A classroom in the wild: Red Hill Elementary moves outside for a new kind of learning | VailDaily.com

A classroom in the wild: Red Hill Elementary moves outside for a new kind of learning

For the Creekside Classroom’s ‘grand opening’ week, students engaged with members of the Weed Warriors to learn about the ecosystem in their backyard

Oliver Skelly, community conservation coordinator for the Eagle Valley Land Trust, teaches a group of first graders about watersheds at the new Creekside Classroom at Red Hill Elementary School.
Ali Longwell/alongwell@vaildaily.com

Three years ago, a teacher at Red Hill Elementary School approached Principal Eric Olsen with an idea to take advantage of the school’s outdoor environment, which includes a small creek on the west side of the school. In order to take advantage of the space and bring education to a new environment, the school created what it’s calling the Creekside Classroom.

“We live in a beautiful area. The kids should be exposed to it so they can help protect it,” Olsen said. Plus, as an added benefit, “fresh air is good for the kids.”

However, until recently, the creek and its classroom was inaccessible and overburdened with noxious weeds. Now, the river now has an ADA accessible path and a dedicated classroom area. Plus, thanks in large part to a partnership with the Weed Warriors of Eagle River Valley as well as the students themselves; the area has new ecological value and no noxious weeds.

Starting Tuesday, May 25 and running through Thursday, May 27, the Weed Warriors partnered with the school on what Olsen is calling the Creekside Classroom’s “grand opening.”

The Weed Warriors is a program of the Eagle River Watershed Council, Eagle Valley Land Trust, Land & Rivers Fund and Eagle County. It was started last summer to educate the community and residents to not only reduce and eliminate invasive weed species, but to replace them with native species.

While it is not the typical project for the program — which normally works with neighborhoods and local municipalities to achieve its goals — the group jumped at the opportunity to partner and work with the school on the location.

A group of first graders learns about the bugs and species found in the creek from James Dilzell, the education and outreach coordinator at the Eagle River Watershed Council.
Ali Longwell/alongwell@vaildaily.com

“Every project has been so vastly different, and this one is great in the sense that we’re reaching 320 little minds — our future leaders, our future caretakers,” said Kate Isaacson, the projects and events coordinator for the Eagle River Watershed Council. “We’re trying to get ahead of maybe bad stereotypes or biases, and we’re just trying to allow them to experience first-hand why these things matter.”

Throughout the week, each grade spent two hours rotating through stations where Weed Warrior members educated and engaged students in activities to learn what they can do for the creek as well as what the creek can do for them.

A group of first graders examine and identify bugs found in the creek alongside the school’s new outdoor classroom.
Ali Longwell/alongwell@vaildaily.com

“The kids are really inquisitive, and they want to know and take information from the parents,” said Sue Nikolai, the program director of the Land & Rivers Fund. “We also did pull nine large trash bags of thistle with the third, fourth and fifth graders. It’s definitely an educational opportunity for them, and we did meet our mission by getting rid of all those weeds.”

The stations included learning about watersheds, removing noxious plants, planting new willows along the creek, spreading seeds for native grass and plants as well as extracting and identifying bugs in the creek.

“We’re basically replacing an invasive system with a native ecosystem that will then thrive in the future,” Isaacson said. “I feel like we’re creating stewards in these kids, we’re creating lifelong lessons of, ‘If you live here, this is how you take care of the world we live in and this is why it matters,’ really relating it to things they love.”

The Creekside Classroom

First graders from Red Hill sprinkle new grass seed in an area where older students had cleared out nine trash bags worth of thistle, a noxious weed.
Ali Longwell/alongwell@vaildaily.com

Going forward, teachers will be able to sign up and use the new Creekside Classroom for whatever they see fit. Whether they want to teach a regular lesson outside or come up with new projects to improve the area, the new classroom is theirs to use and explore.

Recently, the first graders embarked on a three-month unit learning about birds. The new outdoor classroom, which includes a small birdhouse, gave students the opportunity to watch birds in action, right in the school’s backyard.

This type of learning helps students “understand what’s around them, where they are and what is available to them because they’re seeing it in real life,” said Amy McCue, a first grade teacher at Red Hill.

During their three-week unit on birds, first graders from Red Hill created a sign highlighting some native species of birds. Principal Eric Olsen hopes more signs like this will be created over the years, eventually lining the path to the Creekside Classroom.
Ali Longwell/alongwell@vaildaily.com

The first graders commemorated the unit and the role the new outdoor classroom played in it, with a hand-drawn sign of some of the birds you can see in the area. Olsen hopes that future classes will create additional educational signs to line the path, each year making the area “bigger and better.”

The Creekside Classroom was a true grassroots and cooperative effort with both Eagle County and the school’s community, according to Olsen. “Our community is such that our parents are landscapers, contractors and Forest Service employees, which provided a lot of resources to draw on,” he said. “Everyone really came together to make it happen.”

Olsen went on to call the project and the collaboration it took to achieve, something that captures “all I love about Eagle County.”

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