The great outdoors

Great Basin Outdoor School shows kids a new kind of classroom

Naturalist Rebecca “Pepper” Brown leads some Great Basin Outdoor School participants in a sensory activity at Spooner Lake.

Naturalist Rebecca “Pepper” Brown leads some Great Basin Outdoor School participants in a sensory activity at Spooner Lake.

photo by kat Kerlin

The Great Basin Outdoor School can be reached by calling 849-1890, emailing, or visiting

“Hey guys, doesn’t this remind you of Narnia?” a sixth grade boy asks a group of his classmates. They’re on a trail circling Spooner Lake near Lake Tahoe. Aspen, fir and pine trees line the path. The sounds of birds—some chirping, some squawking—float above them. Soon, they’ll sit in a meadow, look at the lake, turn around and try to remember everything they just saw. Some of their answers: Rocks. Kids. Grass. Geese. Waves. A beautiful horizon and knocked over dead trees.

They’re learning about their senses, among other things. They’ll soon close their eyes and report what they hear. They’ll investigate a tree blindfolded. They’ll taste sagebrush and a Jeffrey pine needle that “tastes like Christmas.”

The students are from Alice Maxwell Elementary School in Sparks, and they’re here as part of a four-day camp with the nonprofit Great Basin Outdoor School. About 60 sixth graders are attending this four-day session, one of six weekly sessions held this spring for a variety of schools. The camp costs $195 per child, an amount obtained through school and parent fundraising, donations and grants.

GBOS is geared toward fifth and sixth graders, with camps offered in the winter, spring and fall. Any school, be it public or private, from any county is welcome, although GBOS tends to receive most of its students from the Washoe County School District. Math, language and science are incorporated into hands-on activities. After all, these count as school days for the kids—except school begins when the kids wake up at Camp Galilee, on the shores of Lake Tahoe, at 7 a.m. and lasts until 9 p.m., with an astronomy lesson or night walk before bed.

“They’re getting twice as many hours of school here because it goes until bedtime,” says founder Sue Jacox, a retired teacher who started Great Basin Outdoor School 10 years ago.

“A lot of stuff we teach in the classroom, but they don’t get it,” says Alice Maxwell teacher Kathy Gage. Outside, she says, looking at the sky and the clouds, touching the grass and trees, the lessons make more sense.

Professional naturalists take them on hikes, play games, teach them about clouds, forestry, ecology and wildlife. Everyone has a “nature” name, like Sprout, Bumblebee, Crawdad and Brother Nature. “What I’m trying to do is basically teach through games and experiential education,” said naturalist Monique Monteverde. “Half the magic for them is just being out here. Some kids just learn better by touching and feeling.”

That may be especially true for children whose first language isn’t English, which is the case for many of the students at Alice Maxwell. Seventy-five percent of children at the school are at the poverty level, and for some, the three square meals each child gets at camp is a novelty in itself, says Jacox. And despite living 45 minutes away in Sparks, many have never seen Lake Tahoe, either.

“In regular school, where you sit at a desk, you just learn math and spelling and all that,” says student Levi Morehead. “Out here, you get to learn about wilderness and nature and all that stuff, and it’s really cool.”