​​Outdoor School is Not Easy

November 28, 2019

For many students, the Outdoor School (ODS) program can be hard.

In fact, I would guess that at some point, parts of Outdoor School may be challenging for everyone participating. During ODS, students are away from home for multiple nights. They live in a cabin with students from other schools, many who they may not know. They eat food that is sometimes quite different from what they eat at home. Their daily routine is completely different. They spend many hours a day outside - rain or shine. There is limited technology at ODS, and definitely no student cell phones.

The list goes on, and these things can be hard – but that’s kind of the point.

Just the other day, I was sitting at the teacher table during a meal with a room full of close to 100 grade 6 students and I heard a staff member start a sentence that I hear often: “well, when I was their age…” - reflecting back in the same way that my grandfather used to do at family gatherings. The difference here being that in my grandfather’s case, the age gap, and his perspective, differed by several decades, whereas the 20-something year old staff member differed by only a single decade in age gap.

The world we live in is a rapidly changing place and the challenges students will face in the future are likely to become more complex, not less.

Many of the things that can make Outdoor School tough, are exactly where students have the opportunity to learn and grow the most. Students will face many challenges ahead and will need various skills in order to be successful in whichever path they take. Students may struggle if they: don’t know how to work with, and appreciate, people who are different than them; if they don’t know how to process stress and cope with anxiety; if they don’t have communication skills; if they don’t have a sense of belonging within their community, and so on …

Outdoor school alone isn’t the answer, but we hope to contribute where we can.

Part of the value of outdoor education is that it provides a space where many of the external pressures and distractions in daily life are removed. In this environment, students have a chance to connect with themselves and others in more authentic and meaningful ways. As an example, at Cheakamus Centre students participate in chores, where they can see how their actions support the whole group.

There are several areas where action and consequence also become more obvious and relevant, such as when a student refuses to wear a raincoat, they’ll go outside and get cold and wet pretty quickly. Cheakamus staff are great at maintaining boundaries but leaving space for students to have real experiences.

This is challenging stuff, but where there is challenge, there is opportunity.

The Outdoor School (ODS) program at Cheakamus Centre is largely focused on environmental education. A great deal of work by many people have shaped the curriculum linked programs that are taught today – an area of education that one could argue is important now more than ever. We recognize the value of the activities that students participate in during ODS, but we also recognize that what happens between set program blocks is perhaps equally as important. Or at least, essential to think about if we want to maximize student learning during program activities.

A great deal of what happens at Cheakamus Centre is connected to Social and Emotional Learning (SEL).

SEL has been identified as a North Vancouver School District priority, and for me, I believe this is where we have the greatest opportunity to impact students in the decades ahead.

As I look ahead, I see a continued increase in our focus on SEL in order to achieve our educational goals. I often wonder if SEL may become the most relevant piece of what we do. Because of the changing world and all the developments around us, we are in a better position now, than ever before, to be able to support a world class level of outdoor and environmental education and help develop skills in our students that will truly help prepare them for the world ahead.

We’ve been doing it all along, but it’s time to dive deeper.

Students will continue to change, and we’ll need to adapt. It will take new thinking. It will take patience. It will be hard – but hard is good.

Contributed by Cheakamus Centre staff: Program Manager, Matt Houston