Students blossom by learning outside

As the pandemic destabilizes funding for outdoor programs nationwide, the League’s free K-12 field trips to the redwoods nourish bodies and minds

Humboldt County fourth grader measures a coast redwood in Humboldt Redwoods State Park Photo by Max Forster, @maxforsterphotography
In a League program, a Humboldt County fourth grader measures a coast redwood in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, exploring the forest with his class. Photo by Max Forster, @maxforsterphotography

In the lush and wild Founders Grove of Humboldt Redwoods State Park, Humboldt County fourth graders explore at the feet of giant trees and ferns in a prehistoric realm. They wonder how old the trees are and what had caused some to fall. They write about their discoveries: an albino redwood, a raccoon in a log, a secret path that leads to a creek. And they observe what they sense: the air’s fresh scent and the sound of birdsong.

These are the delights that California students at Eagle Prairie relished after pandemic restrictions eased and finally permitted in-person learning on a field trip in spring 2021. Save the Redwoods League sponsors this program to foster a connection to redwood forests, offering the lessons outside because outdoor learning is linked to a plethora of physical and mental health benefits. Aside from increased exercise, outdoor activities allow students to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom. Time outdoors can even reduce stress and boost self-esteem.

The pandemic has challenged outdoor education programs, which rely heavily on grant funding. Many had to lay off employees while on pause and are now struggling with staffing.

But for the Eagle Prairie students, their classroom moved from the computer screen to the park containing the world’s largest expanse of ancient redwoods. The kids visited Founders Grove with educator Michael Kauffmann, who led them in activities including a scavenger hunt, a biodiversity study (identifying and drawing plants), and a plot study (where students document or record all the plants and features around them).

On a solo sit, students reflected on their experience and shared how they felt about the trip.

Alean liked sitting quietly and recording what she saw, heard, smelled, and felt during the solo sit.

MG remarked that the trip was fun because of their friends.

“The birds singing made me feel so good,” wrote another student.

Kauffmann recalls the reflections of a sixth grader on another trip. “The girl told me, ‘man, it’s so much easier to learn out here!’” She said she had a hard time sitting still in the classroom but seemed content to write and draw quietly for 15 minutes, surrounded by towering redwood trees. “This is why I’ve been teaching some form of outdoor education for nearly 30 years.”

Elementary school students study plants in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Photo by Max Forster, @maxforsterphotography
Elementary school students study plants in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Photo by Max Forster, @maxforsterphotography

The field trips and associated lessons are part of the League’s education program, which is coordinated by Education & Interpretation Manager Deborah Zierten. The robust standards-based curriculum was co-created and reviewed by teachers. But the primary goal, says Zierten, is to provide free field trips into the redwoods for K-12 students.

Now that in-person learning has resumed, Zierten is looking forward to expanding the League’s education programs, which are offered in the San Francisco Bay Area, primarily Oakland, and in Humboldt County, where Zierten works with teachers, including Kauffmann, to facilitate field trips and distribute the curriculum. She also is starting to work with the Santa Cruz County Office of Education to promote a more redwoods-based curriculum there and offer free field trips.

Curriculum units combine classroom exercises, outdoor activities on schools’ campuses, and field trips, while lessons integrate math, science, and art. For example, students measure and draw redwood trees in the field; back in the classroom, they create to-scale drawings that show how the trees compare not only with each other, but also to tall buildings in their county and to iconic structures such as the Statue of Liberty. In another lesson, students examine cross-sections of downed redwoods and link patterns in the tree rings with drought, fire, and other events.

The high school curriculum is focused on climate change. Seventeen-year-old Wanda Little said she was glad to join her classmates on a field trip this spring after spending most of her senior year on Zoom.

Little and her classmates measured redwood trees and later used the measurements to calculate the trees’ biomass—part of a unit designed to help students understand how climate change is impacting redwood forests, and how redwoods can help mitigate climate change by storing carbon. Little says collecting their own data in the field was “a lot more fun” than using measurements provided by scientists.

Ultimately Zierten hopes that the League’s programs provide opportunities for all students to explore, discover, and develop a deeper connection to redwood forests.

Tayla, an Eagle Prairie fourth grader, seems well on her way.

“I liked the smell of fresh air,” she wrote after a trip to Founders Grove. “I liked to see all of the animals. I liked hearing all the sounds of the woods. I liked the trip a lot!!!!”


Read more about the League’s Redwoods Education Programs.

About the author

Juliet Grable is a writer based in Southern Oregon. Her work has been published in Sierra, Audubon, Earth Island Journal, and other national and regional publications.

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