A line of first graders in pastel puffy coats, black snow pants, Spiderman hats, and brightly colored face masks emerges from the back door of Eden Lake Elementary School in Eden Prairie. It’s a little before ten o’clock on a Wednesday morning in February. A light snow is falling. Temperatures have just risen above zero for the first time in days. And Maria Villavicencio’s class is bursting with excitement to build snow volcanoes.
Nearly twenty children spread out in the snowy grounds behind the school. Two first graders unfurl a laminated pledge, and Villavicencio, her voice amplified through a microphone, guides the group in reciting it.
“We are explorers who learn from the wild,” they chant. “With an open mind and an open heart. We pledge to respect, protect, and learn from our Earth!”
By now, the children know the words by heart: They come outside every week for Wilderness Wednesdays to explore the wilds around their school grounds: Beyond the playground, a forest on city land descends to a lake—and all of it is theirs to discover. They observe woodpeckers and chickadees in the school’s bird sanctuary, a series of feeders outside the library. In the fall, they watch as the trees change color and shed their leaves; in the spring, they see the bare branches bud and burst with green.
Wilderness Wednesdays have been a highlight of Villavicencio’s teaching since 2019. But they’ve taken on special meaning during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a time when many kids are stuck following lessons on computer screens all day, Villavicencio’s students are learning hands on, in person, and outside. Their outdoor education goes beyond birdwatching and playing with snow: They form personal connections with nature that they share with their families, and last long after they’ve left first grade. And for Eden Lake teachers, outdoor education provides an opportunity to take a break from an enclosed environment, enjoy enhanced COVID safety measures, and teach safe hands-on activities.
It’s a striking example of how outdoor learning can be safe and joyful—even in a Minnesota winter. Even for the many students in this class whose families immigrated from a much warmer climate in Somalia—and their teacher, who grew up in Ecuador.
Today, the snow will be one of their learning tools as they perform an experiment. The question on their lab report: How will soap affect our volcano?
“What are your ingredients?” Villavicencio, a 2020 Minnesota Teacher of the Year finalist, asks her students.
“Vinegar, baking soda, soap,” the children reply.
“What is that one variable we change?” Villavicencio asks, her voice reverberating through the microphone. “Soap. So our big question is, how will soap affect your volcano? That is your question, your big question today. You each made a hypothesis in the classroom. We’re going to test it. Remember the higher your volcano, the more reaction you will have.”
Some of the children are timid at first as they pack snow around the water bottles they brought out on their Wilderness Wednesday cart, each labeled “A” or “B.” The bottles contain vinegar and food dye—and half of them also have soap.
“It’s not really sticky,” one child observes about the snow.
“But it will work!” Villavicencio assures her. “Use your arms like this!” she tells another child, demonstrating how to pile the snow.
Villavicencio reminds the children to leave a “crater” open—that is, to leave a hole for the top of the water bottle amid the mound of snow. She walks around to inspect the volcanoes and offer guidance. “Miss Emily, how did you get your volcano that way?” she asks. “Beautiful. Jayden, use your arms like this and grab a bunch of snow to pile it up. See what other groups are doing.”
When the volcanoes are complete, she invites the children whose bottles are soapless to come take an “activator:” a frozen cylinder of baking soda that will slide down the water bottle’s narrow opening.
“It looks like a cheese stick,” observes one first grader. “A frozen cheese stick.”
They return to their volcanoes and hover the activators over their volcano craters.
“First graders, we are doing the countdown together,” Villavicencio instructs them.
They chorus: “Three, two, one. Activate!”
The children drop the baking soda tubes into their volcanoes, and wait.
‘Almost like getting permission to be a kid’
Snowy Minnesota is a long way from the mountain valley in Ecuador where Maria Villavicencio grew up. Within a few hours, she could be at the ocean, the rainforest, or the Andes mountains. She spent her childhood playing outside with her cousins, splashing in creeks, trapping tadpoles, tending to a cousin’s pet monkey, and nursing an injured hummingbird back to health, frequently coming home covered in mud.
“I grew up being right in the middle of nature,” she said.
She arrived in Minnesota in 1991 at age 13. Her ESL teacher showed the class how to carve pumpkins, and they went trick-or-treating in what turned out to be the infamous Halloween blizzard. It was the first time she saw snow.
“I was not prepared for winter, let alone for a blizzard,” she said. She remembers thinking, “People think this is fun?”
It wasn’t just her. Her mother feared for their safety in the snow.
“She was petrified of driving in the snow and doing things outside in winter,” Villavicencio said. “Walking on a lake? Don’t you ever.”
It wasn’t until decades later that Villavicencio began to incorporate Minnesota’s great outdoors into her first grade lessons—and realized how transformative learning about the outdoors could be.
