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Lower School Lessons Learned from Our Outdoor Classroom

Thursday, February 8, 2018
Colleen Thompson takes Lower School students on experiential learning journeys through the Wasatch in the Lower School Outdoor Program.
Colleen Thompson (Right) with Lower School students in the Wasatch. 

There are few campuses that are situated in a more idyllic location than ours. As we walk from class to class, out to recess, and around school, our students have the opportunity to soak in the splendor of the Wasatch Mountains. Whether it is admiring the changing leaves, the clouds, or the recent snow, I ask my students to stop and take a moment to observe.

All my life, the mountains have called to me. Whether it is skiing, hiking, mountain biking, or even just going for a walk, I know that time outside, disconnected, fills my soul. Growing up in Boise, Idaho, meant that we spent a lot of mountain-centered time as a family. Imagine my joy when I pulled into the parking lot of the Lower School campus a little over four years ago. My husband accepted a job transfer to Salt Lake City, and after seven years in the concrete jungle of Los Angeles, we were going to be able to call a mountain town, home.

After accepting a position of Class III teacher, I immediately wanted to get more time outside with kids. So much of learning is experiential, and it is our experiences that propel us to seek out new opportunities. Lower School students are exposed to a wide variety of stimulating programs and thoughtful, exciting curriculum. However, when I first started at Waterford, there were no formal opportunities for Lower School students to engage in outdoor recreation. Waterford has a robust outdoor program for Middle and Upper School students, led by Chris Watkins. I asked myself, Chris, and the Director of Lower School, how do we get younger students into the mountains? I now know the answer: with a bit of planning, small buses, enthusiastic volunteer faculty, and a sign-up sheet!

Being with people when they experience a new moment for the first time is addicting. Often children do not even realize how far they can go when they are engaged in the moment. We aspire to teach in our classrooms in a way that puts the process of learning before the product. The same holds true for the outdoors. If we only focus on making it to the top, or constantly ask when are we going to be there, we lose sight of why we are out there in the first place.

Since 2015, coordinated LS outdoor activities occur once a term. In the fall, Class III, IV, and V students are invited after school to hike alongside their peers and favorite teachers in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Depending on snow levels and weather, students learn how to snowshoe or enjoy a hike on a Saturday morning. Once Spring Term arrives, Lower School students experience the basics of rock climbing on our indoor rock wall, supervised by Upper School students.

Being with people when they experience a new moment for the first time is addicting. Often children do not even realize how far they can go when they are engaged in the moment. We aspire to teach in our classrooms in a way that puts the process of learning before the product. The same holds true for the outdoors. If we only focus on making it to the top, or constantly ask when are we going to be there, we lose sight of why we are out there in the first place. I think Gabby R. had the right idea when she shouted, “Wow! It smells so fresh up here!”

See More Photos of Lower School Outdoor


Colleen Thompson is currently a Class III teacher and the Lower Schools Outdoor Coordinator. She received her B.A. in Human Development from Colby College in Waterville, ME. Subsequently, she completed a year-long Master's program at Lesley University where she focused her efforts on elementary education. Colleen began her teaching career at Wildwood School in Los Angeles, CA, as a fourth grade teacher. While at Wildwood, she also served as a Division Coordinator and spent two years on the Multicultural Leadership Team. She has training as a Critical Friends Group coach and in VISIONS multicultural work. Colleen also attended Lucy Calkins Reading and Writing Project. After seven years in the busy city, Colleen and her husband relocated to Salt Lake City where she promptly began teaching at Waterford. In addition to her enthusiasm for education, Colleen is thrilled to be living at the base of the Wasatch Mountains and can typically be found on a trail hiking, jogging, or biking with her dog. She is also an avid reader who is always eager to share book titles.