Notes from the Trail #14, 3/28/17

During this past month our first graders have been able to experience all the weather that March commonly offers in Connecticut. Tuesdays have been filled with high winds, rain, sleet, snow and moments of sunshine. Our outdoor explorers are learning to pack their own hiking backpacks with appropriate layers to keep them comfortable outside regardless of the weather!

Early in March, students made their own connection to a read aloud of Byrd Baylor’s Everybody Needs a Rock. As they scoured the woods on a rainy 42 degree day, children selected their own special rocks to keep. Back in the classroom, the first graders used their senses to make observations of the rocks and then brainstormed about their rocks’ physical attributes. Each child wrote a description of his/her rock. We read the descriptions aloud as we looked at all the special rocks, and like a puzzle, we matched each piece of descriptive writing to its corresponding rocks. Students were so proud of their detailed writing!


Mid-month brought a sunny, 55 degree day that tempted many students to play at the pond’s edge, breaking up the melting crust of ice. What an exciting day for discoveries that was!

Students found what they believe is an owl pellet with mouse bones sticking out of it. Another child spotted scat along the trail. Students inferred that the scat came from a carnivore due to the obvious grey fur present in the scat. Finally, several observant nature detectives spotted a brown colored frog on the ground, camouflaged with the leaves. We were able to catch the frog for closer inspection. Students noticed its dorsolateral folds and dark eye mask. Those observations helped us identify the frog as a wood frog as we conducted nonfiction research back in the indoor classroom later that week.

Tomie DePaula’s story Charlie Needs a Cloak was an intriguing intro to the concept of weaving. Students worked with partners to weave natural objects and fabric scraps into looms that teachers had strung between trees near the outdoor classroom. As students communicated about their design ideas they also built their coordination, focus and perseverance. The collaborative art projects add to the beauty of the outdoor classroom!

As readers, first graders learn how to get information from pictures as well as from text. We can read diagrams to build our understanding of new concepts. In science we learn how a plant or animal’s design helps it survive in its habitat. Tying together those standards, our first graders have read about trees and learned about the roles of specific parts of trees. In the outdoor classroom’s learning circle, students then made observations of our tree stump stools. Students compared the width of the stumps to predict the ages of the trees from which the stumps came. We had read that each ring of a tree’s trunk represented another year of its life, so students estimated how many rings or years old a tree stump would be. Then partners applied counting strategies to accurately count the actual number of visible rings on a tree stump. Using the actual data, first graders were able to determine the approximate age of the trees from which the stumps were cut. Students made inferences as to which tree stumps could have come from the same tree.

Our final Trailside Tuesday of the month launched a culminating social studies project about mapping and community. Our class is developing a map that shows the trail from Flanders to the outdoor classroom and the significant natural features along the way. The class is eager to give copies of this map to all Flanders teachers to assist other classes as they begin to use the outdoor classroom space.

Mapping teams sketched their ideas as they hiked. As a class we began to compile the sketches of our break-out teams into one master map. Students shared ideas for names of notable natural features. For example what we’d been calling the “Lower Trail” has now been renamed “Mountain Laurel Lane.” What we once referred to as “The Hill” is now called “Fox Run,” due to the fox scat that students have found along that section of trail on several occasions. As children develop names of memorable features it builds children’s sense of connection to and ownership of this space. It turns the forest into their forest.

Notes from the Trail #14, 2/28/2017

First graders are ready to study changes in the vernal pool! From a dry bed of rotting leaves in the late summer, to an ice-covered pond in January, to a waking pond as March begins, the changes in one small space are remarkable. This cloudy fifty two degree day provided a comfortable opportunity for explorations and discoveries.

One student wondered about the growth at the end of a stick found in the vernal pool. An insect known as a hellgrammite, a dobsonfly larva, was found under the topsoil layer in our outdoor classroom. Another discovery was the yellow tip of the green plant being held in the above right picture. An outdoor explorer postulated that it is the flowering part of the plant and that we hadn’t noticed that before, so perhaps this is its season to bloom. We also noticed the call of red-shouldered hawks and spied two circling above a meadow.

