Teaching Tracks over Zoom: Reflections on Bringing the Outdoors Inside this Winter

Looking back on this past year, it’s important to reflect on the many ways folks from across the region adapted to difficult times. Here at FSPW, one challenge was adapting our youth outdoor education program – Winter Tracks – to a remote environment. How can you teach animal track identification over zoom? We are proud to say that we managed to find a way to bring the outdoors inside – to 307 students in Northwest Montana and Northern Idaho this winter. 

With a little creativity and a lot of help from incredible teachers and volunteers, we hosted a remote version of our annual Winter Tracks program. We coordinated 3 virtual events with 5 schools in Lincoln, Bonner, and Sanders counties. Plus, we snuck in one in-person program to cap-off the season! All said, 6 schools and 307 students participated in Winter Tracks 2021.

Juli is teaching track and scat identification. Students have great answers to her questions!
Juli is teaching track and scat identification. Students have great answers to her questions!

During a typical year, we would head out in the big yellow school bus to the nearest campground or patch of public land for outdoor lessons, fun in the snow, and hot cocoa. This year was different. We knew we could harness the power of Zoom to beam directly into the classroom, but we also knew adults can be boring in-person, let alone on screen. Our solution? Great Outdoor Accessibility & Tracking (GOAT) boxes. These GOAT boxes were jam packed with animal track prints, build-your-own compass materials, and much more. They allowed the 5th and 6th graders that participated in Winter Tracks to create their own experience with the guidance of our volunteer instructors. 

We were lucky enough to have two wonderful experts to lead the lessons while teachers facilitated the hands-on component. Ed Robinson, a retired forester with the state of Idaho, led the Tree ID lesson and helped students plant their very own wildflower seed to bring back home. They should be blossoming in windows and lawns throughout the region right about now. Juli Thurston with the Montana State University Extension office in Thompson Falls led our lesson on the variety of animal tracks found in the wild places nearby. We hope the students were able to use the track field guide they created to find animal tracks and adventure before the snow disappeared for the summer. 

We would not have been able to make this year’s Winter Tracks a success without the tremendous efforts of the teachers and volunteers we worked alongside. If we’ve learned anything throughout this pandemic, it’s that our teachers are some of the most adaptable and talented folks around. We were lucky enough to see that dedication firsthand during each Winter Tracks event. It was a good reminder that difficult times can bring out creative solutions to even our most intimidating problems. Who would have thought that technology could bring our kids closer to the outdoors? Here’s hoping we’ll see each and every smiling face in person and outside next year!

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About The Author:

Henry grew up ranching and recreating along the Rocky Mountain Front in Choteau, Montana. He graduated from Carroll College in 2016 with a B.A. in Political Science & International Relations with an emphasis on public lands and environmental policy. Henry has been involved in elections administration, forestry, wilderness therapy, and outdoor education across Montana and Idaho. Henry resides in Troy and also works as a Student Life Counselor at Boulder Creek Academy in Bonners Ferry. His passion lies at the intersection of community engagement, outdoor education, and mental health.

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