Winter Adaptations On Wild About Utah
“No, no, no! Don’t try to help me up yet,” I instructed, choking back laughter through a face full of snow.
Third graders teetered in their snowshoes on the edge of the tree as well with mixed emotions written on their faces—equal parts concern and confusion. I was sunk to my armpits in snow, insisting that they not help me out of it. The learning had begun.
We were in the trees, high in the canyon, there to discuss the winter adaptations of local wildlife while an inch an hour of fresh powder fell from above. I had stepped onto a shallow layer of snow that covered a spruce sapling just as I was explaining the similarities between the snowshoes on our boots and the feet of the snowshoe hare. The timing was impeccable.
“I guess we’re not as good as the snowshoe hare,” one student quipped as a flurry of helpful hands and a borrowed ski pole finally freed me from the hole.
“No, I guess not,” was my reply. “So how do we survive here, then?”
Snow continued to fall while students offered up their hypotheses: “We have tools, like coats and snowshoes and ski poles”; “we help each other, like a community!” “We don’t have special body parts, so we have to try new things to survive.”
Someone mentioned “structural adaptations.” A familiar murmur of agreement as someone used another science term, “behavioral adaptations,” language maybe once thought too complex for 9-year-olds. But it was language students had developed over the course of a few months closely studying the wildlife of Utah—language they were putting to work now, constructing new understandings of the world in real time.
We needed to keep moving, so my colleague and co-wilderness-guide for the day introduced the kids to another behavioral adaptation used by herds of deer. Minutes later, 13 energetic bodies were performing the mule deer “snow dance,” stomping a flat, hard-pack clearing into the deep snow. “No more post-holing,” he told the kids. He let the new vocabulary word sink in while we rested and ate a snack, much like a mule deer might.
As a matter of state law, the Utah State Board of Education expects third graders to, quote, “Engage in argument from evidence that in a particular habitat…some organisms can survive well, some survive less well, and some cannot survive at all” (UT SEEd Standards, 3.2.5, 2019).
Learning outdoors helps students connect academic content to lived experiences in real time. These students certainly had an argument to make as to how well-prepared an animal needs to be in order to survive a mountain winter. They lived the experiences themselves.