SEELEY LAKE — Seeley Lake Elementary’s strong focus on natural resources and outdoor activities is evident walking the halls, adorned with ski equipment and small branches broken from area trees for class reports.  

One wall of the lobby near the front desk is trimmed like a log cabin with two crossed, vintage skis hanging above the red double doors. Pine tree silhouettes are painted along the gym wall behind the bleachers. Locker nametags feature a variety of local wild birds. A recent watercolor art project contrasted cool blues with warm fall leaves.

Students used clay and paint to make their own topographic maps, forming a range of mountains and network of rivers on a hallway display table. Beyond the cafeteria, a school custodian turned a storage area near the band classroom into a climbing wall, using holds an area gym was going to throw out.

In recent years, the rural school repeatedly has been named to Outside magazine’s “Best Places to Work” list. It also was named a Green Ribbon school by the U.S. Department of Education for 21st century excellence, won a SMART Green Challenge award for a resource conservation plan that included recycling thousands of pounds of waste, and opened an outdoor gear store in a local strip mall.

Cross-country skiing is mandatory at the school, which also checks out equipment to the broader community and helps maintain area trails.

The signature way the K-8 district infuses conservation values is with its outdoor education classes. Spanish teacher Bridget Laird started the program after conversations with Superintendent Chris Stout.

She then completed training in the North Cascades at the National Outdoor Leadership School, commonly known by its initials, NOLS, based in Lander, Wyoming. She designs daylong lessons that bring students out of the classroom into nearby wild areas for interdisciplinary learning.

“Usually we start with an outdoor activity like a ski, a snowshoe or a hike. Then we’ll go either (to Camp Paxson lodge) or, if we’re at the ski trails, we’ll go into the yurt and we’ll have a shorter lesson followed by lunch,” Laird said. “Then we’ll go outside again for an outdoor activity.”

Last week, fourth-grade students huddled over a table of furs, including badger, white hare, otter and blue fox. The badger was skinned and preserved after a teacher at the school fatally struck it while driving.

Ally Little Coyote leaned over the table with a magnifying glass to inspect the otter’s stiff, short fur. She said outdoor ed is “pretty OK.”

“We play outside,” she said. “(Today,) we’re learning different things about why mammals have fur.”

Journey Bayford stroked the soft, fluffed tail of a Swedish blue fox and said he likes that “we get to go on field trips.”

After talking about how and why scientists classify organisms by their characteristics, Laird led an outdoor experiment.

“We talked a lot last year about how organisms, plants and animals, coped with winter at Seeley Lake,” she said introducing the day’s activities. Later, she asked them: What would keep hot water warm the longest, fur, feathers, or fat?

Laird poured a Thermos of still-hot water into smaller glasses. Some were wrapped with fur of different colors; others with feathers, or Crisco to represent fat. The students measured the temperature periodically and concluded, at least in their initial test, that white fur insulated better than dark fur.

“Our philosophy at our school is that kids are more likely to retain and to find learning relevant if it's place-based and it makes sense to them in their natural environment,” she said. “We live in Seeley Lake. We’re surrounded by all these great resources, so we take advantage of them. We feel it makes learning more relevant and more permanent.”

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