Written by Sofie “Dinosaur” Dobberfuhl
Outdoor School: the name brings back some of my fondest and happiest memories from when I was a tiny 4th to 6th grader, and what a life-altering experience it had been for me. I retained much of what I had learned those weeks, lessons about animal adaptations, tree rings, mole crabs and ghost shrimp, the water cycle, erosion, etc. I knew all the words to the songs we had sung at campfire, and I remembered the games and riddles that my high school student counselors had played with us. Returning from my final session in 6th grade from the beach site Westwind (Thistledown cabin, Supernova my student leader), I made a promise to myself that I would one day return to outdoor school as a camp counselor, in effort to give back to the program that had changed my life in such a positive and meaningful way.
Visiting the NW Outdoor School website, their mission is summarized with several bulleted lists; developing environmental literacy and responsible citizenship, providing hands-on learning experiences in a way that is integrated with school curriculum, and promoting learning about and appreciation for the natural world. What makes Outdoor School unique is the difference between sitting in a classroom and looking at pictures of the differences between conifer and deciduous trees, and standing in front of a tree, able to see and feel their leaves, as well as learning anything between the stages of their growth to the layers of soil in which they grow. By immersing students in the natural world, not only are the lessons more comprehensive, but the style of learning is fun and interesting, and the high school students must step up in their newfound leadership role in order to make this possible.
Another important leadership role is within the cabin of these children that you become responsible for. In both cases, there is program staff to guide the high school student leaders, however, once you take on this role, you become a mentor and role model, and eventually friend to your young charges. This is an opportunity to learn how to manage a group of children, and time, which is a skill applicable to the real world.
Additionally, in the chaos that is our everyday lives, many students both grade and high school- are plugged into their phones and other devices almost constantly in such a way that any type of news is immediately accessible, and this steady stream of new information can be harmfully overwhelming and anxiety-inducing. To spend an entire week free from those distractions is not to say that electronic devices are bad, but that a break every once in awhile seems like a healthy choice. Being willingly forced into nature and human interactions can bring even the shyest, most uncooperative people out of their shells.
For many potential high school counselors, the greatest concern is not poisonous newts or sneaker waves, but the week of schoolwork that is lost and the subsequent mountain of make-up work on top of the new material they must also keep up with upon their return. As a returning counselor, I can confirm that the missed work is difficult, but it’s entirely worth the experience in the end, and even just going once can open your eyes to things you haven’t seen before. Perfect attendance isn’t nearly as cool as knowing that you stepped into the role of a real leader, and made a lasting impact on an 11-year-old who thought you were the most amazing and knowledgeable person for a week.
To wrap this all up, the Outdoor Science School program is a fantastic opportunity for not just the students, but any high school student leaders who participate. Although it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I would highly recommend it to anyone of my friends, and anyone else who may want to try something new.