Enjoying Winter In the Outdoor Classroom — And All Around!

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit and resign yourself to the influence of each.”

Henry David Thoreau

As a naturalist and a science educator, I do enjoy each season’s gifts. Yes, even winter. I grew up in Rochester, NY, and attended college in Buffalo, NY and Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota. And I still have all of my fingers, toes and the tip of my nose!

I think that it helps to have experienced “real winter”—extended periods of snowy, cold conditions in urban and rural environments and to have accumulated a very practical wardrobe of outdoor clothing and equipment.

Also that I surround myself with other like-minded people who prefer to stay physically active outside and share a great appreciation for the natural world. I have winter camped, hiked on icy White Mountain trails, cross-country skied and snowshoed by moonlight with friends of all ages. The oldest is 90! We’ve had one-of-a-kind experiences and close encounters with winter wildlife.

The Joy of Teaching and Learning Outdoors

I feel so fortunate to be able to spend a good part of my work day outdoors with children who are very curious about the world around them. By late October / early November students in Kindergarten and Upper Elementary (first through third grade), along with their teachers and parents, have begun to prepare for science lessons and after-school programs on Sunflower Hill in our Outdoor Classroom and other locations around campus.

We prepare by wearing long pants, socks that are up above ankles (which also protects skin for briar scratches and contact with poison ivy) or better yet an insulated pair of boots; plus layers covering the torso, a hat and gloves or mittens.

We take a chance on an overcast, drippy day, or an almost-too-cold-to-go-out type of day, lucky to be rewarded with an interesting discovery or wildlife sighting. Every outdoor class is a worthwhile experience, whatever the weather.

Winter Morning
Winter is the king of showmen
Turning tree stumps into snowmen
And houses into birthday cakes
And spreading sugar over lakes.
Smooth and clean and frosty white,
The world looks good enough to bite.
That’s the season to be young,
Catching snowflakes on your tongue.
Snow is snowy when it’s snowing
I am sorry it’s slushy when it’s going.

Ogden Nash

After-School Nature Programs

The “Winter Mysteries” and “Friends of the Forest” after-school program participants have been waiting for snow to open up a hidden winter world…

…A world where a thick blanket of snow is an animal or plant’s best protection against cold and where special adaptations are a means of survival.

…Where air trapped in spaces between the snow granules keeps earth-warmed air in and cold air out.

We can see how the warmed air melts just the bottom layer of snow, which creates a pocket of air that is exactly the right size for tiny creatures to burrow and build tunnels underneath.  

In the very cold winter months, Ellyn and her students check on the plants growing in the EcoLab.

Science and Nature Lessons from Animals Outdoors

We learn that many animals like red squirrels, mice, moles, voles and shrews depend on this habitat—the Subnivean Zone—to survive the cold, harsh winter. We also learn that birds of prey, foxes, coyotes and weasels have excellent hearing and can sometimes detect the animals moving around under the snow. These hunters survive by taking advantage of the gatherings of small mammals.

After a deep snowfall we will look for holes in the surface that serve as air vents, providing fresh air to the animals below, and tracks that will tell us a winter story.

We will also appreciate the tree silhouettes and the texture of bark while looking for bird’s nests from last spring, squirrel drays and holes in trees that may be used as an escape from the cold.

Our feeders and the forest trail have been busy with Black-capped chickadees, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches, Downy and Red-bellied woodpeckers who need to forage for food continuously to keep a constant body temperature.

During cold nights resident song birds will find a sheltered spot to fluff up their feathers for trapping heat and slow their body functions down to conserve “fuel” until it is time to fill up again in the morning.

Trees and other plants also slow down their basic functions until the sap begins to flow and longer days provide more warming sunrays. The fluctuations of temperature can really test the abilities of plants and animals to adapt. We realize that we are fortunate to be able to adjust with clothing, location and unlimited food sources.

Keeping Warm in the Greenhouse and EcoLab

If the outdoor temperature is below what the school allows for long-time skin exposure or Sunflower Hill is too icy, we will often pop into the EcoLab and the greenhouse. There we find field guides, microscopes, magnifiers, pencils, markers and paper to keep us busy—along with tomato plants and geraniums that have hung on since the fall, micro greens and pea shoots to be planted and watered, goldfish and compost worms that need tending.

We are never very far from something green. Around us we see evergreen trees, shrubs and ferns, greenbriar, holly, moss, lichens, algae and skunk cabbage.

A nature lover and wildlife enthusiast, Ellyn Einhorn is the Science/Outdoor Classroom specialist for Lower Elementary and Children’s House and an instructor in our After-School Program. Before becoming a Montessori teacher, she worked as the Education Coordinator/Teacher Naturalist at Mass Audubon in Marshfield for 23 years. Ellyn began her Montessori career as a Lower Elementary classroom teacher at Inly and the Bridgeview Montessori School in Sagamore, Mass. She received her Montessori certification from Seacoast Montessori Training Center in New Hampshire.

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