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Thoughts on Summer, the Outdoors and Learning as Families

“Did you survive?”

“Better you than me.”

“You must be exhausted.”

As I got off the bus after spending two nights camping in tents with our 4th and 5th Graders, I was greeted with these kinds of questions and comments from parents and fellow faculty. I told each that I had had a great time, and I truly meant it. Outdoor, or environmental, education has long been a passion of mine – ever since, 24 years ago, prior to graduating from university, I hopped onto a plane in Scotland, where I’m from, and headed to Eastern Pennsylvania to spend a summer working at a children’s camp.

I fell in love. I loved working with kids, and came to love how they grew and developed surrounded by nature. There seemed to be a magic to it. When I did finally graduate from university and got my first job, I headed into the wilderness as an environmental educator. To this day, that remains the most exhausting and rewarding work I have ever undertaken. Going on Trinity’s camping trip this year reminded me of why these experiences are so critical – for us as adults, and of course for our children.

Internalizing the Magic of Nature

As elementary educators, we help shape the humans in front of us.  We seek to challenge them and push them outside their comfort zones. Much of this will take place in the classroom, but I consider it a gift that some of it will also take place in the natural world. I feel proud that it is, in some small part, my responsibility to teach our students to love the outdoors and to experience it firsthand. The time to do this is now, when it can become part of the fabric of who they are, how they enjoy time spent with friends, how they relax and have fun – and when we can show them that nature has a way of getting us all. In particular, on our trip to Big Sur, the students and I were mesmerized by the science behind the “Fairy Rings” that the Red Woods create as a mechanism to regenerate and ensure their survival  – they were everywhere.

Becoming Stewards for Our World

Our students are curious, inquisitive, and nimble thinkers, and we see this every say – especially in Science class. They can learn much about their world and conservation from books, but they learn best when they can see, touch, smell, feel, and experience things firsthand. Conservation is an issue that affects everyone, but someone who has experienced the greatness of the outdoors will do more to save, protect and love than someone who has not. And as they grow and change, our students’ love for the world around them will continue to sustain and shape them. The hope, of course, is that they do everything in their power to save the outdoors. And what underpins any study of outdoor education is the science itself – a better understanding of the biomes that exist close to home, and those that occur in the large Western ecosystem – in the mountains, the deserts, and the seashores.

Developing Independence

Quite apart from macro conservation issues, the experience of spending time with their classmates in a campsite, in tents, is a learning experience all on its own. In some ways, the kids that get on the bus never come back. The experiences they have in those 48 hours develop an independence and growth that is exponential, and it can’t be erased upon return. They problem solve and navigate their surroundings in a new and unfamiliar environment with their peers away from the protection of their parents – a challenge that helps them grow and see themselves in a different light. Perhaps the best part is hearing the stories that follow the trip – the ones parents tell us about how this growth manifests once at home.

Creating Memories and Connections

Going away with friends to a new place is a change of pace. The normal routines don’t apply, there is an excitement about the unknown. Bonds develop over shared experiences, shared memories, and shared stories. This summer, as you spend time together as a family, I encourage you to spend as much time as you can outside. Doing so will continue to help you and your children find the magic in nature, and prompt and develop your children’s natural curiosity about the world around them. Though they won’t be in a classroom, their learning won’t stop either. They’ll be developing confidence, creativity, imagination, and will be gaining resilience while they exercise. 

Building our outdoor education program is something we’ll continue to do – broadening the scope of the program and bringing it to more students over time. I look forward to finding nature with them – and perhaps within myself.

Colette McWilliams Director of Upper Campus

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