She was inspired by Jen Heyer, then a kindergarten teacher at Eden Prairie’s Cedar Ridge Elementary School, who had received local and national recognition for her outdoor teaching, including a Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators from the federal Environmental Protection Agency in 2019. Heyer encouraged Villavicencio to try teaching outdoors.
While taking young kids outdoors might seem daunting, Heyer encouraged her to start small: Taking them outside for read-alouds. Then she started bringing her science lessons about insects and caterpillars outside.
“We were reading about insects, then going outside to look at the insects,” she said. “Where do they live? In the pond. Well, we have a pond, let’s go see if we can spy any living there.” They soon went out looking for mealworms, caterpillars, and butterflies, too. “The more that I learned, the more kids learned, and the more curious we all got.”
If the kids have a question she can’t answer, they look it up and learn together.
“As Jen had told me, my fear was not being an expert,” she said. “What I found out was you don’t have to be. They are teaching me.”
After her first spring taking students outside to look for bugs in 2019, Villavicencio received a grant to attend the American Wilderness Leadership School that summer in Wyoming. At AWLS, she took lessons in how to teach wilderness survival skills like making fire and building shelter, and even received a certification in teaching archery. When she got back from Wyoming, she was ready to put her outdoor education plans into action.
She was thrilled to discover the groundwork for outdoor learning at Eden Lake was already in place. The school had a rarely-used outdoor classroom, left over from when it employed an outdoor learning specialist years ago. John Clay, a third grade teacher who’s been incorporating outdoor education into his classes since 1991, continued maintaining the space, using tractors to lay fresh wood chips on the forest trails. She helped him revitalize and expand the school’s outdoor spaces, adding the bird sanctuary and a dock at the pond, built by a local Boy Scout troop.
As she started bringing kids outside, she found it “mind-boggling” how many kids were apprehensive, afraid they would get in trouble for jumping in puddles. She reminded them that their parents had sent them a change of clothes.
“It was almost like getting permission to be a kid,” she said. “Jumping in puddles, just running and playing and discovering, using their senses to connect with nature. It has changed the way I view teaching, especially for littles, and for older students too.”
Villavicencio’s students are diverse: About 60 percent are Black or brown, including many who are immigrants and refugees from Somalia. She sees in her students some of the fears her mother carried, such as worry about being too cold or not knowing what clothing they need. Besides the change of clothes, she supplies extra jackets and snow pants—purchased with a grant from the local watershed district—for kids who don’t have the right gear.
“They realize that, ‘Oh wait, I don’t have to be cold outside?’” she said. “We always talk about in wilderness explorers, there’s no such thing as bad weather, there’s bad clothing. And if you’re prepared, you will have fun.”
LaTanya McCall’s 6-year-old son, Jayden, usually struggles to get up for school. But on snow volcano day, he rushed through his breakfast, got dressed, and was ready to go early, demanding that his mom take him to school. “Baby, you don’t have school for another two hours,” she told him. When they finally drove up, he ran off without giving his mother his usual good-bye hug.
McCall laughed it off. It’s her second year as a Wilderness Wednesdays parent. Her older son, 7-year-old Michael, was in Villavicencio’s first grade class last year. She’s seen how outdoor education causes both of her sons to light up, both at school and at home.
“It melts my heart to see my boys excited about learning and education,” she said.
It’s not just going outside that excites them, she said. It’s Villavicencio’s teaching style. “When kids say look at that puddle, she doesn’t say, yes, a puddle,” McCall said. “She asks questions and gets them thinking. Why is that puddle there? How did that puddle get there?”
They bring that style of inquiry home with them, too. Her kids are now noticing blue jays and squirrels and asking questions about nature in a way they didn’t before. And it’s inspiring McCall, who’s originally from North Carolina, to embrace going outside with her kids in all of Minnesota’s seasons, too.
When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Michael’s first grade classroom last March, screen time increased dramatically for kids across the country. Michael and Jayden attended school on their iPads. But with the skills the family had learned through Wilderness Wednesday, and the lessons Villavicencio sent home, it was easy to take breaks outside to look for rocks or birds.
“They love it,” McCall said. “It’s not like I’m dragging them out.” And their excitement about exploring outside means less time on TV, iPads, and video games. “We’re actually able to go out and discover the snow, the trees, the birds. They love it, and I love that.”
Testing the hypothesis
Five seconds pass after the baking soda drops into the bottles, then 10. Nothing seems to happen. A sense of uncertainty settles over the children.
“Don’t look away,” Villavicencio tells them.
“It’s not working,” a child complains.
Then, shrieks of joy fill the air as foam rushes out of the snowy mounds in every color of a crayon box.
“Whoa!” the children gasp. “It’s blue!” one student shouts.
