How Keystone’s Outdoor Education program sets us apart

Sep 23 2022

How Keystone’s Outdoor Education program sets us apart

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”
–Rachel Carson

“That is so cool!” “I wish we did that when I was in school!” “Wow, those kids are so lucky!” The other chaperones, students, and I heard comments like these repeatedly from other travelers as we ascended the Storm King Mountain Trail in Olympic National Park last week during the 9th grade Outdoor Education (OE) trip.

For six days and five nights, we canoed, hiked, practiced citizen science skills, journaled, painted watercolors, played fun games, and of course enjoyed S’mores by a campfire on the final night. Students and teachers were able to spend time together and get to know each other in a very different setting from the main campus.

For decades now, Keystone has sent students on a variety of educational trips across the country, and some alumni point to these excursions as constituting the most formative memories of their time at Keystone. Beyond the joy of travel, what purpose do these experiences have?

In addition, since we were unable to offer the traditional Outdoor Ed program during the height of the pandemic, why return to it now when we could have just shelved it permanently? And this year, we are continuing to expand the program into the Lower School, so it’s fair to ask why.

Regardless of the age of the child going on an Outdoor Ed experience, there are many benefits. Being outside with classmates and teachers allows students to do a variety of things they cannot accomplish inside the classroom: They can,

  • study nature and history on site,
  • build class unity and become a more cohesive unit away from school
  • strengthen relationships between teachers/administrators and students by spending time in an alternative setting
  • hone leadership skills in a variety of ways beyond what’s traditionally seen in school settings
  • become comfortable with being outdoors (many students have never slept in tents or even cabins)
  • move out of their comfort zones so they can develop resilience

Studying natural phenomena outdoors can provide incomparable educational experiences. For example, it’s one thing to hear about the effects on riparian flora and fauna in Washington after a dam has been destroyed and the river has been returned to its natural state. It’s another thing entirely to step into that body of water, study its turbidity and macroinvertebrates, and form hypotheses based on actual hands-on research. Similarly, one can hear about the wildlife in Yellowstone National Park, but seeing animals in their natural environment provides a long-lasting impression.

Candidly, another benefit of heading outdoors is the opportunity to exist in silence. Our children’s lives are so busy and over-stimulated these days, that learning how to be still and comfortable with oneself can be profound. We observed the 9th graders last week journaling in the forest, learning how to listen deeply, and truly hear what was around them. This can be almost impossible in today’s world where we’re constantly bombarded with noise.

After many years of middle and upper school students heading out on OE trips, Ms. Matthews and the Lower School teachers are now establishing the program for children in the Lower School.

According to Ms. Matthews, “ For Lower School, we are doing at least one designated OE field trip a year at each grade level. We are continuing to do several family hikes on Saturdays. There will also be a 4th grade trip for the spring. We will be doing an overnight experience in Government Canyon. We will leave on Friday morning, 4/14 and return Saturday, 4/15 before lunch. It is close enough that we will likely have all students attend during the school day, to hike to the dinosaur tracks and get to experience some of the trip, and then an optional overnight for those who want to camp – we will be sleeping in tents!” This follows an introduction last year where families embarked on one hike a month in the spring in local parks.

Ms. Matthews discussed the goals of the OE program in Lower School:

  • To provide students with opportunities to understand, expand, and apply real-world learning through outdoor experiences.
  • To strengthen community by living our shared values of curiosity, service, creativity, empathy, and integrity while connecting with nature. (If these words sound familiar, and we hope they do, they’re the concepts that make up our new Cobra Code.)
  • To foster understanding of self, confidence, resourcefulness, and leadership in each student.
  • To encourage an appreciation for healthy lifestyle choices and the environment.

This year, the Keystone School OE program will include the following experiences:

Lower SchoolTBDOne experience a year
4th GradeGovernment CanyonOne day and optional overnight/second day
5th Grade T Bar MTwo days and one night
6th GradeNew UlmThree days and two nights
7th GradeRockportFour days and three nights
8th GradeYellowstoneSix days and five nights
9th GradeOlympic National ParkSix days and five nights
10th GradeYosemiteSix days and five nights
11th GradeDC, Shenandoah ValleySix days and five nights
12th GradeFloridaSix days and five nights

We’re aware that for many students these trips may be the first time they spend a night, and even more so a week, away from home. There may be some homesickness and missing their bed. This is perfectly normal. We also know that there may be conflicts among students during these trips, and working through these situations can provide invaluable life lessons.

And in some cases, as with morning drop off, these overnight trips may be more difficult for parents than for the children. That’s ok too.

At the end of the day, what’s important is that children learn how to be in nature, learn from the world around them, get along with others, and be comfortable with themselves. These trips draw on the four pillars in Keystone’s mission statement-academic excellence, ethical growth, community involvement, and responsible leadership-and combine them in a meaningful and purposeful manner.

In this way, our students can learn the truth of former First Lady Ladybird Johnson’s words, “The environment, after all, is where we all meet, where we all have a mutual interest. It is one thing that all of us share. It is not only a mirror of ourselves, but a focusing lens on what we can become.”

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