Back to School—on the Trail!

This summer, Denver Public Schools teachers Alexa Kronisch and Austin Meeler are taking full advantage of Mother Nature’s “teachable moments,” as they deliver Common Core curriculum on some of Colorado’s most kid-friendly trails. 

Schools have been closed since March, but for Slavens K-8 teachers Alexa Kronisch and Austin Meeler, a pandemic can’t curtail an outdoorsy day camp designed for children ages 8 to 14. 

Kronisch and Meeler launched their educational hiking business in 2019, months before the Covid-19 outbreak derailed everyone’s 2020 summer plans. Now the concept behind Take a Hike is more relevant than ever, as parents seek meaningful opportunities to get cooped up kids out of the house while preventing the “summer slide.” 

From an 11-mile waterfall trek to a super-short nature walk for newbies, Take a Hike’s seasonal line-up includes over a dozen custom-tailored days trips to trails inside Alderfer/Three Sisters Park, Spruce Mountain Open Space, Pine Valley Ranch Park, and Staunton State Park.  

The program’s 3-to-1 participant/guide ratio complies with current recommendations regarding safe gatherings. The small-group configuration is also conducive to student-led learning, a pedagogy that sparks curiosity by encouraging students to pursue their personal academic interests.

As Meeler puts it, “Things unfold naturally on the trail.” Last summer, for example, several campers discovered a bat habitat inside a crevice at Alderfer/Three Sisters Park in Evergreen. Without missing a beat, Kronisch and Meeler scrapped their planned lesson for an impromptu lecture on the life cycles and habitats of bats. No big deal since the teachers are already very accustomed to tweaking instruction in their first and third grade classrooms. 

In addition to predictable science-based activities surrounding local flora and fauna, Kronisch and Meeler enhance their summer curriculum by lugging along special items —replica animal tracks and owl pellets, for example, to break out (and open!) mid-hike. Educational experiences are designed to be fun and authentic, Meeler explains, noting a strong focus on trail etiquette and Leave No Trace ethics. 

While teaching campers practical wilderness skills, such as how to hang food at least 12 feet above the ground, the teachers always sneak in geometry lessons. Old-school orienteering with a compass and map is an opportunity to enhance math skills. Even simple games such as Scattergories bolster listening, observation, and handwriting skills. “We always have writing tools available, and plenty of books for the drive to and from the trail,” says Kronisch, whose in-class expertise is literacy. Healthy, wholesome snacks are another must. Kronisch and Meeler pack homemade trail mix, dried fruit, granola bars, and gladly accommodate food allergies when needed. 

Nature is even less predictable than a first grade classroom. Last summer, when a storm came out of nowhere, Kronisch, Meeler, and their crew ended up hiking in raincoats before building an emergency shelter out of a tarp. “The next thing we knew, we were making s’mores in the rain,” Kronisch recalls. Adds Meeler, “It was cool to see the resiliency in our campers. That’s nature education at its very best.” 

Images courtesy Take a Hike.

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