I recently retired after a half-century career as a forester. Since about 1990, I’ve been closely associated with three different sixth-grade Outdoor Schools.
The longest duration Outdoor School is Philomath’s; I’ve been associated with it for about a dozen years.
In my estimation, Outdoor School is possibly the best thing that can happen for a sixth-grade student. At that age, these young people are rapidly changing, both physically and emotionally, as they enter their teenage years. They are beginning to reach out as they discover how they fit into the world around them.
At Outdoor School, they learn how to live, work, play, and share chores. For some, this is the first time they have ever spent a night away from home and eat food that is different from mom’s. It is a social experience many have never had, but it's essential as they become part of the society they live in.
We are becoming an increasingly urbanized society and we are distancing ourselves from the natural world. As a society, I’m convinced that we’re increasingly setting ourselves apart from the natural world though, in truth, we are still very much a part of the natural world; this is because ALL our food, fiber, energy, etc. is either grown or otherwise extracted from natural resources (i.e., somehow or the other, everything we use comes from the environment). If our children believe their cereal and milk come from Fred Meyer or 2x4s come from Home Depot, they will grow up to quite possibly make uninformed decisions regarding their use and care of the natural world. The question is not if we will use natural resources; the question is how we use natural resources. Outdoor School is a chance for them to connect to the world around them.
After their experience as cabin leaders, I’ve heard high school students say they learned they did not want to be a teacher, while others learned they did want to be a teacher. Some discovered they did not want to become a parent as soon as they’d thought! I’ve learned that Outdoor School was every bit as much for the high school student as for the sixth grader because it helps them look at their lives after high school. I’ve seen several who come back all through high school, college, and after college because this experience meant so much to them. This last spring, “Gator” (his camp name) missed camp because he was doing his student teaching—the first time he’d missed camp in probably 7-8 years!
Philomath High School has an outstanding forestry teacher; he credits his time as a sixth grader and as a high school counselor as being instrumental to his becoming a teacher.
I’ll never forget the 250-lb. football player who wore a tutu during campfire skits and planned to go into the Army after high school. After the closing of camp, he said that was the first time he’d ever really hugged anyone.
At these Outdoor Schools, I teach forestry and emergency shelters/“wilderness survival.” There are three stories that especially stand out:
1) One year, there were two girls from Mexico who had recently come to the US and their command of English was still pretty limited. Though they’d made their wilderness survival shelter that afternoon, as we were heading off into the cold, dark, rainy night after the songs and skits of the evening’s campfire, these two girls were in tears and wanted to stay back in their cabins. Three American girls encouraged these two girls and asked them to move into their shelter.
After finishing off a Dutch oven peach cobbler, everyone was settled in and quiet shortly after midnight. However, at 1:00 AM, hoping this would end their laughing and giggling, I asked these five girls to turn off their flashlights saying that, if there was a real emergency later that night, they might need their flashlights to get back to the main camp. The next morning, the two Mexican girls had smiles that went ear to ear; they’d just made three new friends.
The teachers later explained how it was difficult for Mexican families to let their kids even go to Outdoor School and they were pleased the three American girls had been so encouraging.
2) Another time, the teachers cautioned me about a girl who did not relate well with her peers and tended to attach herself to her high school counselors. Predictably, she’d made her own wilderness survival shelter and was going to spend the night by herself.
As the cobbler was cooking, I made the rounds to make sure the shelters would keep the kids reasonably dry for the night. As I entered the area where the girls were camping, I heard this girl sobbing and telling the two girls in the adjacent shelter that she did not have a friend in the world.
I backed away and let the girls work it out. A little later, I went back to the girls’ area and found this girl had been invited to join those other two girls. The three of them were laughing and giggling and having a great time.
3) One May, two or three weeks after Outdoor School, the Boy Scouts had their annual Friday evening through Sunday Camp-o-ree (a campout for a large number of Scouts). It rained hard Friday night and, since this was the first camping experience for many of the younger Scouts, Camp-o-ree was called off around noon on Saturday. This was probably because if they had to spend Saturday night in cold, wet, soggy sleeping bags, quite a few boys would never go camping again.
As I watched them leave camp with sleeping bags dripping from Friday night’s rain, one boy remembered me (the “Treeman”) from wilderness survival at Outdoor School and stopped to tell me about his shelter. When I expressed some surprise that he’d made a shelter that actually kept him dry and warm, he explained what he’d learned about making a shelter at Outdoor School.
I saw that he’d learned something at Outdoor School and had the confidence to apply what he’d learned to a very challenging situation. He was successful and proud of his accomplishment.
To my way of thinking, these are the sorts of things that can only happen when students are taken out of their normal comfort zone. Placing them in new, different, and, quite possibly challenging situations allows them to grow and to mature—this is what schools are supposed to do.
Teachers often say that they see their students very differently at Outdoor School. Away from the classroom, their students can be different people as they assume a camp name and a different persona. They display talents not seen in school.
Yes, Outdoor School is about academics, but its bigger purpose is the social growth for our children.