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Learning and Growing in the Great Outdoors

Learning and Growing in the Great Outdoors
Sophie Shulman

For grades 3-8, outdoor education gives students the opportunity to explore the natural world during unique and rewarding field experiences. Students step out of their comfort zones, strengthen relationships with peers, and develop self-reliance, independence, cooperation, and trust. They also gain a greater appreciation of the wilderness and new insight into the relationship between humans and our environment. Outdoor ed has always been an important part of our program. And, like many other things over the past few years, the COVID-19 pandemic forced a short pause on our program in 2020 and required us to be flexible. Throughout the pandemic and as we see many aspects of pre-pandemic life return more recently, we have always been committed to making these experiences possible.

Our goals for outdoor ed are for students to experience nature, challenge themselves, and bond with their peers. From spring 2020 through 2021, we wondered, how can we maintain those goals and how can we do it safely? “We really pushed the envelope of what was going on in the industry in the spring of 2021,” says Dave Hickman, Head of Grades 5-8. “We decided that students could do local day trips, where they could be outdoors and use socially distanced transportation to get there.” Students went hiking in China Camp, kayaking in Sausalito, ziplining in Sonoma, and 8th graders even did an overnight at Lake Sonoma. Dave says, “I remember sitting on the shore of Lake Sonoma, soaked through, watching my crew of ten students tipping their kayaks over in the mud and thinking, ‘this is so great.’ After quarantining and adhering to strict public health guidelines, which to some degree were still in existence, we were finally able to give kids these incredible experiences again.” 

This year, many of the pre-pandemic elements of outdoor ed trips have returned. And, the pandemic continues to impact the vendors that help us provide these trips, presenting new challenges. Early in the fall, we discovered that our usual outfitter would not be able to take us to Yosemite and had offered a Point Reyes backpacking option in September instead. Since Point Reyes is close to home and relatively familiar to many of our 7th graders, it was not an ideal option--leading us to seek stronger options that would lead students to a more remote area. That research brought us a new outdoor experience for our 7th graders—a 5-day, 4-night backpacking trip in Joshua Tree National Park in the spring. The trip will include backcountry skills, small group bonding, hiking, geology, the human history of the region, rock climbing, and leave-no-trace skills for wilderness exploration. “We are so excited to travel to a new area and give our students time to backpack, explore, and bond with one another,” says Dave. “It’s also the result of staying committed to our goals of providing a meaningful, challenging, memorable, and transformative experience. It was worth the push to build a trip that is better aligned with our goals.” 

This year, we have an exciting slate of outdoor adventures for our students: 6th graders just returned from Pinnacles, where they camped, hiked, and rock climbed; in the spring, we aim to have 3rd graders stay overnight locally, with details still to be determined; 4th graders will go on an overnight trip to Coloma Outdoor Discovery School; 5th grade outdoor ed is also still in the works, but may include a trip to Big Sur; 7th graders will travel to Joshua Tree for the first time in Mark Day history; and we plan to have 8th graders return to raft down the Deschutes River in Oregon. 

“No matter what, we know that outdoor ed is a powerful and transformative experience,” says Dave. “We will always be committed to pushing through whatever challenges we face in order to give kids these experiences.”