No field trip? No problem

With outdoor ed for 4th-graders, Mountain Club spreads word wider online

Provided photo — Adirondack Mountain Club Adirondack Mountain Club Outreach Coordinator “Tamarack Tom” Manitta speaks into a camera for an outdoor education video series.

LAKE PLACID — Around this time of year, buses full of local schoolchildren usually arrive at Heart Lake for hands-on lessons about nature and responsible outdoor recreation.

Fourth-graders from schools around the region would take in the fall foliage, leaves crunching beneath their feet.

This year is different. For staff at the Adirondack Mountain Club, also known as ADK, the absence of kids is noticeable.

ADK’s Marie L. Haberl School Outreach Program — a year-long, Leave No Trace-accredited outdoor learning class for local fourth-graders that was founded in 2003 — has joined the countless other programs forced to pivot to a digital format this year as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

Normally, representatives of ADK would visit classrooms in person a few times each year to teach students about things like the science behind foliage changes and Leave No Trace practices. Students would be able to visit Heart Lake on field trips to see what they’d learned about up close, too. The program is available for children in fourth grade, ages 8 to 10, free of charge. It’s been a way for ADK to promote eco-literacy and scientific inquiry in children at an age when they’re developmentally receptive to experiential learning.

This year, ADK has produced a video series designed to get kids out into their own backyards to explore.

ADK Outreach Coordinator Tom Manitta — or “Tamarak Tom,” as students know him — was among the people who helped make the program’s transition possible.

Manitta said the change happened early on in the pandemic.

“Once in the spring everything started to shut down, we started picking up ways we could still engage with schools,” Manitta said. “We jumped on the opportunity right away and were trying to think of different formats.”

They eventually landed on filming pre-recorded videos — the “Bringing Heart Lake to Your Backyard” video series — that could be shared with students and teachers online.

“It’s just about the same content, though not specific to Heart Lake,” Manitta said. “It’s been a way to encourage them to get outside into their backyards.”

The video series covers a range of topics, from fall foliage to trail erosion and animal tracking. Teachers are also provided with suggested activities to accompany each lesson, like playing in the leaves and recording what they observe outdoors.

There’s a benefit of moving the program online this year: Usually, only school districts located within an hour-and-a-half drive of Lake Placid are able to participate. This year, the program has a much broader reach, and the club has been able to share the lessons with students all around the state, according to Manitta.

ADK is now working with 387 students from 13 different school districts.

The club also opened the program to home-schoolers this year, and 39 new students signed up.

One negative change to the program has been particularly noticeable for Manitta: Usually, it includes a guided hike up Mount Jo.

“For a lot of kids, Mount Jo is their first hike,” he said.

“That’s the most powerful thing, I think especially in the fall,” he added. “For a lot of them, it’s the hardest thing they’ve ever done. It’s short, but it’s steep. The looks on their faces and the excitement that we see … no matter how challenging a day, that always makes it worth it.”

That’s not happening right now.

“It’s been a very strange fall,” Manitta said. “It’s been pretty quiet without the kids here. As youth advocators, we’re not working directly with our youth participants, and it’s strange. We’re hoping that we’re still having whatever impact we can have in our communities to form the next generation of environmental stewards. Knowing they’re still accessing these videos makes things worthwhile.”

ADK is able to offer this program free of charge to students because of its donors, according to Manitta. Those interested in contributing can visit adk.org to donate and find out more about the Adirondack Mountain Club.