In Support of Outdoor School

In Support of Outdoor School

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.



Character Education

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.

Alex wrote,

“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


Meet the BEETLES: Bringing Wonder, Curiosity & Science to Residential Outdoor Schools

Meet the BEETLES: Bringing Wonder, Curiosity & Science to Residential Outdoor Schools

BEETLES-Coverphotoby Kevin Beals & Craig Strang

Imagine a residential outdoor science program where instructors—all of them—routinely combine their passion for the natural world with a deep understanding of research-based teaching approaches that are based on all we know about how people learn. BEETLES (Better Environmental Education, Teaching, Learning, Expertise & Sharing), funded by the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, is a new project at Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, Berkeley that designs professional development experiences for program leaders to use with their teaching staffs.

A group of 15 sixth grade students and their classroom teacher are on a hike led by a field instructor at a residential outdoor program. They come across a bracket fungus on the ground. The instructor, who has participated in BEETLES, calls out, “NSI,” a routine the students now recognize as Nature Scene Investigators. Quickly half the group kneels around the fungus in a tight circle. The other half stands in a circle around the inner circle.

(note: the discussions in this article are actual transcripts taken from trail hikes)
Instructor: OK, let’s hear some observations from the inner circle.
Student: It’s light.
Student: it looks charred.
Student: It looks like it’s broken off something.
Student: It looks like wood.
Student: It looks like it’s from a tree.
Instructor: Now let’s hear some questions from the outer circle.
Student: What does it feel like?
Instructor: OK, someone from the inner circle, can you say what it feels like?
Student: It’s rough here but smooth here.
Student: It feels smooth on the outside and rough on the inside.
Instructor: So, Kendra and Amir, would you agree that it’s smooth on the outside and rough on the inside?
They both examine it closely.
Student: Yep.
Student: I agree.
The students share more observations and questions, and continue to do so after the two circles have switched places and roles.
Instructor: OK, now I want you all to come up with explanations about it. Don’t forget to use evidence in your explanations.
Student: I think it was on a tree that got burned and it fell off and my evidence is because it’s black.
Instructor: Hey, did you all notice that Jared said, “I think…?” In science discussions, it’s good to use language of uncertainty, like “I think…” or “I wonder if…” because in science, you always need to be open-minded to other explanations and ideas if you find new evidence.
The students come up with several other explanations.

Instructor: Now does anyone have something to share about this that they’ve heard or read about somewhere else? But be sure to tell us your source of information.
Student: I think it’s a fungus, because we learned about fungi with our gardening teacher at school, and it looks like some of the fungi we studied.
Student: I’ve heard that they’re decomposers, and they turn dead things into dirt. I heard that from my teacher.
Instructor: This is a fungus. I’ve read that these are a type of fungus that grows on trees called bracket fungus or shelf fungus. I’ve also read that they are just the “fruit” of the fungus, and that most of the fungus looks like white threads and is spread out inside the wood. My source is a book written by a fungus expert. The book is called Mushrooms Demystified. We’re going to be checking out mysteries like this all day. We’ll be finding cool stuff, making observations, asking questions and trying to explain what we find.
Classroom Teacher: I just want to say, the more stuff you all pointed out the more I looked. You got me to look at it differently.
Instructor: Yeah that’s a great point and that’s one reason scientists often work in teams.
Student: Hey look, there’s one of those things on this tree.
Students excitedly swarm around a nearby tall stump with a few small bracket fungi on it.
Instructor: So what do you guys think now that you have this new evidence?
Student: It does grow on trees! It’s not burned because this tree isn’t burned and it’s still black.
Instructor: Is this tree alive or dead?
Student: Alive. No, wait. It’s just a big stump.
Instructor: As we hike, let’s keep our eyes out for more of these fungi and see what we find. Let’s see if we find any on living trees, or if they’re just on dead trees, like this one.
Classroom Teacher: (aside to instructor) I had no idea when I got on this hike it was going to be like this, because other hikes I’ve been on have been more about just delivering information. I want to learn as much from you as I can today about how I can do this with my students back at school.

What’s significant about this actual account, compared to many other outdoor science activities? Is any learning taking place? Why were so many student questions left unanswered?

We like NSI precisely because so much learning (and engagement) is going on. It sets a tone of inquiry, exploration, figuring things out and discussion of ideas. We want students’ minds to be at least as active as their feet. We want the students, not the instructor, to be making discoveries, asking questions, and trying to explain what they find. The instructor guides, but most of what happens is student-driven. This may look like the instructor isn’t doing much, but it is actually far more nuanced than blurting out three facts and a chant about bracket fungi.


