Keystone’s Outdoor Education program instills learning outside the classroom

Oct 25 2023

Keystone’s Outdoor Education program instills learning outside the classroom

“There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story.”
–Linda Hogan

When we visit with alumni and they recount their time at Keystone, their fondest memories often come from their Outdoor Education trips. The time away from campus allows children and young adults to bond in an entirely different way than during the regular school day. Students, teachers, and staff members hike together, swim together, and share cabins or tents.

The learning that takes place on these trips cannot be replicated in the classroom. It’s one thing to study from a book what happens when a river that was formerly dammed is returned to its wild state: it’s completely different to take water samples from the Elwha River in Olympic National Park near Seattle to measure the turbidity and animal life and submit those data to a state agency. Similarly, students can read about manatees, but understanding these beautiful gentle giants becomes much more real when sophomores swim next to them in the Crystal River in Florida. Hiking up mountains in Yellowstone or Yosemite National Park or along the Appalachian Trail teaches students to appreciate the beauty of America’s natural treasures while developing self-confidence and resilience.

Last year, a group of Keystone teachers and administrators researched other independent schools to learn more about their OE programs and see where we could make improvements. In the process, we discovered that very few, if any, schools have a K-12 OE program. Most either start in middle or high school or have optional trips during the summer when school is not in session.

Starting last year, we opted to bring Keystone’s long-standing OE program down to the lower school so children as young as kindergarten could experience the joys of being outside with friends and teachers and learn about the natural world. Students in K-3 will be doing day excursions where they will have opportunities to visit local parks, natural areas, and conservation centers. They will also receive their OE journals where they will record notes, reflections, and artwork on each of their excursions all the way to twelfth grade. During the annual senior-rising 9th grade dinner in the spring, the soon-to-be graduates receive their journals and look back on what they’ve written over the years.

Overnight excursions begin in 4th grade, with a one-night camping trip to Government Canyon. In preparation for this adventure, students learn how to pitch tents, cook in the outdoors, and practice zero impact camping. Along with their teachers, the 4th graders are accompanied by seniors who share lessons and tips from their own Outdoor Education trips.

In 5th-7th grade, students travel to different locations in Texas. They learn about the flora, fauna, and marine life around the state while staying in cabins before returning to tent camping in 8th grade. Keystone contracts with experts in outdoor education for these trips who teach children how to interact with nature. In addition, these young adults develop peer relationships and strengthen bonds with their teachers. Just this week, Ms. Lloyd, Madame Bonnamour, Mr. Tijerina, and I had the pleasure of accompanying the 6th grade students to New Ulm, which is in between San Antonio and Houston, where we learned how humans interact with the natural world around them, played games, and did a night hike. It was a wonderful time!

As students would say, the “big trips” commence in 8th grade when students and teachers board planes and head to sites around the country for a week. They visit:

  • Yellowstone National Park-8th grade
  • Olympic National Park-9th grade
  • The Florida wetlands and Crystal River-10th grade
  • Washington, DC, VA, and the Appalachian Trail-11th grade
  • Yosemite National Park-12th grade

On these journeys, students hike, swim, snorkel, canoe, kayak, stargaze, eat countless sunbutter and jelly sandwiches and s’mores, and get close to nature. The sites we see are breathtaking and the experiences incomparable. It’s heartening to see students try new things, take risks, and push themselves beyond their comfort zone while learning and having fun.

On the recent 9th grade trip, we could not build a bonfire due to a burn ban in Washington, but the students more than made up for it by engaging in a variation of an annual ritual. Rather than throw their small piece of cedar into the fire, each student and chaperone tossed it into gorgeous Lake Crescent and expressed their own personal message of gratitude. The moment felt both inspiring and humbling as students encouraged and supported each other.

Many times parents have asked, “can I go along?” Sorry, but the short answer is “no.” Thanks, though, to the many teachers and staff members who leave their families, their comfortable beds, and the privacy of their own bathrooms to chaperone these trips. They deserve our deep appreciation.

OE trips support classroom instruction, build community and deepen the relationships that are a hallmark of Keystone. It’s a singular program that allows us to bring together our four pillars-academic excellence, ethical growth, community involvement, and responsible leadership-in an unparalleled manner. As we gear up to leave for upcoming trips, we heed the words of naturalist John Muir, “The mountains are calling & I must go & I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.”

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