Better than a classroom lecture

These Park County School District students are participating in an outdoor education program that has been implemented through a partnership with the Keystone Science School. (Photo courtesy of PCSD)

What does it take to provide every third-  through eighth-grade student in the Fairplay schools with a unique outdoor educational experience embedded within the traditional school day?

Answer: Imagination, foresight, meticulous planning, multiple partnerships between private and public entities, highly motivated educators and administrators and a curriculum that students find fascinating and useful.

Fortunately for South Park students, all those pieces are in place thanks to Keystone Science School Outdoor Education program instructor Kendra Fuller, and the Fairplay schools administration including Edith Teter Elementary Principal Laurel Dumas, and South Park Middle and High School Principal Gretchen Panicucci.

Together they have worked to provide transportation so that a rotating class of students will get a full day outdoor education program each Thursday, in addition to regularly scheduled daily outdoor activities.

“Our students need experiences that get them outside and into nature now more than ever with the current COVID-19 health crisis,” said Panicucci. “Partnering with KSS provides approximately 80 middle school students with outdoor learning experiences throughout the school year. These experiences foster positive relationships among students and adults, expand on learning standards from the classroom setting and offer a window into a world not yet explored.”

Dumas also expressed high praise for the new program.

“The outdoor education program has been the highlight of our school year thus far,” Dumas said. “Students are getting much of their education in the sciences through real life, outdoor activities and it has been a tremendous experience for them.”

Thursday field days have also been added to the mix, according to Fuller.

“We are ecstatic to announce Thursday field days for student’s third- through eighth grades,” Fuller said. “While on trail, elementary students will learn to snowshoe, track animals and observe adaptations of flora and fauna. Middle School students will learn to cross-country ski on trail and study the health of the forest through student-led research.”

Students generally dedicate about six hours per week to the program, which includes the extensive study of ecology, environmental science, forestry, aquatics, outdoor recreation and its environmental impacts, and much more.

Outdoor education is important,” said Fuller. “The younger generations are inheriting the amazing spaces and public lands which make up so much of Colorado and specifically our county. Outdoor education allows students to familiarize themselves with the ecology surrounding us so they may become responsible recreationalists, ranch and land managers, stewards of wildlife, and unbiased critical thinkers for the ecosystems.

Fuller continued, “Students in the program learn to take accountability for their role in understanding and protecting the ecological environment they’re living in,” Fuller said. “This area is rich in mining, logging and ranching, all of which require a healthy environment.”

Fuller added that the simple joy of being outdoors prompts interest and enthusiasm among most South Park students.

“The students can’t wait to get outdoors, so there is plenty of enthusiasm for the program,” Fuller said. “We sneak educational aspects in and I don’t even think the students really realize how much they are learning.”

Fuller has worked in the past with students from urban areas who are not as comfortable with the outdoors as students who reside in Park County.

“I have been surprised by how fearless and curious students have been with respects to outdoor learning,” Fuller said. “They just have more background knowledge about the outdoors because they live here and are used to being out in nature. They are not afraid of what’s outside, and that’s a good thing.”

Fuller continued, “KSS offers the opportunity for students to work as a group to accomplish challenging tasks physically, emotionally and academically. My students are asked to take a lot of responsibility for themselves and their bodies to ensure students are gaining independence, self-confidence and resiliency.”

While virtually every element required for making the program a success is seemingly in place, Fuller says outdoor gear and cold weather clothing are still needed to ensure that the program is accessible to all students.

“Outdoor education asks students to engage in exploration and learn outdoors in all kinds of weather, and Fairplay can really challenge us with true mountain wind and weather,” Fuller said. “To do this, students must be prepared with snow gear, but not all families have the resources to provide snow pants, jackets and boots for their growing kids.”

In this effort, Fuller and the students are asking the community to support their program by donating winter clothes and outdoor gear. Snow pants, boots, gloves, hats, scarves and jackets are all badly needed.

Winter gear and clothing can be donated by dropping by Edith Teter Elementary School at 640 Hathaway Street in Fairplay, and leaving items in the entryway for pick-up.

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