall of icicles dripping off a sandstone overhang. A discarded orange mitten and bag of trail mix mark their path. Just ahead, Mia is bouncing on a fallen branch, chewing on the minty bark of a yellow birch twig. 

“I love hiking!” she exclaims. 

But stomachs are beginning to rumble, and so with a quiet “Howoooo” our group of 12 joins back together and we head onward through the quiet, fresh snow toward the voices of our classmates who have already reached the meeting place.

Soon, snow-covered branches give way to purple hats and bright blue coats, a few wafts of smoke. As we approach the group, Dylan comes in with a load of dead branches for the fire. Spongebob and princess backpacks hit the ground and lunches come out. Some kids join those already sitting around the small campfire to warm up and listen to stories. Others take their lunches over to the stream bank for some peace and quiet. Mrs. Sorg is leading a warm-up challenge and Mr. Edwards has begun a game of hide-and-seek among the big trees. Mrs. Hartman is helping students cross a fallen log. I look around. There’s a few shivering kids who need to get moving, but mostly people are comfortable, having fun on a 20-degree day in the middle of the forest. I smile. We can do this. We’ve been doing this all year!

Growling owls, a fleeing fox, tiny crab spiders and their own thoughts are just a few of the encounters first graders at Tower Rock Elementary School stumbled upon during their weekly outdoor explorations over the 2021-22 school year. With the help of gracious community support and a team of creative educators, Tower Rock first graders spent a day of every week outside since the beginning of the school year. The days gave students an opportunity to connect classroom ideas and vocabulary with real-world experiences, build background knowledge, and develop unique senses of place and belonging within the environment and class community.

The idea came about in spring 2021 when I sat down with first-grade teacher JoAnnah Sorg to brainstorm how to involve students in a school-wide prairie planting. 

“Wouldn’t it be cool,” she mused, “if we could spend one day each week totally outside!?”

Five months and a few meetings later, Sept. 7 rolled around and there we were, 38 first-graders and a handful of teachers seated in a circle on the grass explaining how the day, and all the upcoming Tuesdays, would go.

Thirty-eight outdoor learning days later, the kids were used to the routine, and most came to school on Tuesday mornings particularly excited. As one parent shared, “Brooks is always the first one up on Tuesdays, making sure he has layers and good shoes so he’s ready for outdoor learning day.” Parents were overwhelmingly supportive of the days, noting how their students’ observation skills and curiosity grew through the year.

The units of study and thematic teaching in first grade contributed greatly to the success of outdoor days. Because the units of study correlated with our local environment and phenology, and because students dove in deep to each topic for several weeks, we were able to focus each outdoor learning day on topics students were studying in the classroom in ways that build on and contribute to future classroom learning. In addition to academic skills like math and reading, the outdoor days also gave students ample opportunities to build social-emotional skills. When asked about something she’d learned during outdoor learning days, Loriah shared, “You get to face your fears. Sometimes it’s scary, but when you learn something from it, it’s not so scary after all.”

Dylan Edwards, JoAnnah Sorg and Angus Mossman all grew up sifting through rotting logs and peering into streams around Wisconsin. Their passions for teaching, learning and outdoor exploration have brought them to Tower Rock Elementary School where they’re excited to share their excitement and curiosity with their students, who may well represent the future of this place.