Juniper Hill School for Place-Based Education’s elementary students recently completed their winter wilderness studies, a weekly program that moves studies from the school’s Alna campus to Hidden Valley Nature Center in Jefferson.

Since December, the center’s trails, woods and ponds have been an outdoor classroom to the 1st-4th graders’ every Friday, offering students a range of rich, experiential place-based learning opportunities with every visit, according to a news release from the school.

The visits included lessons on map skills, animal tracking, tree identification, and winter wilderness skills such as fire building, ice safety, wild edibles, and campfire cooking.

Highlights from the group’s studies include testing ice depth on Haybale Pond, drinking tea made from foraged evergreen needles, learning about sustainable forestry while visiting Goranson Farm’s draft horses, and spotting some live animals and lots of animal signs.

As often as the weather permitted, students explored the center via cross country skis, learning how to ski efficiently in a variety of trail conditions. Ski skills were taught by the teachers, and the group covered about a mile of trail at each visit.

Map skills and directionality were taught and practiced during skiing adventures, where students used trail maps of the nature center to plan routes based on distance, difficulty and terrain covered. Students learned to look for trail markers to guide them, and used a compass to help them place themselves on a map.

School Director Anne Stires, who visited the center with the elementary classes on their final day, said “The students’ place and natural knowledge, as well as their skiing aptitude increased ten fold since their first visit eight weeks ago. It is impressive to witness,” according to the release

The weekly visits made it possible to watch the behavior of some local creatures throughout the winter, focusing on three species: porcupine, otter, and beaver. During the group’s first visit to Hidden Valley in December, students learned how to identify porcupine tracks and discovered some leading from Hi-Hut cabin, across a trail, into the woods to the base of a tree, and back. More tracks were spotted during subsequent weeks, and a live porcupine was once observed munching on some limbs midway up a tree.

The group also monitored beaver activity at Kidney Pond, a beaver-made body of water. Early visits included sightings of freshly chewed trees of all sizes as well as a frequently-used otter slide at the eastern end of Kidney Pond.

Later visits brought more thorough investigation of the pond, which revealed otter tracks and slides going the full length of the pond, stumps from beaver-felled trees in multiple locations around the pond, and three separate access holes in the ice.

“The beaver evidence really was remarkable,” said first-/second-grade co-teacher, Robin Huntley, according to the release. “It gave the adults opportunities to learn alongside students, which is when some of the best learning takes place — when everyone is excited and genuinely curious all at once.”

While a great deal of experiential, hands-on learning took place, the experiences had by students on Fridays generated themes that carried over into the students’ regular school days, and a great deal of instruction was shaped by experiences at the center. Students wrote stories about animals whose tracks they had seen, read about fire building and sustainable forestry, built life-size beaver lodges, carved rodent teeth, experimented with properties of ice, and learned skills for navigating nonfiction texts, all inspired by winter wilderness studies at Hidden Valley.

The students will return to the center during the spring, when the vernal pools afford unique opportunities for place-based springtime cyclical plant and animal studies.

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