Immersing schoolchildren in nature at Anchorage parklands

Nunaka Valley Elementary teacher Jessica Nesset is doing her best to persuade a wiggly class of 18 first-graders to stand with their designated partner so the day's math lesson can proceed.

"Wagon-pullers, are you ready?" she asks a boy-girl duo at the back of the line. "Let's go to the park."

That's right, the park. Russian Jack Springs Park, to be exact.

Nesset leads her charges across the school's quiet neighborhood and stops at the entrance to a pedestrian tunnel under Boniface Parkway.

"Remember," she cautions, "If you're quiet walkers now, you can scream in the tunnel on the way back."

We walk the short distance between the school and Russian Jack's boundary, stopping only where a curve in the pavement connects to a social trail riddled with roots, leaves and spongy moss. Parking their backsides along its edge, the class settles in for the first of a three-part lesson in shapes, with nature central to the curriculum.

"What can we see shaped like a rectangle?" Nesset asks the kids, who crane their necks and turn around in the hopes of being the first to spot something that has two short sides and two long sides. I do too. We find triangles in treetops, ovals in leaves and eventually rectangles in the form of tree trunks.


Learning concept of a park

Nesset is in her fourth year at Nunaka Valley. A native of Bozeman, Montana, Nesset's love of the outdoors spills over in a desire to immerse her classes in the landscape surrounding one of Anchorage's oldest municipal parks. And thanks to a federally-funded grant program called Schools on Trails that provides tools, labor and resources, Nesset and her students are learning the concept of community going much farther than the Nunaka Valley area.

When she began taking kids to Russian Jack Springs in 2013, Nesset's then second-graders were on a mission to improve the park whose boundary was yards from their school.

"As a class, we didn't know where the park actually was, nor what the concept of 'park' actually meant," Nesset says. "Many of the kids thought parks were only swings and slides, so I began discussing with them the fact parks can look different in many ways, and that parks are for everyone to use."

Brainstorming ways to make popular Russian Jack Springs a better place was a worthwhile challenge, she added. It just so happens that the students were studying the definition of "community" and the process of stewardship, so talking about ways to make the park friendlier for all sorts of users became the goal.

The class's ideas for cleaning up graffiti in the tunnel, building signs, and creating outdoor learning spaces caught the attention of the Anchorage Park Foundation, a local non-profit involved in an array of park improvement projects. Here the kids found park champions and discovered the benefits of community support.

Brendan Stuart is the Schools on Trails coordinator, a position developed through partnerships with various agencies and organizations serving Southcentral.

With a part-time schedule and stipend funded through the service organization AmeriCorps, Stuart spends her workdays developing relationships that will expand the mission of Schools on Trails, using Nunaka Valley as an example of success.

"(A) focus for the program is getting students directly involved in projects at their own local parks and trails, and gaining a feeling of ownership, pride, and civic responsibility," she told me.

Combining the kids' advocacy with industry professionals, local government and neighborhood officials translates into an investment for the future.

In 2013, Nesset's class of second-graders polled their school peers and discovered just 36 percent were even aware of a park in their area. They also wrote more than 20 letters to the Anchorage Park Foundation asking for help to improve Russian Jack Springs Park.

"Hopefully," Stuart reflected, "This sense of shared community outdoor space will stick with them as they get older."

'Simple and relevant' student ideas

The proposed outdoor education spaces at Russian Jack Springs, referred to as "learning labs" by Nesset and her fellow park champions, are scheduled for construction this summer. They'll include three hubs for ongoing educational and interpretive exploration; hydrology, flora, and fauna. With funds secured through an Anchorage Park Foundation Challenge Grant, students at Nunaka Valley get to work with such organizations as the American Society of Landscape Architects Alaska Chapter, University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension, National Park Service, and the Municipality of Anchorage Parks and Recreation Department.

Jonny Hayes, a local landscape architect and member of the American Society of Landscape Architects, said the best part was working with kids from day one.

"A lot of work goes into developing something from an idea, and getting it in the ground, especially when working within a group or on public property. So it's always fun to go through the process with others, especially in this case. The students presented ideas and solutions that were so simple and relevant — and obviously has made a major impact on their lives."

Back at the site of the future "flora" lab, Nesset's students are searching for items in nature to construct various shapes. Damp sticks and leaves on the ground become squares and triangles. A trapezoid made from fallen tree limbs is laid out on the muddy ground.

"Ms. Nesset! Ms. Nesset! Come see what we did!" These pint-sized land-stewards-in-training are fairly dancing on the pathways with excitement over turning ordinary nature into a math lesson. And why not? Nesset told me the kids' classroom work has improved by leaps and bounds since she started visiting the park, and attendance is better on field trip days.

Seven-year-old Christian Copeland says he likes visiting the park because it makes the school day much more fun.


"I'd rather learn out here in nature," he said, looking down at a tree root spidering its way across a trail. "I learn how to solve my own math problems with sticks and leaves," pulling a crinkly birch leaf from his pocket as validation.

All too soon, it's time to head back for a snack, music, and the last chapter of Monday's math concept. Nesset and her chaperones herd their charges into a squiggly line and begin walking back to school.

The kids are energized and happy, chattering to each other as they scuff along the trail. Nesset is happy, too, because she's found another way to benefit from outdoor education. I'm positively electrified by the possibilities in my own neighborhood a few miles away.

That, I suppose, is what the concept of "community" really means. And it all started with a few kids in one corner of Anchorage.

And yes, the kids did earn the right to scream like banshees in the pedestrian tunnel with 60 seconds of unabashed, youthful joy that left my ears ringing. It was awesome.

Erin Kirkland is publisher of AKontheGO.com and author of the guidebook "Alaska On the Go: Exploring the 49th State with Children."


Schools on Trails

• Identify and raise awareness of parks, trails, streams, and natural habitats near Anchorage schools.


• Connect schools to nearby public spaces and encourage outdoor learning possibilities.

• Involve students by working with local and state leaders, and understanding the concepts of negotiation and persistence.

• Help schools find the resources they need to conduct classes or educate the public. Nesset's class pulls a wagon loaded with handouts, magnifying glasses, measuring tapes, and other tools to make outdoor learning more hands-on.

Current Projects

Nunaka Valley Elementary/Russian Jack Springs Park: learning labs, way-finding signs, welcome signs.

Westchester Lagoon Nature Trail rehabilitation: outdoor learning lab space for area elementary schools for nature-based education. A student design competition is underway to develop seating in the space.

West High School/Spenard Road corridor plan: student-led assessment of the Spenard Road corridor for student and community-friendliness with concept drawings too present to the public.