Outdoor school gives students the opportunity to discover more about the Columbia River Gorge and its history

A 'natural' classroom

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Ask a sixth-grader what their favorite aspect of outdoor school is, and a likely response will be the opportunity to get out of the classroom.

And that’s the point.

Outdoor school, aligned with state science standards, is meant to give students a hands-on approach to the natural world they can’t get by going online or looking at photos in a textbook.

Students learn through inquiry and practical application by doing hands-on activities.

“They have fun and learn about landscapes, animals, trees and everything about how the Columbia River Gorge formed,” said Lori Schilling, sixth-grade math teacher at Canyon Creek Middle School. “Being so technological these days, kids don’t get out and enjoy nature,”

Last week, students spent two days at the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge and Beacon Rock State Park, located east of Washougal.

Jemtegaard Middle School will also visit both sites, except those sixth-graders will go for three days due to the number of students.

Friends of the Gorge has teamed up with the Washougal School District for the past three years to help provide the outdoor school experience.

“It has been a blessing,” Schilling said. “They sponsor our entire trip, get the experts to work with our students, put the activities together and work with us to make this successful.”

Prior to partnering with Friends of the Gorge, teachers and students stayed on school grounds for an outdoor school experience.

Before budget cuts, students went to Cispus Learning Center in Randall, Wash., for overnight field trips.

In addition to participation by members of Friends of the Gorge, parent volunteers are also crucial to the outdoor school experience, Schilling added.

“We can never have enough chaperones,” she said. “But we get great parent support for this program.”

For example, the wood name tags, which Schilling calls “tree cookies,” were made by Boy Scout Troop 497. Sixth-grader Warren Henderson is a member of the group.

Money donated to the outdoor school program pays for transportation to and from the sites. In addition, the school has a fund for “goody” backpacks, filled with treats and other items. This year, Schilling provided the snacks.

A total of 81 Canyon Creek students participated in outdoor school. It included a nature walk, service learning project, and nature stations about trees, plants, animal tracks, leaves and Lewis and Clark.

During the nature walk, volunteer Catherine Godfrey patiently explained the different, but important, roles animals and plants play.

She also touched on the fire that burnt 148 acres of the 1,049 acre refuge last fall, and recovery to the area since.

“I enjoy educating the children about nature,” she said. “They are the next generation and are going to be the ones who will be here to care for this. I think everyone should know as much as they can about nature.”

Yuly Pineda enjoyed seeing how the plants are still growing and thriving despite the fire.

“There are so many different plants and lots of species of birds,” she said. “It also means a lot that there are volunteers who work here and care.”

Mitchell Middleton liked the “hands-on” aspect of outdoor school.

“We actually get to interact with nature instead of just doing papers,” he said.

Troy Prince-Butterfield agreed.

“I really liked getting out of the classroom and seeing nature instead of looking at it in a book. We get to go outside and see animals in their natural setting.”

And that’s what it is all about.

“My favorite aspect of outdoor school is the engaging activities for students the experts provide and seeing how much fun they can have learning about the area they live in,” Schilling said. “Many of our students have never been to Beacon Rock and Steigerwald so this is a great opportunity to open their eyes to it.”