Using Nature to Empower Students

Bright yellow rain jackets and sturdy boots are the gear of choice on an overcast winter morning. Mt Si begins to peek out from the clouds as the students from Two Rivers School walk down the Snoqualmie Valley Trail to meet Greenway Trust Educators near the confluence of Ribary Creek and the South Fork of the Snoqualmie River, just ten minutes from their classroom.

These middle school students and their teacher, Joe Burgener, are in the habit of getting out of their classroom at least once a week, in the rain or shine or snow. Today’s project involves planting Sitka spruce trees to reforest the creek edges.

Why do these field trips? Outdoor learning—getting out of the classroom to spend time in nature—helps students become smarter and stronger and grow into more responsible adults.

Those of us who regularly spend time outside—whether gardening, mountain biking, walking, or trail running—understand that spending time in nature makes us happier and healthier humans. National programs, like First Lady Michelle Obama’s ‘Let’s Move Outside’ campaign, are built off of this concept.

Two Rivers School also recognizes this and is working creatively with the Greenway Trust and other partners to foster a meaningful nature connection for their students. The key is starting early and consistently. Burgener believes students should be exposed to nature early on so that it’s not a shock later on in life.

After seven months of this outdoor learning curriculum, Two Rivers School students are thriving. They are learning valuable restoration skills, building self-confidence, gaining a sense of teamwork, and developing interpersonal communication skills. Trinity, a Two River student, is proud of her class’s accomplishment: “It’s awesome! And even though we get tired at times, we never stop.”

Their accomplishments are impressive. At their site along Ribary Creek, they have removed hundreds of invasive plants, planted native trees and shrubs, and started a GPS project to track the progress of all the plants that they have put in the ground. Their goal for this school year is to plant 500 native conifer trees throughout the forest.

Earlier this month they were presented with the Give Good Award, which recognizes inspirational people. Watch the awards ceremony, including the students’ presentation, online.

The future stewardship of our region rests on successful outdoor learning. By engaging more students in the outdoors, we can build an understanding and appreciation for the immense value that natural spaces bring to our communities, our health, and our economy. Burgener sums it up well:

“Personally this is like a dream come true to see students investing in a special outdoor situation and learning how to observe and preserve it. I believe this project will make many of its participants better protectors and more appreciative denizens of their homes in our watershed.”

These middle school students from Two Rivers School will continue their weekly outdoor experience through their high school graduation. The long-term goal is for them to be role models for the younger classes of students, teaching them how to be outside and how to restore streamside habitat. This Snoqualmie Valley-based school plans to continue using Tollgate Forest as an outdoor classroom for years to come.

Are you a teacher? Visit to schedule an in-class lesson, field study trip and service-learning stewardship event for your students.