Outdoor learning

Meet the new classroom: the Mount Sneffels Wilderness, above Ridgway, where school is in session year-round. (Courtesy photo) 

Remote learning has taken on new meaning these past few months, as millions of students, parents and teachers navigate the challenges of online education.

But in Ridgway, a new educational nonprofit is taking “remote” literally. Its “basecamp” is Top of the Pines, the 175-acre recreation area just above town. 

Its classroom: the great outdoors, which is to say, a stunning variety of local peaks, meadows, rivers and (a short drive away) sandstone monuments and mesas.

At this school, there is never an “inside” day, said its founder, Amber King. An outdoor educator with a background in aquatic biology, King taught science for years in Ridgway. “I enjoyed the traditional school system, but I feel like it doesn’t really suit all kids,” King said. “There are Waldorf and other schools out there that integrate academics with great themes. I always wanted to start my own, which would be more standards-based.”

Then the virus arrived. Her new initiative “wasn’t my idea,” she added. “A couple of parents contacted me and said, ‘We would really love for you to come teach our kids in pods. Would you be interested?’”

King got busy: She had founded a nonprofit Treeline Education with the intent of offering outdoor academic lessons, and this fall seemed like the ideal time to push it further. (“This fits into the mission,” King told herself, “and it would be great for the community.”) She put out an exploratory statement on the Ridgway-Ouray Facebook page. The response was overwhelming — more than 20 people wrote back in less than five hours. “I’ve been volunteering my time building all this for the last month,” she said. For September, “we have six learning pods that are running,” in weekday sessions of three hours at a time. To keep classes as virus-safe as possible, classes are limited to six students. (Enrollment has ended for September; class is in session for three straight weeks, with a week off at the end of each month.)

With such small groups, learning can be super-specialized, tailored to the interests of individuals. “We teach different themes each month, and insert specific lessons for different kids,” King said. “For this month, the overall theme is ‘Plants and Their Place.’ I chose it because in September, everything is going to seed. It’s a really interesting time to look at the life-cycle of a plant,” and offers much to study for all ages, and interesting ways of teaching. There might be scavenger hunts, for examples, where kids are tasked with finding certain types of plants in open meadows. One lesson might involve “designing a flying seed,” King said, “so you can look at the physics of how a dandelion seed flies; it’s actually super-interesting. Or, you might design a seed that could cling to the fur of an animal. How do seeds work? How do they take in water? Older kids might bring a microscope into the field, and we might do some microscopy.” 

There are dozens of local experts in and around Ridgway whose knowledge might be tapped for educational excursions. For example, “I’d love to bring (local botany author) Mary Menz in,” King said. She hopes to connect as many groups as possible — kids who would like to focus on a specific topic, with those who share similar interests, say — as well as larger groups. Professional pods, let’s call them. “There are so many groups that have all these resources,” King marvelled: “The Voyager youth group, and the Uncompaghre Watershed Project, the Mountain Studies Initiative,” and the list goes on. “But they don’t all talk to each other. There’s a huge need to collaborate! There are all of these experts in their fields, plus a huge group of retirees in this region who’ve had exceptional careers.”

King is taking things a step at a time. She’s hired two staff members, both with experience in outdoor education; she’s lining up next month’s curriculum, which will focus on water. If the weather cooperates, “I hope by October we’ll be running drop-in progams for kids who want to go snowshoeing or hiking,” she said. “My vision is a school where students are backpacking three or four weeks at a time, doing data-based research, such as examining characteristics of water, or air. And in the end, you turn it into a citizen-science initiative,” perhaps in collaboration with (for example) the Uncompahgre Watershed Project. “That’s the big vision; to get there, I need to take baby steps. This is kind of a dream come true for me,” she said. “Without Covid, none of this probably would have happened. It opened up the need for outdoor education, because outdoors is the safest place.” 

To learn more, visit treelineeducation.com.