Lowell Whiteman Primary touts benefits, necessity of outdoor IQ

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Lowell Whiteman Primary School students, second through fourth grade, partake in an outdoor lesson during the weeklong spring experiential trip that took them to Colorado's Grand Valley.

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Lowell Whiteman Primary School student Drew Williamson perches next to the "frog rock" he found on a recent hike through Colorado National Monument with fellow students on their weeklong experiential outdoor education trip.

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A view from Otto's Trail in the Colorado National Monument that was seen recently by a group of Lowell Whiteman Primary School second-, third- and fourth-grade students.

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Hailey Gray and Ellie Bender, top, from left, wedge into the slotted sandstone of Utah's Little Wild Horse Canyon above parent volunteer Melissa Gray during the students' recent outdoor education trip through Lowell Whiteman Primary School that took them to the desert wildlands.

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Cindy Ruzicka, third from right, helped lead this group of fifth-, sixth- and seventh-grade students from Lowell Whiteman Primary School on a recent weeklong outdoor experiential learning trip. The group had just finished a mountain bike ride down Joe's Ridge, part of the Bookcliff Trail System near Fruita.

There are some lessons that can be learned only through experiencing life outside in one's natural environment.

It's a maxim the Lowell Whiteman Primary School hopes to reflect in its curriculum.

"We found that, given northwest Colorado over the years, students don't do as much in the outdoors as families used to," LWPS Head of School Nancy Spillane said. "It's our responsibility to get them out there."

To remedy this waning interest in younger students and to get them "out there," LWPS arranges for teachers and parent volunteers to take students from each grade on weeklong "experiential trips" at the end of each school year.

During the week of May 20, while the eighth-grade class took its annual sight-seeing trip to the Washington, D.C., area, the younger age classes embarked on a series of outdoor adventures that took them anywhere from Colorado's Grand Valley to the rugged Utah landscape in and around Arches National Park.

"We were playing a game that we were lost in the woods, and we had to make a fire out of sticks," said second-grade student Sage Turek, of the trip that took her on a campout near the Colorado National Monument.

Cindy Ruzicka is a social science and math teacher at LWPS. She took a group of fifth-, sixth- and seventh-grade students on a five-day mountain biking tour of the popular singletrack trails near Fruita. She believes firmly in these obvious lessons learned in self-reliance from something as simple as a 7-year-old like Turek learning to make a fire on her own for the first time.

"They recognize the responsibilities with camping outside, and once they take care of those, it becomes fun, experiential learning," Ruzicka said. "You can apply it to day-to-day, little organizational things. They can bring it back and apply it if they're out there on the (ski) hill and they get scared or if they're in a math test. In a lot of ways, you can learn more in two days camping than in a month at school."

For Ruzicka, the trips also provided the perfect opportunity to break through in how she can reach her students.

"It's a real student-teacher relationship builder - if you can share an experience on the trail, you can pull that back into class and can push kids further when they trust you," she said.

Students like fifth-grader Quinn Cain agreed, especially after a particular riding descent that helped him gain newfound respect for his teacher.

"Cindy, our teacher, was going too fast down this steep part, but she went down it and at the end thought she might throw up," Cain said. "It was going down Joe's Ridge - it was like 100-foot drop off each side. It was really cool, but then I decided not to and walked it down."

Ruzicka said the best parts of the day were spent optimizing these "teachable moments," and then following them up with reflective "evening council" sessions around the campfire to help the students process what they had learned throughout the day.

Oftentimes, it was the landscape itself that did the teaching. Science teacher Mick Paulis took a group of fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders on an exploration of southern Utah's Goblin Valley. The nearby hike up the Little Wild Horse Canyon provided a perfect example of immediate geology to help students digest his earth science lessons.

"It was a slot canyon a little over a mile long, about 80 to 100 feet up on either side - we're talking stuff out of National Geographic," Paulis said. "You could just see how the water had twisted and turned its way through the rocks over time : it's amazing how much things stick when the kids see it. We did a lesson on minerals and rock formations, so it was a fitting extension - metamorphic versus igneous? You can point them right out."

From learning how to handle a tight singletrack turn to lighting a fire and packing out one's trash, Paulis, like Spillane and Ruzicka, sees the basic underlying importance of exposing kids to the big picture when he thinks the daily outdoors experience of Steamboat Springs' youth is increasingly becoming limited to boundaries of Howelsen Hill and the Steamboat Ski Area:

"You have to understand the grandeur of Mother Nature and things that she produces," he said. "Get them off the beaten path and see what's out there."

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