August 3, 2020|By Chris Hanson| Forests

A Forest for Us: One Teacher’s Vision for an Outdoor Classroom Made Real

This summer, The Conservation Fund helped several Minnesota partners protect over 700 acres near the Camp Ripley Army National Guard Base with funding, in part, from the Department of Defense’s Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration (REPI) Program. As part of a larger effort to conserve forestland near Camp Ripley to support the base’s training mission and the surrounding community, the City of Baxter, MN acquired part of this land to expand public recreation and protection of a critical watershed.

Roughly 200 acres of this project will be added to the existing Baxter Overlook Park along the Mississippi River. This park is frequently used by schools in the Brainerd School District for outdoor learning and sports at the Brainerd School District. One teacher, Mr. Chris Hanson, can’t wait for this expansion, as it will mean more kids will get to connect with nature and more resources will be available for his students to learn about the environment right outside their schoolgrounds.

We interviewed Mr. Hanson to learn about his outdoor classroom and why he thinks nature experiences are so important for children growing up during the time of COVID-19.

8 3 20 city of baxterBrainerd Middle School and its surrounding Dean Makey School Forest. Photo courtesy of the City of Baxter.

What is your role at Brainerd School District?

Mr. Hanson: I’m a middle school science teacher. I teach seventh grade Life Science, which is basically an introductory biology class. I also coach three sports; cross country running, track and field and cross-country skiing. Lucky for me, these activities take place outdoors as well, so it fits in with my classroom setting and goals. In addition to coaching and teaching I serve as the Site Coordinator for the Dean Makey School Forest.

What exactly is an outdoor classroom?

Mr. Hanson: To me, an outdoor classroom is any learning opportunity that's outside of the four walls of a school building. It could be something big, such as thousands of acres of wilderness kids have access to, or a special expedition to the Galapagos jungles. Or it could be something small, like a little patch of grass in the middle of the school parking lot. Even for metro schools with very little wilderness around, there's still lots of opportunity to experience nature there. For example, surveying plants and insects, and setting up little cameras to observe wildlife, counting butterflies or ants. There is all sorts of ecology research you can do, even with just a little patch of green in the middle of asphalt.

Any experience that gets you outside into open air, where the setting is more natural than your classroom, I would call an outdoor learning opportunity. Of course, the level of wildness will vary for students, but the important part is just to engage. Having the kids being able to engage their five senses in a different way; I think that's an outdoor classroom. 

8 3 20 SF Trail Map colored 2015

What opportunities does an outdoor classroom provide students that they may not get otherwise?

Mr. Hanson: Our kids have the opportunity to see the important balance between access for people, while maintaining a level of wildness needed for land to keep its natural state. We have great accessibility to our school forest, but at the same time we can see wild things and wildlife in a mostly undisturbed environment. If you develop too much, you're less likely to see bears, coyotes, wolves, fish or other wildlife. But at the same time, we want to be able to be there and see all that and learn from it. It’s also nice to have a little table or bench once in a while to avoid ticks and poison ivy, which is all part of the learning experience too.

The City of Baxter has a lot of good ideas how to strike this balance, and there's a lot of movement in the area to improve trails and access for people. In light of virtual learning that we've been doing lately, it's certainly a lifesaver to be able to do things safely indoors.

I'm all for the virtual and digital experiences. But at the same time, there's no way it can replace the real experience of being outdoors, engaging all your senses. Any opportunity we have to do the actual real thing is important too. I always tell my students I would like my veterinarian or my surgeon to have some experience with the real thing!

"My outdoor classroom experience was important in encouraging a passion for the outdoors. I remember all of the activities that my middle school teachers had us do in our school forest fondly, and I think I learned a lot more due to the hands-on and interactive learning. It was good for all of my classmates to get out from behind a desk to have a change of scenery and get a breath of fresh air in the woods."

- Sarah, a former student, who is now a junior at North Dakota State University studying biology

How many kids use the outdoor classroom in a school year?

Mr. Hanson: Our school forest is used for education more than almost any other forest in the region. We have over 2,000 kids and people using our school forest during the school year. The biggest reason for that is because it's right out the school’s back door. 

Every time I've been out doing maintenance on one of our trail cameras, or going on a run or hike, I've seen other people from the community there. I take the cross country and ski teams out there as well, and once we saw some hunters which was interesting. Baxter’s most recent land purchase will certainly help better accommodate the multiple ways people use the trails. And then other hunters, foragers and wildlife bloggers can have additional access too and will better accommodate all of us at the school.

8 3 20 Night vision camWildlife like fox and deer were caught on the school forest’s wildlife viewing camera, which is monitored by Mr. Hanson and his students. Courtesy of Chris Hanson.

Have you experienced any unexpected successes or stories with the program? Can you share an example?

Mr. Hanson: Late last summer, I happened to meet a community member who was mushroom hunting. She mentioned how all the new little trails we were working on are so nice, and she wanted to thank people for establishing it and what a gem this is. Then she started talking about her group of foraging mushrooms hunters. I teach fungi as part of my science curriculum, so now, all of a sudden, I can start telling the kids about a real-life experience with fungi right out of school. We talk about the dangers, but at the same time, all these other opportunities of natural foods. It was a wonderful experience talking to this mushroom forager who was really excited about what was available. And then it was an experience for me to do some more learning and talk to her about edible mushrooms that I can now share with my kids. It’s exciting and valuable to see people excited about using the outdoors in a responsible, sustainable way and making their life more enriched for it.

And my wife and I have started foraging and eating mushrooms from the forest as well. We started off with just eating one; this huge bright sulfur shell fungus. It's called chicken in the woods. It was so huge and colorful that I brought my family out to the woods later to see it. While we were looking at it, these horseback riders come by. They say, "Oh, wow. What a find! Are you going to take it off? This is great to eat." And I was worried, like "Are you sure?" But he got us the whole thing and trimmed it off and gave us a little bag, and we tasted it and it was fantastic.

How does the City of Baxter’s recent acquisition and expansion of the school forest benefit your experiences there?

Mr. Hanson: In addition to just expanding space and access for not only us, but community members, it will likely increase the amount of wildlife and nature we get to see. The more protected habitat there is, the more likely we’ll get to experience biological diversity. 

This expansion will also be nice because it'll just afford us a little more of a workout when doing a sightseeing tour.

With uncertainty associated with the upcoming school year and COVID-19, do you think outdoor learning spaces will play a big role in solving those upcoming challenges?

Mr. Hanson: So far, everything seems to point to outdoor experiences and environments as being safer than indoors. I'm encouraged by that. When I have 35 kids spreading out on a field, it’s going to be a whole lot easier than in those four walls of the classroom. There are just more and more health benefits to being outdoors. I'm hoping that I can use this as an excuse to get outside a little more too.

Written By

Chris Hanson

Chris Hanson is a middle school science teacher and coach at the Brainerd School District in Baxter, Minnesota. He also serves as the Site Coordinator for the Dean Makey School Forest.