While the canopy is still open, the children gather more information about the highly visible tree trunks and bark. As students compared their bark rubbings and descriptions they noticed that there is great variety among tree bark styles. Inquiring minds wondered why that’s the case. What purposes do the different types of bark serve?

Birch polypores were spotted by naturalists as we hiked the lower trail back to campus! We’re looking forward to searching for signs of spring as we continue to take our learning outside over the next few months.

Notes from the Trail #13, 2/14/17

Sunny and 36 degrees with over six inches of snow left on the ground made for a beautiful and exhausting hike for our first graders on Tuesday! For most, this was their first hike in deep snow and the experience was thrilling and tiring.

Children spent the exploration period collaborating on fort building, examining the ice of the vernal pool from the shore, and balancing on logs.

We were eager to notice changes to the bird feeders students had created and hung around the outdoor classroom. In their field journals students drew and wrote about their observations and recorded ensuing questions. With each observational, scientific drawing practice opportunity, the children’s work becomes more objective and detailed.


A game of camouflage (a predator-prey spin on the traditional hide and seek) kept students moving, warm and smiling. While most of the outdoor explorers kept their energy up through the hike back to Flanders, students were both trail weary and proud by the end of the day.


Notes from the Trail #12, 2/12/17

It seems that Tuesdays have been disproportionately hit with extreme weather over the past month! Our outdoor explorers have worked in the outdoor classroom when it’s been safe, though. We’ve continued our integrated science, language arts and social studies lessons in our indoor classroom on other Tuesday afternoons. Here are some highlights from the past month.

Students are developing understandings of the natural world as they notice how the vernal pool changes over time. This winter’s weather variety has made the vernal pool a constantly changing natural feature. Children consider variables such as temperature, weather and seasonal cycles as they create explanations for the ongoing change of the pond’s size as well as its surface. The surface has been changing from watery to mixed ice chunks and water to seemingly solid ice.


Students investigate tree trunk and discuss possible reasons for the holes and peeling bark.

Connecticut’s first grade core science curriculum has students explore how organisms (both plants and animals) are structured to ensure efficiency and survival. Our class has been reading informational texts and making first hand observations to learn about the parts of a tree and their different roles that together help trees thrive in the forest habitat. Students are noticing the colors and designs of tree bark to identify the trees that surround the outdoor classroom.
With the same science concept in mind, we’ve been observing and learning about birds and squirrels. We placed two bird feeders outside our classroom window. Students observe the feather patterns in birds that visit and use field guides to identify and learn about the birds. Successful use of field guides entails practicing first grade reading goals about using non-fiction text features like headings, table of contents, illustrations, diagrams, captions and glossaries. This month students have identified the following birds: blue jay, starling, tufted titmouse, downy woodpecker, chickadee, and red-bellied woodpecker. Children draw and write their observations in their field guides.

Mrs. Smith has led the class in lessons on how to sketch birds, squirrels and trees. Children are learning to pay attention to shapes, notice detail, take risks with their drawing, and build stamina in engagement with observational drawing.

Students were given the engineering task of selecting recycled materials to design and create working bird feeders. This week the children set up their bird feeders around the outdoor classroom. We are eager to visit this week and see if they’ve been used…and by whom!

We’ve also been taking time to observe the beauty in nature. A read aloud of Lois Duncan’s retelling of a Navajo tale The Magic of Spider Woman was a spark to our weaving work but also a message about the importance of keeping life in balance. Students collected y-shaped sticks and used them as a weaving structure. Weaving builds coordination and motor skills, practices crossing the midline, and takes concentration! The first graders are using an assortment of collected natural objects as well as fabric scraps to weave into the stick looms. Finished stick weaving projects are being sent home as decorations, so be on the lookout!

Notes from the Trail #11, 1/11/17

Last Tuesday upon our return from the holiday break, Mrs. Smith led our class in an indoor lesson focused on the house sparrow. Through read alouds of informational texts, examining the website and studying a poem, students learned about the physical features and habits of the house sparrow. Children were focused throughout a sparrow drawing lesson, after which some students transferred the steps to draw other birds they’ve frequently seen near their homes. Finally, each first grader transformed a recycled water bottle into a bird feeder to be hung at home, encouraging winter visitors and bird observations!

