Outdoor Education…Who Needs It? Chris Wright

chris distyEach week at High Trails, we get bus loads of students. All of them leave High Trails with something. We hope that it is a new appreciation of the world around them — the people, natural systems, and communities that they have either never seen before, or never fully recognized and appreciated before. However, while all students leave High Trails with a message, each student will take something different from the experience.

As instructors it is very easy to get excited when we get a group of students who are very familiar with the outdoors…the students that are excited about science and learning…the students who go to camp every summer and are comfortable being away from home…the students that work well together and communicate well…the students who already have a fascination with all the things the forest can throw at them. No doubt those groups are fun to teach and hang out with in the woods. With them, we can go on longer destination hikes, get into more in-depth conversations beyond our curriculum and connect with students more easily. Is this because we are teaching smaller versions of ourselves?

Our goal at High Trails is to introduce students to the outside world, to broaden horizons and to show students life beyond what they already know. If we are interacting with students who already have this life experience, is their trip to High Trails worthwhile? Sure it is.

chris jsThose students really shine up here, and we encourage them to be experts. We build upon their knowledge and understanding and push them to see other views. They also have a great time! Not all groups are the same. What about those other students — the students unfamiliar with the outdoors…the students that are not excited to learn…the student who has never been away from home…the group that doesn’t function well together? 

This type of group is always going to be more challenging, but I feel this is where the most value of our program is recognized. Through our Tribes and Adventure Course activities, we focus on working together, communicating and recognizing each other’s strengths. Through our cabin time and Nocturnal Nations Hike, we encourage independence and confidence. All of our Environmental classes promote an understanding of the world around them and how they fit in. Because we teach outside, we are pushing students to feel comfortable in a (semi)natural environment and banish that Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD).

Interacting with our instructors gives students a view of the world beyond the town they grew up in. These are the students where we see the most growth in the five short days they are here. Thinking back on my time as an instructor, the students I enjoyed the most at the time were the enthusiastic outgoing outdoorsy types. However, the students who benefited the most and who were, retrospectively, the most rewarding, were the students who were totally out of their element at the start of their experience, but grew in confidence, knowledge and ability by the end.

chrisWhatever the background of the students, we are in a win/win situation. If they are the ‘smaller versions of ourselves’, they are fun and can challenge our subject knowledge. They can recharge our batteries and make us excited about what we get to do every day. If they are the ‘out of their element’ students, we have the opportunity to have a huge impact on their lives. It may be more demanding on us and take more effort, but those are the students who are hearing our messages for the first and maybe only time. We must make the most of every student. So who needs outdoor education? Each and every student. We’d better make it count.



At High Trails Outdoor Science School, we literally force our instructors to write about elementary outdoor education, teaching outside, learning outside, our dirty classroom (the forest…gosh), environmental science, outdoor science, and all other tree hugging student and kid loving things that keep us engaged, passionate, driven, loving our job, digging our life, and spreading the word to anyone whose attention we can hold for long enough to actually make it through reading this entire sentence. Whew…. www.dirtyclassroom.com


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