In Support of Outdoor School
By Merrill Watrous
“I not only learned about ghost shrimp and how to catch them, I did catch them. I not only learned what a chitin was and where it lived, I went out to where it was and petted it. Almost everything (at Outdoor School) was one step ahead of regular school. With the songs around the campfire there were just as many emotional parts as there were educational parts. I feel like I left a better person, more aware of the environment.” (Nick, age 11)
Petting an animal, singing around a campfire, and learning how to care for the environment — the value of these activities is not easily assessed according to current standards and benchmarks. I can provide no statistical evidence with this article to prove that the students who spent a week with me at Outdoor School scored higher on later standardized tests the next year than their peers did. However, research does indicate that integrating the curriculum around topics in environmental education is a powerful way to teach. The arguments I will present here in support of continuing to fund outdoor education are largely anecdotal, based in part on the words of children like Nick who were themselves changed by the experience.
How did Nick become a better person through Outdoor School? It is important to determine this for he was not alone in feeling transformed by it. To prepare for Outdoor School, we first read and wrote about the natural world. In public French immersion schools in both Canada and the United States, teachers often share students but not curriculum. Outdoor School brought me closer to my teaching partner because we became engaged with the same curriculum as well as with the same students. It brought my students closer to one another because they ate, slept, worked, and played in close proximity twenty-four hours a day. It brought teachers and parents closer to one another because we met often to organize transportation and materials before leaving. It transformed us all because, through the Outdoor School experience, we came together as a more cohesive community.
Loving the Science
Like Nick, Matthew loved Outdoor School and when he wrote to me about it later, he couldn’t help but enumerate all that he had learned.
“I learned about biodiversity, the amount of compressed oxygen in salt and fresh water, the inhabitants of the tide pools, the secrets of the estuary, the names of plants like salal and fruiticas lichen, and about mixed, diurnal, and semidiurnal tides.”
Matthew enjoyed the company of his classmates and the beauty of his surroundings but what made the week work for Matt was the science. Classroom science kits may have helped him to understand some of the basic principles of science back at “regular school,” but no lab could compare with the estuary as a learning environment.
One child who was less sure than Matt that he liked Outdoor School wrote about his character growing in spite of himself. Children, like adults, realize that sometimes we learn the most from experiences that challenge us. We spend a substantial amount of money in schools today in the United States on programs devoted to preventing violence through “character education.” If Outdoor School for my students was a place where they felt themselves becoming better people, a place where they felt themselves growing as human beings, perhaps this is one place we need to invest time and money.
We all took with us to Outdoor School for the week only what we needed to stay warm and relatively clean. Each child wrapped his or her belongings in black plastic garbage bags to keep it all dry as we took the barge across the estuary to the camp site. As simple as these bags were to pack, they were heavy to carry, and right away the strongest children began to help the weaker ones as we hiked up and down the dunes on our way from the landing dock to the cabins. After awhile, we got to know our cabin-mates from different schools and a few of our neighbors shared with us the fact that a store in their small rural Oregon community had chosen to make a gift to the class of garbage bags to take to Outdoor School. “Free garbage bags- what kind of gift is that?” I watched my students thinking, students who had never before in their lives had to consider where the money comes from to purchase such necessities as garbage bags. I was humbled myself when later on that first night another teacher shared with me how hard she’d worked to find enough warm and water-resistant coats for her students to wear to Outdoor School. (Every one of my children arrived at school regularly with a warm coat on a cold day.) At various times during that Outdoor School week, the children and I were humbled and inspired not only by the beauty and majesty of the wilderness around us but by the courage and determination of our bunkmates.
Learning to Conserve
Without television or video games to distract us, we shared time, materials, and our food with one another. Child after child wrote about the “great food!” at Camp Westwind. (The menu featured such gourmet kid fare as chicken nuggets, mac and cheese, and PB and J sandwiches.) At mealtimes, we passed bowls of food and pitchers of milk from child to child, bowls and pitchers that could be refilled as needed. What was left at the end of the meal on the plates of the children and their teachers, however, had to be thrown on the compost pile after it was weighed, measured, and recorded: every day and at every meal. As the week went on and campers began to realize how much they’d been wasting, food waste was reduced by 90%. I watched children serve themselves applesauce an eighth of a cup at a time, gauging their hunger carefully before putting anything extra on their plates. Students not only learned to conserve food, they also learned to be responsible for their own possessions. At the end of each meal, we sang together, and staff members who had combed the beach and the woods for “lost” personal items earlier offered these items in song for reclamation. It was all done with a sense of humor, but it helped us to learn to be more responsible stewards of our possessions.
Funding Outdoor Education
When deciding whether to fund Outdoor School experiences in the future, we need to think about what we value as teachers and parents. Do we value teaching science in an integrated fashion so that we can maximize the number of students we engage? Do we value teaching students to be environmentally conscious in a way that will stick with them? Do we value teacher-to-student and student-to-student relationship building? If as teachers these are among our core values, then we need to see Outdoor School as something worth fighting for in the face of budget cuts.
Tokens and Rewards
I found Outdoor School to be a nourishing experience personally; I took away from it at least as much as it took from me. I remember buying quickly and thoughtlessly the day before we left a little packet of camping-themed stickers. I handed them over to the Outdoor School Principal at Camp Westwind on our first night so that all of the children participating in camp could “enjoy” them equally as journal decorations. She received them graciously from me and returned them just as graciously, unused, to me at the conclusion of camp. The anti-consumerist message of the camp staff was both consistent and heartening; there was no place within it for something as useless as stickers.
Individual efforts and team efforts were recognized from time to time at camp — not with stickers but with a song or with a “gift-loan” of a feather or a rock of unusual beauty to admire. The children learned to replace these feathers and rocks in the spots where they had first been found after admiring them. We spent hours creating sand sculptures in teams and then reduced them all to “sand rubble” in order to leave the beach as we had found it in its pristine condition before leaving camp. Returning the beach to its natural state was fun and it was exercise. We were moving all the time at Camp Westwind, and most of the children reveled in well-earned feelings of physical fatigue at the end of the day. They even complained pridefully about the hardships of camp.
“The cold hard beds, the early hours, and the long, tiring hikes. These are the reasons I liked Outdoor School. The early hours let you hear the birds chirping in the morning. At the end of the long hikes there was always a beautiful view. And the beds . . . well, there was nothing so great about the beds.”
There’s nothing so great about fundraising for activities like Outdoor School when public funds dry up, either, but it would not be easy to set a price on what my students learned at Camp Westwind. As Alex put it, the view at the end of the day IS spectacular. I’ll never forget it, or the children who shared its beauty with me.
Merrill Watrous taught Foundations of Education seminars and supervised teaching practicum students through the Cooperative Education Department at Lane Community College. Prior to that, she taught graduate level courses in writing for Pacific University and fifth grade at a language immersion school. She has also taught grades K, 1, 3, and 4 and middle school writers. She is the author of one book on the teaching of writing and art and numerous articles for such magazines as Learning, Instructor, Mailbox, California and Oregon English, Writing Teacher, Techniques, The Magazine of American History and others. She can be reached at Watrousm@lanecc.edu.