'I found a baby slug!'

Hayden Brooke was calmly eating from his yellow lunch box Monday when he saw something slither across it.

"You guys!" the 10-year-old yelled excitedly to his Bellview Elementary School classmates. "I found a baby slug!"

That sense of wonder at the natural world is exactly what the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy is hoping to cultivate through its outdoor classroom, where Hayden's fifth-grade class spent the afternoon.

"They're learning to appreciate the beauty of nature and apply what they've learned in the classroom about science to the outdoors," said volunteer Sooney Viani.

Over the next two weeks, more than 200 local fourth- and fifth-grade students will learn in the outdoor classroom, in Ashland's Oredson-Todd Woods, off Tolman Creek Road.

After taking a short hike to see a waterfall, Bellview teacher Max Schmeling's students ate lunch in the forest and drew pictures of the leaves, trees and slugs around them.

"I always look for opportunities to teach them outside the classroom," he said. "You'd be surprised how many of them actually don't get out that much."

After lunch, the 22 students divided into three groups to learn about rock formations, the forest canopy and invertebrates in Clay Creek.

"It's important to know all of your neighbors," instructor Kristi Mergenthaler, a conservancy land steward, told the children. "Even your really, really tall neighbors like Douglas firs."

The "Loving the Land" program, which is sponsored by the Oregon Community Foundation and Rogue Valley Audubon Society, is designed to teach students about conservation and science, using a hands-on approach. Students don rubber boots to wade through the creek and use binoculars to spot gray squirrels hiding in treetops.

The no-cost program, which is in its fifth year, also helps struggling school districts that have slashed funding for field trips, Schmeling said.

"With all the cutbacks that have happened here, there's hardly any money to get even buses for these things," he said. "That's part of the reason why we walked."

Schmeling's students said they appreciated the chance to step outside the classroom and study birds, trees and insects with their own eyes.

"It was cool when (Viani) called the birds and a whole bunch of birds started chirping, like 'wheep, wheep!' " said Vance Patterson, 11.

Kaelin Rodriguez, 11, said she liked being away from the hustle and bustle of the playground during lunchtime.

"It's quiet here, which is nice," she said. "You can hear the birds calling each other."

Katya Gustafson, 10, said she was just glad to be out of the classroom for the afternoon.

"I just think that hiking and being outside is better than sitting down all day," she said.

Meanwhile, Hayden had successfully prevented the wildlife from munching on his lunch. But before transporting the miniature slug onto a leaf, he snapped a photo.

"This is something you don't see every day," he said.

Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-708-1158 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.

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