Even as they counted down the final days to their summer vacation, the third-graders at Manchester Elementary School set out on a learning adventure.
About 70 students and a handful of third-grade teachers thundered down the grassy hill behind their building one morning last week and took a mowed path toward the wooded area that leads to Pine Valley Park.
They carried water bottles, an eye for poison ivy and, most importantly, a map featuring small, round stickers - their guide through the wilderness.
Their trek through the sun-dappled trees combined exercise with education. As the children hiked and panted up a zigzagging switchback trail and made their way through the lush green wilderness, they tried their hands at map reading.
The excursion gave them a chance to transfer skills learned in social studies to real life, said Betty Smith, a Manchester science teacher.
Smith said that even some teachers she's taken to the park have a difficult time orienting themselves.
"We get back to school, and they don't have a clue" how to get back to where they have been, Smith said.
Gina Roy, a third-grade reading teacher, agreed on the value of map skills.
"If you're not introduced to that early, it's very hard as an adult to regain that sense of proportion," Roy said, referring to the challenge of accurately gauging distances.
Last week, however, the third-graders seemed to find their sense of direction with fair ease.
Once they stopped at the spot marked by a red dot, Smith had the map rolled out for everyone to examine.
"It's kind of tricky when you look at a map," she said. "Where's the pond?"
Some hands pointed left, while others pointed behind them. To help them settle on the correct direction, the map was turned counterclockwise.
"Now point to the pond again," she said.
All hands pointed, correctly, to the left. But they were heading toward a green dot on the map, not the pond, Smith added, so where did the students think they needed to go?
Their fingers shifted, indicating the opposite direction.
"I am amazed," Smith said, smiling. "They're getting it."
But when they later stopped in a clearing to determine their next move, William Johnson, 9, wasn't so sure.
"Great - we're lost," William said.
"No, we're not," several of his peers replied. Sure enough, they quickly determined they needed to continue straight ahead to find the trail.
At the end of their journey, William said he enjoyed the hike, despite his doubts along the way.
"I'm not used to that whole trail thing," he said.
Still, the novelty of the "trail thing" is what many students said appealed to them.
"We get to see different kinds of flowers ... and different kinds of animals," Kielyn Bunce, 8, said.
For Brooke Pitta, the park provides a welcome contrast to her neighborhood.
"We don't have a lot of woods or stuff where you can go look at animals," Brooke, 8, said.
Their teachers said they also learn a thing or two.
"This is an adventure for me," Roy said.
Bonnie Lusby, a third-grade math teacher, said she had never seen the fish nests that dotted the pond's shallow bottom, which students pointed out after walking a couple trails.
Whatever they come away with, Smith said, she hopes her students realize they aren't limited to school visits.
"You can bring your parents here," she said, "and you can take them on hikes."