Thursday’s thaw provided an unexpected opportunity to work in the outdoor classroom with Mr. Wight’s class. The first and second graders finished digging the nestling spots for each of the stump seats, creating a more comfortable and secure seating arrangement.

This week, first graders were winter wildlife detectives looking for signs of animals that might be sharing the forest space with us. The recent snowfall captured many animals’ tracks of various shapes and sizes, as well as a variety of arrangement of tracks. One super sleuth found a set of tiny tracks that led to a tunnel shelter that had scat inside. Children noticed bird calls but did not see any birds well enough to identify.

The unexpectedly sunny and dry 35 degree afternoon felt comfortable to all participants, so we engaged in an active winter scavenger hunt around the outdoor classroom site. This prompted students to explore the area more purposefully and make observations of the effects of winter in that space.

Back in the indoor classroom today, students looked for key details in pictures and informational texts about animal tracks. The children used their new learning to make comparisons with the photographs we took yesterday of the actual animal tracks in the snow. The class is still finalizing their conclusions, but evidence is pointing to mice, squirrels, rabbits and foxes having created the tracks! In first grade we practice being detectives in all we do: examining new words, considering math problems…but there was a greater level of enthusiasm about being detectives who solve animal mysteries than detectives in any other realm so far. The snow proved to be a bonus to our outdoor explorations this week!


Notes from the Trail #10, 12/20/2016

Three different types of animal tracks, wild berries and discarded acorn bits caught students’ attention as we hiked to the outdoor classroom today. Speculations about the owners of the tracks include bear, deer, raccoon and just possibly a human and a dog. We look forward to comparing photos of the tracks with our references in the indoor classroom to identify the animals who made those tracks!

During the exploration time, several students made observations (from the land) of the ice covering the vernal pool. Others set up an outdoor mud kitchen. Some made fairy houses. More imagination and creativity, and greater use of the senses to make detailed observations, is occurring with each visit to the outdoor classroom.

The children practiced teamwork and sharpened their spelling skills while playing a game of Owl and Squirrels.

A read aloud of Jan Brett’s story Animals’ Santa lead to an active student response. Individuals and teams worked creatively to design natural gifts to leave for our forest friends. Students created art, stashes of acorns, and small homes made of sticks and leaves with hopes that squirrels, insects and deer might enjoy these gifts.


We were grateful for the warm fleece neck warmers that students sewed for themselves in the classroom last week! Thank you to our lead room parent, Gina, for working with students over a few weeks to teach basic hand sewing skills. Students practiced perseverance, developed their fine motor skills and had fun while learning a new skill. Their sense of accomplishment was huge with this project!

Happy holidays, everyone!


Notes from the Trail #9, 12/13/16

Thank you to the students and families who participated in our presentation to the East Lyme Board of Education last week. It was an honor to be invited to share about our pilot year with an outdoor classroom program. Seven of our students spoke to the Board about our experiences on Trailside Tuesdays. I could not have felt more proud of these young learners for taking the risk to present to a room full of adults. Way to go, All-Stars!

Blue skies and bare trees made for a beautiful hike with far-reaching views today. The forest without leaves on trees provided a new opportunity for observations. Students explored a tree with several holes. The children wondered what created the holes and which animals might live in those holes.

We noticed several signs of animal presence in clusters of partially eaten acorns. Students remembered reading that squirrels, chipmunks, mice, deer and bear are some forest animals that eat acorns. We gathered many acorn samples and hope to sort them into groups and identify which animals were eating the acorns based upon the markings on the acorns. Meanwhile, in reading lessons students are reviewing story elements, so out on the trails the children took turns telling likely stories based on the different examples of animal signs that we found. One day a squirrel was hungry, so he gathered some acorns on a rock…

The observed change that garnered the most attention was the thin layer of ice that had developed on the surface of the vernal pool. Although with the cold temperature we didn’t go into the pond today, students eagerly tested the liquid/solid relationship by standing at the pond’s edge and breaking off small pieces of ice, observing ice’s change over time, and tossing twigs and pieces of ice out into the middle of the pond and watching the objects slide over the ice (instead of sink, as they previously have when the surface of the pool was liquid).

