Take a Hike! - Venturing Beyond the Four Walls of the Classroom

9 Dec 2023 10:16 AM | Paige Jennings (Administrator)

By Miles Groth6th Grade Mountain Academy of Arts & Sciences at Ute Pass Elementary, Finalist for Colorado Teacher of the Year 

It’s around 9:00 AM in late September and our bus full of sixth-graders pulls through a grove of aspens that are just starting to turn their golden yellow. Shortly after, we are unloading our packs, adjusting straps, and starting the hike to our campsite. This is day one of the same backpacking trip that I’ve been leading for eight years.

When I tell people that I take middle schoolers camping and backpacking, the response is either “you’re crazy” or “that’s amazing!” I am wholeheartedly on the side of “that’s amazing!” It is incredible for me, my students, and the classroom culture and the only way I can imagine starting the school year.  It is an opportunity for me to connect with students in ways that traditional classrooms do not allow for. Students are challenged and grow physically, emotionally, and academically.

Throughout the year, we are able to provide our sixth graders with over twenty field experiences connected to our curriculum and learning. This includes caving, hiking, camping, bird-banding, a visit to a fish hatchery, exploration of local creeks and trails, and classes around the school property; all experiences middle schoolers should have. 

The benefits of a short hike or camping trip with are too numerous to count: 

Screen Time: As teachers, we all see the challenges that social media and screens bring to our lives and our students’ lives. According to the Center for Disease Control, children aged 11-14, spend an average of 9 hours in front of a screen per day!  There is a collective sigh of relief from both teachers and students each time we step outside and step away from technology.  Students connect to the world around them and with each other.  All too often, we are communicating through texts or social media rather than face to face. Each time we hike, I get to spend time talking with my students about the things that really matter to them and what is going on in their lives.  We have the opportunity to connect in a much deeper way than we are able to in the classroom, and they extend this connection with peers.

Social-emotional learning: We can work on social-emotional skills in class with  lessons on self-awareness and self-control, but having to work together as a team to support each other during a challenging hike gives students the opportunity to practice those skills.  During that first backpacking trip of the year, my students supported each other in countless ways.  Each group of students that arrive at the campsite cheer on the next group before the relief of taking off their packs.  Even though there are plenty of complaints, these moments build confidence and resiliency that translate into classroom successes and a strong bond as a team.

Health Benefits: When I’m feeling overwhelmed by the many stressors of being an  educator or parent, I hop on my mountain bike and instantly feel a load lifted off of my shoulders.  Many students have not yet learned or had the opportunity to experience  that nature and exercise can serve as natural stress relief.  Unfortunately, many children have fairly sedentary lifestyles and do not have enough opportunities to explore and play outdoors.  Through regularly providing opportunities to hike and explore, children’s physical and mental health is positively impacted with the hope of building lifelong habits.  Regular exercise enhances memory, attention, and problem-solving skills.

During a November 2023 hike from school, we had to take a detour through a steep section of trail.  “You can do PT in the gym all day, but when you’re on trails with uneven surfaces, crossing water - (people) develop incredible balance and coordination with all this” (Wilson, 2022). This hike is something the class is still talking about as their favorite trip this year.  Students were pushed out of their comfort zone descending rocky areas and benefited from these challenges.

Creating Environmental Stewards: Our world needs children who care deeply for  the world around them.  The only way for this to happen is if these children learn to love and appreciate the joys and beauty of the outdoors.  Each year, we raise rainbow trout in our classroom starting with eggs before releasing them in May as part of Trout Unlimited’s Trout in the Classroom program.  These experiences lead to increased connections to nature as nature becomes the classroom.  The time spent outside fosters a sense of wonder and curiosity in each student.  When they release our trout into a local creek after taking care of them daily, they have already committed themselves to a lifetime of being stewards for their local waters and the environment as a whole.

Academic performance: When I share these experiences with other educators, there are often questions about academics. These experiences build 21st century skills and leadership qualities that just cannot be taught inside a classroom.  I’ve noticed significantly fewer behaviors because students are invested in their learning.  They want to come to school each and every day, and truly care about what they are learning.  Year after year, our students have shown significant growth and achievement in state and district assessments.

Implementation: There are challenges in bringing hiking and field experiences into schools.  However, we started small and have added more opportunities each year.  The cost of each experience is covered through a small parent contribution, grants, fundraising, and by finding low-cost trips (hikes from school are free!).

Start with a short hike, take in the many benefits, and bring others on board as you try more!  By taking the classroom outside, we can provide a platform for experiential learning, physical activity, and personal growth. The benefits extend far beyond academic achievement, shaping future leaders and environmental stewards!

Miles Groth started the 6th Grade Mountain Academy of Arts & Sciences at Ute Pass Elementary (only public school to earn Leave No Trace Youth Program accreditation) in 2014 with a focus on environmental learning and outdoor education. Mr. Groth is a Colorado Certified Environmental Educator and a 2024 Colorado Teacher of the Year Finalist.


Wilson, Ruth. “Naturally Inclusive: Engaging Children of All Abilities Outdoors”. Lewisville, NC: Gryphon House, Inc. 2022.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Infographics - Screen Time vs. Lean Time.” Cdc.gov, 29 Jan. 2018, www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpao/multimedia/infographics/getmoving.html. Accessed 29 Nov. 2023.

Colorado Association of Middle Level Education

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