Coloma Outdoor Discovery School, Day 1

American River, Coloma CA

Fourth Grade seems to be the time when the schoolwork starts getting serious:  the colorful carpets are gone, the cute room decorations are kept to a minimum, the books and binders come out more frequently than the crayons and glue.  Fortunately, the big kids still get to play: Fourth Graders at our school get to take a 3-day field trip to Gold Rush country as part of their California history unit.  The Coloma field trip is something every kid looks forward to (those with older siblings wait for this trip for years!). The Pea went to Coloma 3 years ago; this year, it was 3Po's and Jammy's turn -- and mine as well.  I was chosen as a parent chaperone, so I got to experience the whole thing!

The fun started early on Wednesday morning (much earlier than usual due to all the excitement).  Two tour buses were parked in the school's parking lot, and the whole area was a scene of organized chaos.  Kids were running around, comparing backpacks and sleeping bags, throwing their luggage into the buses, posing for photos.  Parents were snapping photos, giving their kids last minute instructions (of course the kids weren't listening), and sighing about how time has flown.  Teachers were collecting medications and counting heads.
Coloma, CA field trip

We finally got underway at about 8:00am, and it took us just over 3 hours to reach Coloma.  Kids spent the journey watching movies, while grownups spent the journey on their phones, desperately clinging on to the last reliable internet connections they would have for the next 3 days.  Once I lost all the signal bars on my phone, I knew we had entered Gold Rush country.

The Coloma Outdoor Discovery School (CODS) is located in the heart of Coloma, on the banks of the South Fork American River, right across the river from Marshall Gold Discovery State Park.  The campus consists of two rows of dormitories, a couple of tented gathering areas, a tented dining hall, several tented classrooms, an outdoor campfire area, and a playground.
Coloma, CA field trip

After lunch, the students were divided into "Towns", or groups, of 12-15 students.  Each town was given a name -- Salmon Falls, Dry Diggings, Chili Bar, Flea Valley, and so on -- and assigned to a CODS naturalist who would serve as their teacher and leader for 3 days.  The kids marched off with their leaders to begin learning about life during the Gold Rush, while the parent chaperones gathered for a detailed orientation.  Each of us was assigned to a town (mine was Flea Valley) along with another, opposite gender parent.  I was in charge of all the girls in the town, and my partner, John, was in charge of all the boys.  Chaperones and their charges are assigned to the same dorm, so for the next 3 days, these 6 girls were my kids, and I was in charge of them day and night.
Coloma, CA field trip

Once the camp leader had explained our responsibilities (keeping order, assisting our town leader, accompanying kids to the restroom, supervising the playground during free time, etc...) and given us a tour of the camp, we joined our town in their outdoor classroom.  Our town leader, River Otter Owen, was helping the kids sew together a leather pouch that would serve as their name tags and gold vial holder.  Each person was asked to come up with a Gold Rush-themed nickname for themselves (River Otter Owen, Miner Mike, Calico Cathy, Pickaxe Pete, etc.... I was Ana Bandana!) and write their name on their pouch.

River Otter Owen  also introduced the concept of the Respect Bead.  Each child could earn a red bead of respect to string on their pouch, by doing a kind act or showing respect for their friends, their teachers or the environment -- but a grownup could also take the bead away if that kid showed a lack of respect by talking out of turn, pushing, shoving, etc... It sounds lame, but it really worked!  I was surprised at how proud the kids were to earn that plastic red bead and how hard they worked to gain it back if they lost it.
Coloma, CA field trip

Our town spent the rest of the afternoon trying out some of the survival skills that miners had to learn as they mined for gold and camped out during the Gold Rush -- pitching a tent, washing dirty clothes, bartering for goods, lighting a fire, making cornbread in a Dutch Oven.  Highlight of the afternoon:  getting to eat the cornbread they made, using their bandanas as plates!

Next up was a school-wide gathering in the outdoor campfire area.  Each town leader came up to the front and introduced their towns.  Each town had come up with a town cheer, and it was fun to hear what everyone else's cheer: (i.e. Chili Bar: Chili Chili Bang Bang! / Flea Valley:  Scratch my back and don't talk smack! / Salmon Falls: Gold Diggers!).  The leaders also introduced all the parent chaperones and all the teachers, and did a brief run-through of the evening's event schedule.
Coloma, CA field trip

After introductions, everyone walked back to the dining hall for dinner.  Each town sat at their own table, and tables were called one by one to come up and fill their plates. Food was served cafeteria style, and everyone was encouraged to finish everything on their plate. All leftovers were scraped into a bucket, and the bucket was weighed at the end of every meal.  Towns with zero leftovers for the meal received a star on a tally board.  Since tacos were on the menu that night, there weren't many leftovers!

Once kids had finished eating, they had some free time to shoot some hoops, run around on the playground, play quiet games, or pan for gold.  One town was assigned KP -- Kitchen Privilege -- duty, so before they could play, they had to load the dish racks, wipe down the tables, and sweep the floor. We (Salmon Falls) got KP duty that first night, and the kids actually loved it (especially since the town assigned to KP duty gets to eat first!).
Coloma, CA field trip

After free time, the fourth grade teachers gathered their kids for an end-of-day debriefing.  This was also the parent chaperone's free time, and we took full advantage of it, taking a hot shower, lounging on the chairs in front of our dorms, comparing notes with other parents, and wandering around in search of that elusive internet connection.  All too soon, our free time ended and we joined the kids for a hoedown.  A trio called Slim Pickins -- banjo, fiddle and guitar -- provided some lively music, and kids learned to dance the Circle Dance and the Virginia Reel.  I couldn't believe how much fun the kids had!  Every single one of them wanted to get up and dance.
Coloma, CA field trip

After the hoedown, everyone walked to the outdoor campfire area for a late-night campfire.  The kids sang songs, acted out silly skits, and said good night to the moon.  It was a great way to wind down after all that dancing -- but it still wasn't enough to tire the kids out!  The excitement of being at a slumber party with all their friends from school won out over exhaustion, and the parent chaperones had to work pretty hard to get everyone to change into their pajamas, brush their teeth, and calm down.   Help came in the form of the fourth grade teachers, who stopped by each dorm to deliver the letters that parents had written to their kids.  The girls began to quiet down, and finally, after much whispering, a few shushes and a few threats to take away red beads, everyone drifted off to sleep and Day 1 was done.
Coloma, CA field trip

You may or may not have noticed one thing missing in this post:  interaction with my sons.  Since I was a female chaperone, I was assigned to a girls' dorm.  3Po and Jammy were assigned to different towns, neither of which were mine, so I hardly got to see them all day.  I caught glimpses of them at the dining hall and on the playground, but our experiences were largely separate -- and I actually wanted it that way.  I didn't want to deprive them of the opportunity find some independence and enjoy their field trip without mommy hovering over them.  But I couldn't resist sneaking over to each of them during the Hoedown to snap a selfie, or knocking on their dorms before bedtime to give them a good night kiss.  There's only so much freedom a mother can take!
Coloma, CA field trip

All that fun and learning, and I've only covered Day 1 of our adventures!  Stay tuned for Day 2 of our Coloma Outdoor Discovery School  field trip!

Read the complete series:
Coloma Outdoor Discovery School, Day 1
Coloma Outdoor Discovery School, Day 2
Coloma Outdoor Discovery School, Day 3
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