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.

Parents Can Help Bring Environmental Education to Schools

Unfortunately, American children spend more and more time indoors than ever before. At home they are enticed indoors by the lure of television or computer games, and they are kept inside out of concerns for their safety or the legitimate lack of accessible parks in their neighborhoods. At school children find limited opportunities for outdoor learning, while school field trips are reduced due to shrinking budgets.

Some school districts maintain their own residential environmental learning centers while others work with private facilities like Glen Helen. Despite the proven value of the Schoolcamp experience, most schools don’t participate in such programs. As parents, it can be our responsibility to be the “squeaky wheel” that pushes our kids’ schools to participate. Participation in programs like the Glen Helen Schoolcamp produces a lifetime of benefit for children and their communities.

An online directory of residential programs in the U.S. and Canada can be found at RainCloud Publications (http://guide.raincloudpub.com).

Nick Boutis is the Executive Director of the Glen Helen Ecology Institute in Yellow Springs, Ohio. A father of 3, he holds a B.A. in Biology from Oberlin College, and a Masters degree in Non-Profit Management from the University of Maryland. He began his career in environmental education in the naturalist training program of the Glen Helen Outdoor Education Center. Additional experiences in environmental and conservation education include work at Old Woman Creek State Nature Preserve, the National Audubon Society, and Population Connection. He is active in the North American Association for Environmental Education, the Association of Nature Center Administrators, and the Environmental Education Council of Ohio.

Beth Krisko is the Director of Glen Helen Outdoor Education Center, with a B.A. in Communication and Masters degree in Environmental Science from Miami University of Ohio. Beth began as an environmental educator in Alaska, but has spent most of her career teaching in the deciduous forests of Glen Helen. Beth’s credential as an Ohio licensed science teacher provides a foundation for advocating the importance of outdoor learning experiences for children.