Outdoor School (ODS) is a three-day environmental education program for sixth-grade students. 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 completely responsible for their own entertainment.
Out of all the benefits of Outdoor School, here are five that consistently rise to the top, as well as five tips on getting started to create your own Outdoor School program.
Top Benefits of Outdoor School
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 form on their own. We consistently 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 our parents to see kids in a different light. We had over 1,500 volunteer hours to make Outdoor School possible last year. One of our 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.
2. It raises expectations and standards: Visitors to Outdoor School -- often parents, administrators, and other teachers -- are always surprised to see how heavily students are involved 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, we dramatically raise expectations for student behavior and work. And because of the supportive community and the new, exciting setting, students consistently rise to these standards and expectations.
3. It increases connection: Watching a group of sixth-grade boys prepare a meal for other children is an amazing 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 provide 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 complicated restoration plans that they've developed for the site.
4. It builds culture: Cultures share a common language, values, purpose, and connection to place as a fundamental expression of who they are. All of these things develop 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" offer 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, complex 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.
5. 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 member 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 tell you all about their experience way back when they were in sixth grade.
Create Your Own Outdoor Education Program
Creating your own Outdoor School program begins with a few questions:
1. Where will you go? Is there a facility in range of your school that will foster the experience of being away and unplugged? Church organizations, YMCA camps, Boy and Girl Scout facilities, and state parks all are good places to look for a site. Having a site that you can feel connected to over time really helps build continuity in your program.
2. How will you run the program? Will you operate the program yourself or pay a staff to facilitate your experience? Both options are great. Our budget in Hood River meant that we had to figure out how to run it ourselves. A typical three-day program can cost almost $200 per student. We budget about $45 per student because our teachers and parents run the program.
3. What will you do at Outdoor School? There is no set Outdoor School curriculum. When we switched our site three years ago to save money, the camp was in a very different climate zone. We changed most of our field studies and how we did the food program. We had to be flexible to the site. Match your field studies to the location. Try not to do things that you could do at school. Really take advantage of being outside, and match your activities to the unique features of the site.
Any biome will work: ocean shore, forest, alpine, desert, prairie -- it's all good! Just get them outside and learning. Reach out to local experts; find regional scientists that manage those areas, and look to them for help.
4. What is the appropriate way to start? If a week, three days, or even an overnight seems too hard to get off the ground, a one-day trip might be the best way to get started. Lower stress, easier facilitation, and gentle entry are all good things. Starting small means that you'll be likely to have early success. Success builds upon itself and leads to bigger outcomes. A great problem to have is people wanting more of the experience, rather than being overwhelmed and turned off by the whole affair.
5. Who is already doing it? Find someone in your area that has Outdoor School, and visit their program. Someone locally has probably figured out some of the answers already. Find them, and observe what they do. If there's nothing local, look to state and regional sources to find a model that works for you. If you can't find what you like, be a trailblazer and start your own program. Begin from what's possible, and in ten years, you'll have an awesome program that you can be proud of and that others are trying to emulate. Your kids will thank you for years to come.