A gift of nature: how a school program combines the outdoors with classroom learning

John B. Crane
Devils Lake Journal

DEVILS LAKE - White Horse Hill National Game Preserve does more than provide a scenic tour with the opportunity to glance at bison, elk, prairie dogs or a flock of birds. 

It also acts as a sanctuary of learning for fifth graders. 

Originally called Sullys Hill, the 1,674-acre wildlife refuge has provided a unique opportunity for more than 40 fifth graders to learn the primary subjects of schooling and apply them to the nature-abundant confines the preserve has to offer. Since the program’s inception close to 10 years ago (2012 was the program’s first year), students have developed the knack to be on time when the bus leaves Central Middle School after morning announcements. 

“My favorite thing so far is the fish and wildlife,” fifth grader Landry Exner said. “We get to go hiking, or if we get to do something with fish…anything that involves going outdoors. Every morning, you come out and do a little hike instead of going straight to class. You can get nature in your body before you are ready to go.” 

Maari Hanson, a fifth grade teacher, has started to find a routine in adjusting indoor subject material to the outdoors as she goes into her second year with the program. Hanson had experience with the program before she officially joined the ranks, of course. After all, the social studies and math teacher had two children go through the program.

So, when there was a job opening, Hanson made sure to pounce, even though she said she did not see herself as the outdoors type. 

“When this position was available, I was, like, I do not know,” Hanson said. “I was getting set to teaching in 4th grade, and my son looked at me. He was 18 at the time. He said, ‘why would you not be a part of this program, mom? Why would you not be a part of such an awesome learning experience?’ That says a lot about the former teachers he had and the program himself. As an 18-year-old, he realizes this is not your typical way of learning, and to be a part of it is just amazing.”

Once the bus arrives at the preserve, students pack away their bus work. Next, Hanson and the students participate in a morning hike, consisting of a daily loop around the visitor center. Once the walk is complete, the students bustle inside the building, place their backpacks in wooden coat lockers lining the hallway and shuffle inside a pair of classrooms. 

Students work inside one of the classrooms at White Horse Hill Game Preserve.

“We see a lot of difference from when we start in August to spring when we are done,” Hanson said. “Kids either start with science or math, and then we flip-flop. They have those every day…every other week, we switch those two classes for social studies or writing. During the week, we have four days of instruction, and it is intense because we have a lot of curriculum to cover like any teacher.” 

Since beginning her tenure as the visitor services manager at the preserve in 2012, Colleen Graue has actively coordinated with the program teachers to put together interactive “fish and wildlife” days to provide students with more “hands-on” activities.  During these days, structured lessons are modified to fit the nature theme. These activities range from measuring elk antlers, making ice fishing poles or identifying birds based on sound. 

“It develops a lot of awareness,” Graue said. “We have had students say…before I was in the program, I did not know there were these many birds. I didn’t know there were these many kinds of birds. They start seeing things. That is some feedback we get from parents. They will not stop looking as we drive or as we explore things. They are just constantly observing. It really heightens their observation skills, which in real life heightens your learning skills.”

Although COVID-19 hampered the ability to do many of the activities initially planned, Hanson, in addition to Graue, believes the best is yet to come for the students as the new school year begins to find its feet.

“They get so excited when we see the elk, bison or prairie dogs,” Hanson said. “And I thought it would wear off near the end, but it never did. They are so excited to see them every day…it is that sense of wonder and curiosity.” 

“It is really about teaching them that sense of wonder and exploration,” Graue said. “Do not just walk by and accept everything for what it is. Try to learn about things and observe things.”

Rain or shine, the White Horse Hill program treks onward. Whether it be from hiking, identifying new animals or simply taking in the calm, cool and collected feeling nature has to offer, one word can sum the experience up in the eyes of both students and program members alike, "awesome."