A Life-Shaping Week: The Outdoor Education Experience

By — Nature Deficit Disorder Special Edition Contributor
Updated on Oct 25, 2010

For over fifty years, children have been taking part in a life-shaping week at the Glen Helen Schoolcamp in Southwestern Ohio.  Begun with the simple notion that kids learn better when they learn in nature, the Schoolcamp experience has become what many regard as the most memorable week of their school years.

There are twenty five miles of trails in the Glen, and a typical class walks many of them. They study geology by examining limestone layers carved by glacial runoff, learn about botany while watching the trees sway in the pine forest, and explore the water cycle along the banks of the Yellow Springs Creek.

On the last night, classes join their naturalist on a nocturnal hike in the Glen. It is the first time many of them will have been outside in the woods at night. Although nervous at first, children gradually grow more comfortable with their surroundings. Keeping quiet, they hear no voices, cars, or other trappings of civilization. Instead, they grow attuned to the sound of the breeze through the trees, the noises of crickets and tree frogs, and the sound of their own breath. They learn the most important lesson that the Schoolcamp works to teach – that we are part of our environment and that our environment can support and nurture us if we do the same for it.  

Residential Environmental Education Programs Around the Country

At the over 400 residential facilities around the country, the geography and the environment may change but the concept is the same. Children, usually  from 4th through 7th grade, spend three to five days immersed in outdoor education that addresses state-prescribed academic content standards. For much of the curriculum, especially components relating to earth science, life science, physical geography, regional history, and field-enhanced mathematics, the experiential lessons of the Schoolcamp have proven ideal for teaching content that is not easily integrated into a traditional classroom.

Children’s First Experience in the Outdoors

For many students, especially those from the inner city, an outdoor experience can be their first time to walk down a trail, touch a snake, or watch the stars at night. It is also often the first time they learn to take care of themselves, from walking for exercise to eating low on the food chain. They emerge with a deeper understanding of the environment, their community, and their role within each.

Outdoor Education Leads to Improved Academic Success

Research shows that outdoor education enriches children’s lives in fundamental ways. Children who learn and play outdoors have:

  • Longer attention spans
  • More creativity
  • Higher levels of self-confidence
  • Higher standardized test scores
  • Greater academic success.
  • Significant improvements in cognitive development, self-discipline, imaginative and creative expression, language skills, and social interactions.

Residential Programs Show Greatest Improvements in Children

Evaluations have shown that the outdoor Schoolcamp experience represents “sticky learning.” Not only do students learn concepts not easily taught in a classroom setting, they hold onto what they learn for years. The residential component is a key to sustained effects, as there is a shift that happens in kids as the Schoolcamp week goes on. It is not simply that an educator can teach more during a four-day residential stay compared to a two-hour field trip, rather the shift is related to “nature-induced maturity.” The extended time in the outdoors helps kids slow down, relax, and think with more clarity.

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