Another child tells Villavicencio she didn’t get an activator. Villavicencio hands her a baking soda tube. “Stay in your spots, friends!” Villavicencio reminds them. “It takes a little while sometimes.” As this next volcano erupts belatedly, the class bursts into a fresh chorus of awed “whoa!”
“It turned purple!” a child observes excitedly.
Now it’s time to test the “B” volcanoes: The ones with soap.
Some older kids from fifth and sixth grade, who tested the experiment yesterday and are here to assist the little ones, need extra gloves. Villavicencio hands them out.
“All right, B volcanoes!” Villavicencio calls. “What do you have that the other one does not have?”
“Soap!” the children shout in excitement.
Villavicencio reminds the students they are responsible for keeping track of the water bottle lid, and instructs them to remove it. They count down together.
“Three, two, one. Activate!”
Instead of one quick burst, the soap volcanoes erupt in a slow continuous stream of colored foam the texture of melted ice cream. Shrieks and whoas fill the air at a more diffuse pace, too.
“It’s gonna keep going and going and going!” a child declares.
Passing the torch
Unlike some wealthier Minnesota kids whose families own cabins or go ice fishing, many of Villavicencio’s students have never even gone sledding. With every activity, they discuss safety so they know what the risks are and how to play without getting hurt. Then they can try it themselves. For example, Clay, the third grade teacher, piled snow to create a sledding track for kids to use at recess.
Back in the 1990s, Clay said, outdoor education was incorporated into every grade level at Eden Lake. But after leadership and organizational shifts and budget cuts, the programs all but died off. Now, he’s gratified to see younger teachers take up the cause.
“It makes my heart just soar,” he said.
When Villavicencio’s former first grade students join him in third grade, they’re ready to learn. “They’re more willing to try things,” he said. “They’re eager to continue to learn about nature and what can we do outside.”
Since Villavicencio began using outdoor education in the classroom two years ago, she’s encouraged her co-workers to try it, too. With the Jeffers Foundation, a local philanthropic group focused on nature education, she organized a training to help 21 Eden Lake teachers learn outdoor education skills and develop lesson plans, like writing poetry based on observations from nature.
“Maria is such a dynamic member of our school community,” said Tim Beekmann, Eden Lake’s principal, in an email. “She has really helped spark curiosity, interest, and excitement not only in her students, but also in other staff members to get outside to learn in multiple fun and unique opportunities.”
Eden Prairie’s schools reopened for the youngest grades in September, with the pandemic in full swing. Since then, the school’s outdoor spaces have become more attractive to teachers. The music teacher, for example, has identified an outdoor spot with favorable acoustics where students can spread out to sing or play instruments. Villavicencio has encouraged them to head outside, too: they don’t need to have a formal lesson plan, she tells them, but she has some ready if they want them. And Villavicencio also leads an outdoor afterschool program for second through sixth graders to spread the love of outdoor learning.
Once they come back inside, the children pepper Villavicencio with ideas for what they want to learn next. Is that bird a boy or a girl? How do the birds stay alive in the winter? What if we tried making volcanoes with Mentos or soda pop?
Kids who struggle with sitting still all day love the chance to relate to school in a different way. And for children with limited English proficiency, the outdoor environment gives them an opportunity to demonstrate their curiosities in a hands-on way.
“I truly believe we don’t have an achievement gap,” Villavicencio said. “We have an opportunity gap. A lot of students don’t have access to a lot of opportunities, and when we close those opportunity gaps, the achievement gaps will close.”
‘Just the pure joy of being one with nature’
A minute later, the soapy volcanoes are still erupting a rainbow of colors.
“What is the difference?” Villavicencio asks. “Look at your volcanoes. Remember, you’re going to be comparing these.”
“Oh my God! It’s still going!” one child shrieks.
“Mine is awesome!” another student declares.
The fifth and sixth grade helpers mill about the younger kids, snapping photos on iPads so they can discuss and compare the volcanoes later.
As they clean up—Villavicencio reminds them they are each responsible for putting both their water bottle and its cap back in the box—the first graders toss the colored snow in the air, attempt to mix the colors, and chase the still falling snow with their tongues. They’ve been out in single-digit temperatures for nearly half an hour, but they’re not ready to leave the snowy day behind.
“I caught one! I caught a snowflake!” one first grader yells.
This joy is what Wilderness Wednesdays are all about for Villavicencio.
“The shrieks, the giggles, the awwws,” she said. “Jumping in the puddles and just the pure joy of just being one with nature. Their constant faces, did you see that? The thrill and awe of it all, the lightbulbs, the wonderings, the curiosities.”
The children line up to go back inside, debrief, and plan their next experiment. At the end of the line, one child lags behind, twirling blissfully in the snow.