Student (shown in photo): I feel like a scientist today.
Student: I know, I’ve never done this before.
Student: Yeah, I’ve been to the woods before, but not discovering and stuff like this.
Student: I didn’t even know I could do this.
Student: I’m gonna do this at the park near my house!

Activities like NSI taught by instructors who know how to look for evidence in the minds of learners as well as for evidence on the trail, engage students in the scientific practices called for in the soon to be published Next Generation Science Standards (National Research Council 2012) that are certain to be adopted by nearly every state in the US: asking questions, carrying out investigations, constructing explanations, engaging in argument from evidence, and obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information. Those are tricky things to teach in a classroom, but in a rich outdoor setting, students are surrounded by opportunities to explore and investigate with these practices. Instructors have opportunities, if they know how to take advantage of them, to help students make careful observations, work together, communicate their ideas, disagree politely, remember to base their explanations on evidence, use language of appropriate uncertainty, and cite their sources of information. These thinking skills lead directly to meaning making—a very different outcome compared to memorizing the names of trees or the three different types of decomposers. And there is an added benefit. When students are talking, instructors get to hear and understand their ideas about science topics. Effective instructors build their teaching on student’s ideas, but they can only find out what those ideas are by letting students express them!

Outdoor science schools are perfectly situated to help indoor schools by focusing their teaching on scientific practices. In a rich outdoor environment with long days, myriad inquiry opportunities and a skilled instructor, students can accomplish more in a few days than they might be able to in months in a classroom.

BEETLES is designing professional development experiences that help instructors to become expert users of approaches and tools like NSI that:
• are more student-centered, less instructor-centered.
• are less about an instructor telling students information, and more about instructors giving students chances to explore, investigate and figure things out themselves.
• are less about convincing students their instructor is ”awesome,” and more about making students feel smart and capable, moved more by what nature has revealed to them than by what their instructor has revealed to them..
• empower students with skills to use when they no longer have a field instructor leading them.
• facilitate student meaning-making.
• increase students’ wonder and curiosity about the natural world.
• are less about games or activities that can be done on a playground, and more about engaging students with investigating the natural world.


Historically, investments have not been made in the development of research-based professional development and curriculum for outdoor science programs. Unlike in K-12 schools, field instructors often rely on word-of-mouth “traditions,” and tattered copies of activity outlines passed around in bruised binders. BEETLES is designing, field testing, documenting and evaluating a series of professional development sessions, each of which presents instructors with a lens through which to view and improve outdoor science instruction.

BEETLES is also creating content sessions to help field instructors grapple with their own understanding of foundational concepts basic to many outdoor science schools: cycling of matter, flow of energy, adaptation and evolution. Finally, BEETLES is designing and collecting activities, like NSI, that reflect research-based approaches and accurate science, for use in the field with children. All these materials will be available, free, via a website.

BEETLES is hosting a 5-day California Leadership Institute during Summer 2013. Pairs of leaders will be invited from 12 different outdoor science schools throughout the state. The leaders will experience the professional development sessions, activities and hikes, share their own expertise, and plan out staff training for their own staffs. We hope to empower program leaders with new materials and perspectives, but also to benefit ourselves by capturing improvements and adaptations made by the leaders.

In 2014 & 2015, BEETLES will offer a National Leadership Institute, open to program leaders around the country. Eventually the BEETLES web site will offer supporting videos that show how the activities and professional development sessions are actually led with students and staffs.

The following is from an email sent to us by a field instructor a week after she participated in a 3-day BEETLES professional development workshop:

I wanted to relay a small snippet of some kid feedback I got this week on trail. The teachers had the kids write us all notes thanking us for their week, and it was interesting the things that popped up, besides the usual “You’re the coolest everrrrrrr” messages. One note included the following: “…We learned a lot from you, because, unlike other teachers, you go in-depth on everything we learn instead of going like ‘Here’s this’ and ‘This is that.’” I know I’ve been a “Here’s this” naturalist in the past, and throughout this week was really conscious of letting kids discover and asking them broad questions, and what a cool thing to hear back the first week testing it out! Several kids mentioned NSI in their notes, and as someone who has been a naturalist for 5+ years, it was a wonderful experience this week having a new lens to look through and launch the year with. It is wonderful to continue the learning process myself, and have new tools, and test them out, and watch some of them be wildly successful. Those kids were on the edge of their seats by the end of the week after we’d noticed, wondered, and built new frames of reference and pieced together evidence for what it reminded us of for days as to what the green lacy stuff on twigs really was. Never have I had children so excited about lichen and figuring out what it was! I just wanted to share with you, because I am excited to continue experimenting with what we learned, and pass the results on.

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BEETLES invites outdoor science school instructors and leaders to participate in the development of our materials and program, and to participate in our leadership institutes. Kevin Beals ( & Craig Strang ( are the founders of BEETLES. Please visit