Outdoor Education on a very basic level is about developing learning experiences designed to enhance students’ knowledge and skills in natural settings. Although outdoor programs have always been an important part of our school, the question of how to deepen the quality of the experiences we provide is one that has recently led to many recurring debates and conversations among our staff team. Late last year, it was suggested that a focus on creating more opportunities for students to spend time immersed in the heart of the local backcountry might be a good way to help regenerate connections to nature that can be so easily severed in our technology-enhanced, production-driven urban environments.
This year, we expanded our Outdoor Education Electives program in order to attempt just that. With the goal of equipping students with the skills, understanding and awareness necessary to spend lengthier periods of time in the wilderness, we practiced tent/shelter set-up and take-down, thermo-regulation, backcountry cooking, packing, navigation and leave-no-trace principles. OE students were also held to high standards with respect to demonstrating leadership, initiative, organization and teamwork in order to earn the opportunity to participate in a final 3-day backcountry experience through Elk Pass. Although explicit outcomes for the OE elective were identified as: “the development of skills necessary to ensure safe and sustainable wilderness travel,” it was our ultimate hope that the experience might result in heightened social, cultural and environmental awareness and connection. We didn’t just want to travel safely in the backcountry, we wanted to reconnect with the heart of this place we live in and cultivate an appreciation for how everything belongs.
As an OE team we really tried to tread carefully, so to speak, as we prepared for and hiked Elk Pass this June with students. We were intentional about shifting our focus away from the destination to the moment and to things we too often grow accustomed to overlooking. The resulting student and teacher reflections were pretty powerful. Although there is always more work to do, this experience renewed my conviction that while there is something immeasurably important about providing opportunities for students to find themselves in the outdoors, it’s not just about getting kids outside. It is our approach to natural spaces and our motivations as we move through them that have the potential to create or bypass the conditions for truly thoughtful ecological experiences.
Skip to 7.00 min for student reflections
In the end, our society will be defined not only by what we create but by what we refuse to destroy.