Hollis Primary School students learn about animals while snowshoeing

HOLLIS – The children have barely begun to line up along the fence when the excited chorus starts.

“I see tracks. Two sets.”

“I think this is a deer.”

“These look like a skunk.”

It’s just past noon on a sunny winter day, and some second-graders at Hollis Primary School have donned snowshoes to explore the eco trails in the school’s backyard with environmental sciences teacher Nicole Tomaselli. It has been too cold for the early morning classes to venture out, but this group are seasoned detectives when it comes to looking for evidence of wild animals. I was invited to join in on the outdoor adventure.

“Animals and their habitats and seasonal change is an important part of the K-2 science curriculum,” Tomaselli explained. “We revisit the same nurse log, a tree that has fallen and decayed. We look for seasonal change and look for animals trying to survive. Sometimes, we see some awesome tracks and try to make a story about it, try to figure out who is the predator or prey. Last year, we saw blood on some tracks and they were so excited about it.”

Tomaselli is in her fourth year of teaching environmental science at HPS. She sees each class in the school once a week for a 45-minute period. Throughout the year, she teaches units about animals, insects, migration and gardening, and champions the recycling efforts in the building. The eco trails adjacent to the school are a valuable resource, and she tries to use the natural classroom whenever possible.

Getting the snowshoes was the result of a lucky tip and a mild winter. Three years ago, when there wasn’t much snowfall, a friend of hers mentioned a clearance sale on snowshoes at L. L. Bean. Tomaselli was able to negotiate a discount on the already-reduced price, and through a combination of funds in the science budget and money donated by the PTA, she was able to purchase enough snowshoes for an entire class to venture out. She also bought several adult pairs, as parents often volunteer to join the class on these excursions.

Some students need assistance getting their snowshoes on, mostly to adjust the straps so they aren’t too loose. After lining up along the playground fence, Tomaselli leads us on the trail.

Everyone has been given laminated pocket cards to help identify tracks in the snow. The animals are divided into groups of walkers and hoppers, with sketches of their unique prints. Tomaselli reviews how each group moves, whether their steps are staggered left-right-left-right like a dog or whether they alternate moving both front and both back paws like a rabbit. These patterns, as well as shape and depth of the prints, are useful clues in identifying the visitor.

At one point on the trail, there is a tree stump with a thin layer of snow, and some perfect prints to examine. The children are excited for the opportunity to look at them up close, without venturing off the path or disturbing the prints. The animal that went across the stump was definitely a walker, and the prints look a lot like dog or fox.

“Animals use these logs to make holes and hide food,” said Yoel Olguin in response to a question on the importance of the stumps to the ecosystem.

Just as there was the last time the class was on the trail, there is a long, straight shot of tracks from the road heading down to the river. Tomaselli questions why that might be and the rapid responses make it clear that this group has been paying attention to the lessons on living things needing water and food to survive. Based on the pacing, depth and shape, the group concurs that these tracks were made by deer.

Portions of the HPS eco trail have been created or maintained by Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Some Eagle Scout projects have included building benches and a bridge across a small waterway.

“I try to point out to the younger kids that these were built by high schoolers,” Tomaselli said. “That way, they can look up to the older kids and maybe think about doing trail maintenance when they get older.”

The teacher is very safety-conscious as the class crosses the bridge, making sure that they go single file and leave plenty of space between one another to avoid any sort of contact, accidental or deliberate. I am at the end of the group, and as I cross the bridge, the “Following the Leader” song from “Peter Pan” pops into my head, but I resist the temptation to draw attention to myself by singing.

I do inadvertently become the class clown just a few minutes later when we decide it’s class picture time. The group has gathered in front of some pretty trees, the sun is just right, and all I have to do is position myself a little further away to fit everyone in the frame. Alas, I discover the hard way that you cannot walk backwards in snowshoes. At least I have lots of laughing and smiling faces as I snap my photo while sprawled out on the snow! I decline the offers for help, figure out how to stand back up, and dust myself off and continue on the trail.

We are close to the end of the trail, and almost out of time before the bell rings. Tomaselli encourages the children to pick up the pace and dash across the field. They may choose between the regular path or go through the deeper snow on the side.

As we head back, I chat with several students regarding the experience. They all agree that snowshoeing on the trails is a lot of fun.

“We found lots of animal tracks,” said Vianca Elyza-Bolduc. “I like snowshoeing and seeing what animals are there.”

Lawson Riddell said he really enjoys crossing the field at the end. He has his own snowshoes at home, and said he finds it easier to snowshoe when the snow is deep.

Before we know it, we’re back to the playground area and have to remove our snowshoes before going on the pavement and back inside the building. The children return their laminated cards to the basket and help band together their snowshoes for next time.

“Every grade has different curriculum units that we do, but I try to get them outside as much as possible,” Tomaselli said. “It’s great to use up that energy, and we talk about gear, too. If they had fun, maybe they’ll ask for snowshoes instead of an iPad.”