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Benefits of Outdoor Education

Benefits of Outdoor Education

23 February, 2016

Outdoor Education or Outdoor School (ODS) is a three-day environmental education program for students in the sixth-grade. It’s the capstone to a year spent studying about our local ecosystems, northern climate systems, and cultural universals with an in-depth study of native peoples of the Arctic. ODS represents many firsts for our students: their first time away from home, their first time camping, and for this generation, it has also become their first experience without a digital connection, and therefore, their first experience being entirely responsible for their own entertainment.

Top Benefits of Outdoor Education

  1. It builds community.

ODS is all about community. From the homeroom groups traveling together on the bus, to the groups sharing cabins, to the field study groups that rotate through activities, students live and work in teams that they wouldn’t make on their own. We constantly hear from kids about making new friends at ODS, many of whom they’ve seen at school for years without knowing personally. ODS also allows parents to see kids in a different light. One of the staff’s big jobs is consistently telling the parent volunteers, “Let the kids do that. Just help keep the group focused. Don’t do it for them.” Parents come back seeing kids as way more capable than they would have believed without witnessing it first-hand.

  1. It raises expectations and standards.

Visitors to Outdoor School — often parents, administrators, and other teachers — are always surprised to see how heavily students are engaged with running the program. Students cook the food, wash the dishes, clean the lodge and sleeping areas, keep the site clean, and do service projects to leave the site better than we found it. And they do all of this while immersed in a field-science program that asks them to be multidisciplinary scientists drawing on prior knowledge to interact with a variety of environments, weather, and physical challenges of a mountain environment. During these three days, expectation is raised for student behavior and work. And because of the supportive community and the new, exciting setting, students consistently rise to these standards and expectations.

  1. It increases connection.

Watching a group of sixth-grade boys prepare a meal for other children is a wonderful experience. They get into the details about everything — silverware setting, enough plates, dinner prep timing. Who’s going outside to find fresh wildflowers for the table decorations? Did you wash your hands again? All of these become relevant and viable questions. As ODS progresses, students act on increasingly refined details of the experience. They want to give a better and more unique experience for each other. They’re connected to the process of being a community, and they feel increased connection to being part of it. By the end of the final field study, their sense of protection and preservation shows in the complex restoration plans that they’ve developed for the site.

  1. It builds culture.

Cultures share a common language, values, purpose, and connection to place as an essential expression of who they are. All of these things progress for a group of students in just three short days. We have cabin names, job titles, and place names on the site that only people from ODS would understand or recognize. Campfire time in the evening is a highlight of the day, and possibly the first time that many students have been truly responsible for their own entertainment without technology. Skits about “why skunk has a stripe” and “why salmon swim upstream” provide hilarious anecdotal insights into the learning they’re processing. Songs become things that fill free time or signal meals or bedtime. Ask a student about his or her ODS experience and be prepared for a long, complicated answer. Ask ten students and some themes will begin to arise about working hard, being outside, having fun, and great food experiences — all hallmarks of developed cultures.

  1. It develops positive feelings and memories around school and the outdoors.

At eighth-grade promotion, students are asked about their favorite middle-school experience in an open-ended survey question. Consistently, over 50 percent talk about Outdoor School as the high point of their middle school career. They can tell you the name of their cabin group, their role in a skit, their favorite song, and every detail about the weather their group had — and if they were a part of the famous snowstorm expedition! They’ll tell you about the best pancake they ever ate and the deer they saw during field study. They want to go back to ODS and ask every year why only sixth-grade students get to go (a great but logistically challenging question). And now, increasingly, we are getting high school students to come back and help, and those students will inform you all about their experience way back when they were in sixth grade.