We’ve been learning about worms and their work as decomposers. In the indoor classroom we’d created a few worm terrariums that would allow us to observe worm behavior. Students went on a worm hunt today, searching for worms to place into our terrariums. Children looked under leaf layers and dug down into the soil. We learned that worm hibernation (when worms dig deep down into the soil to stay below the upper frozen layers of soil) starts sometime before December 13th!


Each student went on a discovery walk and brought back an object to share with the others. Fungi, rotted logs, “crystals”, and millipedes were a few of the discoveries that we will further investigate in the indoor classroom tomorrow.

Notes from the Trail #8, 12/2/2016

Our outdoor explorers were joined by our Constellation buddies from Mr. Wight’s class! We shared the outdoor classroom space safely and comfortably. First and second graders partnered to dig nestling spots for each of our stump stools. With each stool sitting a few inches into the ground, the stumps should now be more stable seats.


Students used four senses to make observations of the vernal pool. It’s been collecting water with the autumn rain falls. Students wondered what will happen once the snow starts. 

Discoveries included squirrels’ nests; grub that was snuggled up a few inches into the earth; “raisin” fungus (identification still to come); and baby acorns still attached to their branch.

Notes from the Trail #7, 11/15/16


56 degrees in rain felt much different from the 56 degrees in bright sunshine of last Thursday! Students learned the joy of being well prepared with appropriate layers and gear in order to enjoy the outdoors in any weather. Thank you to families and our Donors Choose supporters for providing the rain gear! Our outdoor classroom was improved this weekend by the addition of log stump stools (thanks to Ward and Kathleen Smith, with installation assistance from Mr. Wight and Mr. Norman), tarp ceilings, and the students’ own pennant banner. The tarp shelter was very timely for our wet afternoon! Room parent Gina McMillan is teaching our class the basics of sewing by hand. The first lesson resulted in each student creating a colorful yarn design on a burlap flag. These flags became part of the outdoor classroom pennant banner. Students were delighted with the additions to the classroom space.

We extended our outdoor classroom time by an hour today, allowing the class to eat lunch together outdoors and enjoy more time exploring. Students used that time to observe the changes in the vernal pool, build fairy houses, test their balance on fallen log balance beams and notice signs of animals. Two holes were discovered that made students discuss what animals might use that space and why. A bug (too many legs to be an insect) was found that students think is related to millipedes and centipedes; research to follow! A flock of Canada geese honked as they flew overhead in V formation. A grey and brown frog was captured and briefly observed. We wonder what kind of frog it is and whether the frog will head to the vernal pool to burrow under the mud for the winter.

Our science lesson today extended our understanding of habitats by considering how plants, animals, decomposers and non-living elements are all threads of the web of life. The children are discussing their role as members of a habitat, and how their choices impact the habitat. We look forward to sharing our web of life song with you at the Constellation Harvest Feast next Tuesday!

Notes from the Trail #6, 11/10/16

The weather was a sunny 56 degrees for our Trailside Thursday hike. Students are learning about the necessities that habitats provide for animals: food, water, shelter and space to raise their young. As scientists, students used prior knowledge and their environs to determine the specific examples of how the forest habitat meets these needs for familiar forest animals (salamander, roly poly, chipmunk, red-shouldered hawk, frog and owl).

Outdoor explorers found a baby praying mantis, a millipede and a grub. We also noticed change around the outdoor classroom. There are few leaves left on the trees while the trail is full of crunchy, brown leaves. Perhaps the most exciting observation was the water filling in the previously dry bed of the vernal pool! With a weekend forecast of warm and dry weather, the class made mixed predictions regarding whether the pool will still have water come our next Tuesday hike. We’re eager to check our predictions!