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River Adventure Program challenges kids to learn about nature and themselves

Posted on 24 March 2020 by Tesha Christensen

Adventuring outdoors


The Winter River Adventure Challenge introduces fourth graders to five different outdoor stations set up at Fort Snelling State Park. Each station offers a blend of simple orienteering activities, recreation, and nature awareness. David Kappelhoff, Mississippi Park Connect Education Coordinator, said, “So many people in Minnesota complain and stay indoors all winter! This program is teaching students that they can enjoy cold weather. This positive connection to winter early-on creates an adaptive mindset and builds confidence.” (Photo by Margie O’Loughlin)

Winter River Adventure Challenge is a new field trip being piloted at Fort Snelling State Park for Minneapolis and St. Paul Public School students. It is a collaboration between the National Park Service (NPS) and their non-profit partner, Mississippi Park Connection.
The program is designed to introduce fourth grade students to basic orienteering skills and, as a side benefit, meets some of the geography standards for that grade level. It also gives students a chance to have a blast outside in winter – working together in teams while enjoying the natural surroundings along the Mississippi River.
Seven different Twin Cities Title I Schools participated in this year’s Winter River, for a total of 11 different visits. A Title I school is one where at least 40% of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
The Winter River Adventure Challenge begins in the classroom, before anybody sets foot outdoors. NPS River Educators visit each classroom to help students prepare well in advance for their field trip.
David Kappelhoff is the education coordinator for Mississippi Park Connection. He said, “A lot happens on the sides of this program. Students get to see what it means to be in a more natural and wooded area during winter. Students walk between the five stations that are set up for them to explore. Each station offers a blend of simple orienteering activities, recreation and nature awareness.
“They might see signs of wildlife like an eagle’s nest or animal tracks in the snow while they’re walking. Someone in the park might have built a snow shelter, or a cross country skier might pass by. Even experiencing an outdoor satellite bathroom can be a memorable experience.”

Taking ownership, feeling
Before their field trip, students learn that they will be staying outdoors for two and one-half hours. One of the goals of this program is to help students prepare for winter activities by learning to dress properly. River Educators introduce the idea of dressing in layers to stay warm outdoors.
Students are encouraged to inventory what winter clothing they already have – and then to work with teachers, families, neighbors, and friends to get the rest. The program has a small collection of boots, mittens, hats, and coats that can be borrowed if a student arrives inadequately dressed on the day of their field trip. REI has donated to this collection, as has Wilderness Inquiry (another programming partner), and Bogs Footwear.
“Students start to formulate new questions and ideas about what it means to be outdoors in winter. They prove to themselves that they can have fun, if they come well-prepared. They learn to take ownership for their own warmth – and they can feel successful for having prepared themselves for the cold.”
During the classroom visit, students are introduced to different kinds of maps. They are shown a map of Fort Snelling State Park, and start to identify basic map symbols they would not see on a mobile phone map app. Students are encouraged to start thinking about maps and symbols, and to connect them to their physical surroundings.
They are also introduced to the National Park Service arrowhead symbol, which they will see again on their field trip day. Fort Snelling State Park is included in the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. This area protects a 72-mile corridor along the Mississippi River including the section that flows through the Twin Cities.

Three options for students
Winter River Adventure Challenge is funded by a grant from the National Park Foundation through its Open Outdoors for Kids initiative. It is also supported by staff at Fort Snelling State Park, and has direct staffing help from Wilderness Inquiry, NPS rangers, NPS River Educators, and NPS volunteers. To learn more about volunteering for this program, email NPS Volunteer Coordinator Paula Swingley at
Winter River is one part of a three-part program designed to get urban students outdoors – and into the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area – over the course of a typical school year. Working River takes place in autumn, and introduces students to the historic St. Anthony Falls area. Living River takes place in the spring. Aboard a riverboat, students learn how the Mississippi River plays host to a unique eco-system for fish and mussels.
Educators interested in scheduling any of these three river programs can contact David Kappelhoff at

Every Kid Outdoors
• Fourth graders are eligible for a free National Park Pass through a federally funded program called Every Kid Outdoors.
• The voucher program grants free entry for fourth graders, all children under 16 in their group, and up to three accompanying adults to most federally managed lands and waters.
• The pass does not cover expanded amenity fees such as camping or boat rides. For more information, go to