What can be found in the great outdoors that cannot be found in the class room? What mysteries cannot be contained between 4 walls? Today I want to introduce myself, and my husband, Lauren and Kris , photographers at Sea and Rhythm Photography. We are adventure nomads, free spirits and enamored by the idea of providing our kids an experience that will slingshot their imagination and boost their creativity byfree schooling.

We have three children, all of which are girls. Skyley is our oldest – 8, Saylor our second – 4, and Searsha the youngest – 2. Recently, we moved from Dallas, Tx to Anchorage, Ak. Since moving to Alaska we have quickly noticed the immense beauty that lay right outside our front door. We have tried to spend every possible waking moment soaking in the Alaska wilderness and all of the adventure it holds. The more we explore, the more we find out that the outdoors is  one of the best places to educate our children.

Education and Hiking


If we had to pick 3 of our greatest hiking adventures that not only encouraged learning but also enticed fun we would have to list our winter hike to portage glacier over a frozen lake, our Winner Creek Trail hike (hand tram over a gorge and a bear!), and our short hike to an unfortunately beached whale along the Cook Inlet near Anchorage.

Freezing Water, Glaciers and Calving

The Portage Glacier (near Whittier, Ak) was our first winter hiking trip since moving to Alaska from Texas earlier in the year. We dressed as warm as we thought necessary but very quickly realized that we were not dressed warm enough! It was cold… Very cold. And this was our first educational experience for our kids: we can always be warmer!

While hiking across the frozen lake, Skyley (the oldest) had fought for skis so this was not only a winter hike across a vast frozen lake but also her first attempt at cross country skiing. Perhaps our most trying educational lesson to our girls came when they hurried us over to an inch wide crack in the lake that spanned from lake edge to lake edge. We quickly explained why we were still safe, that the lake is frozen, and that the ice beneath us stretched well beyond 5 feet in depth, especially in the Icey 10 degree weather. Their nerves where calmed as  they learned about how cold water needs to be to become frozen.

After we made the trek on the lake to the glacier we sat about 200 feet away from the glacial edge in case it calved. We explained to the girls that calving is a natural reaction caused by the glacier expanding and portions will break off into the lake. They were in awe by the sheer size of the glacier and began asking questions about it, ‘why is it so blue?’, ‘how old is it’, and ‘will we die if it calved?’ Needless to say the amount of curiosity and inquisitiveness on their part was very welcoming. They came away from the experience knowing quite a bit about glaciers.

This adventure proved to be a very rewarding and educational experience for our children. It’s not every day that you can hike (or ski) across a frozen lake to witness a glacier that may or may not be there in 50 or so years.


Teaching about Life and Death

Another educational hike came to fruition due to an unfortunate event. A young Humpback whale washed ashore Kincaid Park in Anchorage. Initially we had decided, after hearing the news, not to take our children to see the whale. We thought that they were not going to be ready for this harsh reality of nature. In the end we were very glad that we decided to go on the hike. It turned out to be an excellent yet hard lesson about life and death.

After hiking the short mile from the parking lot to the shore we came upon the whale carcass. Still fresh, we managed to walk all the way around the whale to take in the sheer scope and size of this mammal. We taught the girls the difference between mammals and the fish in the sea.

They learnt about their migration paths and the magnitude of distance that this particular creature had made from the warm waters near Hawaii to the fish filled waters further up the coast from where he now lay.

We had to explain how the circle of life works, explaining that now this whale will feed the animals who live near the beach. They learnt that the whale will soon become food for the  bears, wolves and their babies. We talked about how eventually the tide would rise and pull the whale back out to sea where it would rest on the ocean floor.

Learning about the circle of life was a truly humbling experience for them. It was Skyley, our oldest, who compared our explanation of the whale’s death, and the circle of life to the current fall season. With leaves all around us changing from their vibrant greens to differing colors of reds, yellows, and oranges. They too would die and fall to the ground.

Berries, Trees and Black Bears

Lastly, one of our more adventurous hikes began near Girdwood, Alaska. It was on this hike that our girls first experienced an up close and personal encounter with a black bear. The daunting 5 mile round trip hike ahead of us began on a muddy, rainy afternoon. We ventured through thick, over grown paths full of fresh raspberries and lumbering trees. The girls learnt about the varying species of trees including white spruce, birch, and black spruce among the forest.

We stopped frequently to let the girls handle funny looking rocks and weirdly shaped leaves. They ooo’d and awe’d at the different creeks we passed. They even built up the courage to pass over a ravine that housed a very large and loud thrashing river beneath.

At the turn around point we crossed another ravine by a hand tram. This was a heart pounding thrill that the girls did not expect. The hand tram consisted of a small metal cage and pulley system that required them to garner all of their courage to get into and pull themselves across (we did most of the pulling). They quickly learned how the tram worked and how they could use each one’s strength to pull each other across faster. They learned how to be a team that day, and how to swallow their fear.

It was on our way back that we encountered our friend, the black bear. We were hiking back to our car, still full of adrenaline from the recent hand tram experience and heard a rustling up ahead. At first we thought it was a small squirrel… we were wrong! As we passed the rustling, we looked to our left and saw a juvenile black bear scurry up a tree, all while starring at us. We made eye contact with the bear and heard it hiss like a cat! We had no idea that bears hissed! While  we carried bear spray because a bear encounter is always a possibility on a hike we did not expect to meet one! Learning how to stay calm and move away from the bear safely was an educational experience for us all!

All of these adventures and educational experiences are things that will not only live on in our mind and memories but our children’s as well. There is so much in nature to find, explore and learn. We grew as a family, we learned together and we became enamored by the beauty that is nature.  Step outside with your family and find these adventures and educational experiences. They are sponges looking for every opportunity to soak up these experiences and for nature itself. You will grow as a family if you learn as a family.

Kris + Lauren Penland are family + newborn storytellers, photography educators, photography podcast hosts, and Offset artists living and adventuring in Alaska with their 3 daughters. They have a passion for documenting their family and inspiring others to do the same.



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2 thoughts on “Outdoor education: 3 Incredible Free Schooling Lessons”

  1. Very inspiring and a beautifully written account of outdoor adventures with the family. Thank you for this article 🙂

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