Boulder Valley School District

Hands on learning about nature abounds at Sombrero Marsh

Randy Barber

It is hard to believe that just a couple decades ago the beautiful marshland that sits behind the Boulder Valley School District headquarters on East Arapahoe Road was the dumping spot for discarded desks and trash from the district’s schools.

Students walk down to lake at Sombrero Marsh.“What is most amazing to me is that this used to be a dump, but now it is a living, thriving marsh,” said Lafayette Elementary parent Paul Martin, while accompanying his child during a field trip to Sombrero Marsh. “It was incredibly beautiful to stand up there, look across the mountains and see a white pelican glide across the sky with the snowy mountains in the background. That is as beautiful as it gets and it is right in the middle of the city.”

The crystal clear water and surrounding grassland, brimming with wildlife from birds to coyotes to bugs, is now the perfect place for school children to visit because of a ground breaking partnership formed in 2001. BVSD, Boulder Open Space and Thorne Nature Experience came together to clean up Sombrero Marsh and to turn into a environmental education center.

“The City of Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks purchased the 45 acres around Sombrero Marsh and with the money, BVSD built this center with the vision of providing environmental education through Thorne Nature Experience in this location. It is a really cool partnership between the three entities to connect our community’s youth to nature,” explained Thorne Nature Experience Education Programs Director Erin Saunders.

Annually, over the course of the school year, second-grade BVSD students are brought to the marsh where they have the opportunity to learn about everything from its restoration to its wildlife through hands on exploration, all taught by community volunteers.

Lafayette Elementary student Dzinuvi Nuku says his favorite part was the water lab. 

“We were looking for bugs and insects in the water and we found a few things. We found a snail,” Nuku said. “It is pretty cool. There are a lot of animals and you get to explore.”

“When education is joyful, hands-on, and place-based, kids enjoy learning and are better able to connect to the land that they are studying. These sorts of real-world experiences in nature are what stewardship values are born from,” Saunders explained.

“One of the things that they really latched onto was that this was a dump and that we would have been standing under eight or nine feet of garbage,” added Lafayette Elementary second-grade teacher Danielle Marshall. “The students learned that over time, this has gone from being an ocean during dinosaur times, to a swamp to a dump and then back to a swamp again and that you can fix things. I think that is the best message we can give to kids today. As grown ups sometimes we mess things up, but you guys have great ideas and look at what you can fix and do. You can make the world a better place. This means a lot to them.”

During the visit, knowledgeable guides with Thorne Nature Experience took the second-graders out into the marsh, allowing them to navigate using compasses, examine scat and net insects, all the while providing them with insight into the wildlife and habitats they’re exploring.

“It was really cool. I got to catch grasshoppers,” said Tristan Martin. “I was happy because I could explore nature and I learned that you can eat grasshoppers.”

Studies show that it is this type of authentic, hands-on learning that ‘sticks’ with students longer.

“As we know from the learning pyramid, we will remember 90 percent of what we do, but maybe only 10 percent of what we’re told. This is the perfect example of how they can take the concepts they’ve learned but anchor it and apply it to their real lives and apply it to all of the other units we’ve covered as well,” explained Marshall. “They will remember everything we did today, because it was so hands-on.”

Additionally, all of the activities during the field trip are tied to the state’s standards and the learning happening in BVSD’s second-grade classrooms.

“When Thorne wrote this curriculum, we sat down with second-grade teachers from Boulder Valley School District and asked them what they wanted in a nature-based field trip. The teachers helped design the programing in a way that they felt enhanced and enriched the learning already happening in the classroom,” Saunders said.

“This goes back to our mapping, this goes back to our weather, this goes back to our water cycle,” said Marshall, naming off units they’ve done this school year. “It is a nice way for them to see that what they’ve learned is applied in the real world, how you can have a job in the real world, which might go with it. How you might extend it to learn more. It just creates memories that they will remember.”

Additionally, she says the cross-curricular, tactile nature of the activities at Sombrero Marsh connect with students who don’t always thrive in the typical classroom.

Students and a teacher look at a grasshopper netted by one of the kids.“Two of my most challenged kids, behaviorally, were so very engaged and excited about it because they were successful,” Marshall said. “They can engage with the hands-on piece and realize that scientists have to write. They are more willing to go write about their results or what they learned.”

When the field trips began 15 years ago, Thorne started with fourth-graders -- but realized that those students had more environmental education opportunities than other grades. So they made a change a couple years ago.

“We decided to shift ages to equalize the opportunities for kids,” Saunders said. “There was less environmental education being offered at the early elementary years, so we switched to second grade.”

Additionally, they know there is benefit to reaching students sooner.

“The end goal for Thorne is developing earth stewardship,” Saunders explained. “There is a lot of research out there and what it all shows is that the thing that contributes the most to stewardship is creating an emotional connection to nature. That connection happens best when kids have time  to explore and follow their own curiosity about nature. The earlier children connect to nature, the more likely that is going to be part of their lives for a lifetime.”

Saunders says that this connection with nature is needed now more than ever.

Close up of a grasshopper caught by a student during a field trip to Sombrero Marsh“I imagine back to my childhood and it is really easy to recall memories of my favorite activities in nature. I was sent outside and told to ‘not come home until dinner time’ and it was during these moments that I had this entire imaginary world full of play that happened,” Saunders said. “In the past few decades, children’s access to that sort of frequent, unstructured nature play has become much less common than when we were kids. Influences such as overscheduled lives, parental fears, urbanization, and technology have had a profound impact on the amount of time children spend outdoors. In fact, studies have shown that American children now spend almost eight hours each day with electronic media versus barely 30 minutes per week in unstructured outdoor play.”

Thorne Nature Experience is working to provide opportunities for nature connection for our community’s youth through a number of programs, in addition to the second-grade field trips.  Become a volunteer leader for Field Trip programs and learn more about Thorne’s School Programs and Summer Camps, including Nature Kids in Lafayette at their website,


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