How the COVID-19 Lockdown Unlocked Outdoor-Learning Lessons

Sheryl Honig and Anna Foster already believed that people often learn better outdoors than inside a classroom or auditorium, but the past year and a half have made these Ridges Sanctuary educators even more certain.

“When you’re out here, you’re learning in a real place, not a fake place,” Honig said while standing on a boardwalk and bridge over a shallow, emerald pool surrounded by white cedars. “It’s just so rich.”

Coronavirus restrictions forced both Ridges employees to rethink the way they taught students and entertained and guided visitors at the sanctuary, 8166 Hwy 57 in Baileys Harbor.

Honig, who was “retired” and holds several advanced early-childhood-education degrees, serves as the environmental educator for The Ridges, its Dragonfly Nature Preschool and Gibraltar School District – a job she considers the holy grail of her career. Foster, The Ridges’ environmental interpreter, has spent most of her two years in her position adjusting to coronavirus protocols.

In January 2020, two months before pandemic rules halted in-person learning at schools, Foster had just helped Honig expand Gibraltar’s monthly Forest Days classes from K-3 to include fourth, fifth and sixth grades. Then they had to shift gears. Working from home in March, April and May, they made videos with their cell phones, showing students what they could learn in their own backyards or nearby parks. Honig shot videos in her eight acres of boreal (mostly evergreen) forest near Rowleys Bay, and Foster made videos from her home near the mixed coniferous and deciduous forest near Mink River Estuary. 

“We still wanted to provide families [with] a way to enjoy nature outside at home, and we came up with the concept of At Home in Nature,” Honig said. “Twice a week on Facebook, we would post activities that people could do at home during the pandemic. It was a nice chance for students to see how their habitats differed from the school forest,” Honig said, referring to Peninsula State Park land adjacent to the Gibraltar School campus.

But videos were not a suitable substitute for guided hikes for the public or in-person nature lessons for schoolchildren.

Avoiding Classrooms

As pandemic protocols eased, 90-minute Forest Days classes at Gibraltar and two-hour preschool classes at The Ridges Sanctuary remained outside for social distancing. 

“Before the pandemic, we would go inside the cabins near the Upper Range Light sometimes and do art and other activities,” Foster said. “We actually discovered it’s so much easier to be 100% outside, and it’s so much better for the kids. We still don’t use the cabins for anything, and we don’t really plan to unless we need to.”

In fact, Honig plans to keep those two-hour classes outside forever.

“If the wind chill is below zero, we have to cancel,” she said. “Other than that, we have three-year-olds who are dressed correctly, and they are fine for the whole time.”

Learning natural science from a book generally does not “stick” as well as learning about it outdoors.

“One of the things we try to do, whether with children or adults, is to create a story,” Foster said. “Stories are what connects people to nature.”

The students and visitors to The Ridges during the late summer and in September could see monarch and mourning cloak butterflies and learn about their different ways of dealing with winter. With the butterflies present or hatching from chrysalises, it’s easier to teach a lasting lesson that monarchs migrate to central Mexico, and mourning cloaks prepare to hibernate in tree bark.

Learning about butterflies and the plants they rely on also encourages people to protect or enhance habitats, and to tell others about what they’ve learned.

“It’s all about creating an ethic of care for the land,” Foster said.

And often that means leaving things alone.

“We teach how we leave logs in the forest because they become nurse logs, and they grow new life. We look for deer beds, and we look for tracks in the forest,” Honig said.

The school programming, beyond science and nature lessons, includes mathematical concepts such as estimating, counting, comparing and measuring.

“When you’re out in the real forest and not sitting at a desk, you’re better able to learn and use science vocabulary, and use and understand science concepts,” Honig said, “and that’s so crucial for them later – being able to read and comprehend text about those things. They fall in love with nature when they’re out here, and that connection with nature makes it easier to learn more technical things when they’re older.”

In addition to lessons, Honig gives students 10 minutes to find a spot in the woods where they can sit by themselves to draw, read or do nothing. Many have told her they loved having time to sit, think and relax.

“They’re happier outside,” Honig said. “They’re not ‘hyper happy’; they’re ‘calm happy.’”

New Course for Hikers

When the coronavirus caused The Ridges Sanctuary to limit the number of people on hikes to 12 and cut back the number of students attending summer camp in 2020, Foster and the organization added more programs, and staff members enhanced The Ridges’ online presence.

As demand grew for outdoor activities, The Ridges responded, adding night hikes every other Friday, starting on the nature center’s boardwalk. Hikers receive flashlights and stay on level ground or the boardwalk as they make their way into and up inside the historical Upper Range Light. They also stop at the beach to do some stargazing along the way.

“The sanctuary is open from dawn to dusk, so it’s a chance for people to experience the sanctuary when they otherwise couldn’t,” Foster said.

Program guides, a blooming calendar and a complete list of guided hikes – including Friday-night outings, daily 10-kilometer hikes on rustic trails and boardwalks, walks on remote ridges and past ancient swales, geology excursions to see fossils and geologic wonders at Apfels Bluff, and Logan Creek sanctuary hikes – are all available at