I’m enthusiastic about Outdoor School because it’s the greatest thing for a kid that has come along and it just needs to persist. I guess as you picture this, you think of it as a camping trip, but that is certainly not the image of Outdoor School. Yes, there’s outdoor, there’s a camp. But we don’t even use the word “camp” when we talk about it. We call it an Outdoor School site because camping gives the impression that you’re out there paddling canoes and having a great time. It’s so much more than that. It’s a social experiment, really. That is so important.
I’m an advocate of the week-long program because you need that long to communicate with kids and get them to know each other in a group. You have to be there to watch through Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and by Wednesday noon, things are beginning to break. Everybody’s familiar with the songs. Everybody knows what to expect and they’re becoming an organized group. There’s so much singing and so much fun, and yet we have very serious lessons.
Every day of the week we cover a different resource area: water, soil, plants, and animals. The trick is to have an instructor that understands the subject and can release this to a kid. Much of it can be very sophisticated, but the right person—we were very lucky in having some retired people from the Forest Service, from Fish and Wildlife, and the Bureau of Land Management. These were people that had forgotten more about their subjects than the kids getting out of school had learned, because they had lived their life in this thing! They understood the value of living in the out-of-doors and they, as older people, knew what they were getting into because this is an outdoor program and it is where [learning] has got to happen. That’s why I’m so proud of what we had in Multnomah County—it’s the type of instruction that was really worthwhile. You just can’t repeat it unless you get out there and live it.
Say you want to measure stream flow—this is a problem that you can have in school. What is the stream? How much water is in it? How fast is it moving? What does it supply? How many people would this provide with water? This way the kid gets to walk in the [stream], to measure the depth of the thing, to throw in a stick and time it for 100 feet to get the flow of the river. You end up with a statistical method; this is science in action. The kid can see it because he’s wading in the water; that’s the way a lesson is learned. I just admire some of our older people. They gave a grandfather effect to the whole thing and the kids just ate it up and it was quality education.
Then we go into a social program. By having them in cabin groups of two kids from each school, about eight to ten kids in a cabin, all under the leadership of a high school [volunteer] who has had training. That’s one of the greatest aspects of this, a great lesson in leadership training. The school districts realize that Outdoor School is the best training those young people can ever get, being there working with kids and trying to organize and learn [about] each one, taking care of their fears and their woes. And we had a superior staff of senior counselors who then took care of the junior counselors and kept them in line.
And senior counselors did so much more. They conducted campfires. They led duty groups. They were in the latrine helping the kids clean it, because every kid ended up with a chore and that’s part of the thing. Every student has a feeling that he’s taking part. He’s helping this thing happen. And as I say, that magical moment, Wednesday noon, everything starts to come together and that’s when it really gets good. You can measure that by what happens on Friday when they’re about to board their bus to go back home. They’re just a Niagara of tears and bear hugs and lifelong dedication to these counselors. It’s a grand thing to see and there isn’t a dry eye in the place. I think it's one of the greatest things that comes with this. It’s an educational program, but it’s a social program too. I think that’s why it is so important.
I’ve talked to people when I was out collecting signatures for the Outdoor School for All campaign. You got somebody that lives out of town on a farm and they said, “Oh, well, our kids don’t need that. They learn how to farm and they know all about soil and all that.” But they haven’t even scratched the surface. They can’t re-create that program of having kids together who are so enthusiastic, so ready to learn. They can’t do it in a family setting. I don’t care if they’re the best farm in the country, you cannot duplicate Outdoor School. That’s why to me, it’s important.