Community September 1, 2015

The Expanded Classroom

Valley Schools Harness the Environment for Learning

For over 42 years the Community School has been leading its students into the backcountry, taking 350 kids into the wilderness for two and a half weeks each year to participate in any number of adventures, from winter camping in snow caves in the Sawtooth Mountains to multi-day raft trips down the Salmon River. These forays into nature seem to have a lasting impact on students, building character strength by pushing adolescents outside of their comfort zone, and asking them to deal with adversity and take on rather mature leadership roles.

Although we sense, perhaps instinctually, the lasting benefits for the school’s graduates, the impact had yet to be formally measured. Last year, David Holmes, Head of School, began seeking to answer the question of how the experience of an outdoor program affects participants after high school. After sending the first round of questionnaires around to alumni, the initial results are in: 88.89 percent of Community School graduates feel that the outdoor program was “extremely valuable.” And students overwhelmingly agree that the skill they obtained that best translates to their life after high school is risk-taking (90 percent), followed by being a leader, taking a leadership role among peers and technical outdoor skill.

The Community School annual "Fall Campout" atop Norton PeakThese findings support a growing body of research, including a study by the American Institute for Research, concluding that participation in outdoor education programs leads to improvements in social and personal skills of participants. An analysis of Outward Bound’s adventure education in the Review of Educational Research found that “adventure programs positively impact self-esteem to a greater extent than do other types of educational programs,” with an increase in independence, confidence, self-efficacy, self-understanding, assertiveness and improved decision-making abilities over the long term. 

However, what is unique about the Community School is that these outdoor programs are not extracurricular, “out-of-class” experiences. They are built into the academic year, replacing what would be at-the-desk class time in a more traditional school.

The Community School is not the only educational institution in the Wood River Valley invested in bringing the outdoors into the classroom and the classroom into the outdoors. Both The Sage School, a sixth- through 12th-grade private school in Hailey founded in 2009 by Community School alumnus, Harry Weekes, and the Syringa Mountain School, a K-6 Waldorf-inspired charter school that opened in 2014, are similarly committed to outdoor learning.

For Mende Coblentz, education director of the Syringa Mountain School, this trend to engage with the natural world isn’t surprising. “Nature is so readily accessible in Blaine County,” she said. Coblentz has worked at schools in an urban setting with much more limited access to nature than is available here. Yet even there she saw the importance of getting children outside. “Being inside all day can be a stressor. Being outside improves learning and increases calm. There’s a therapeutic element to it,” she said.

In addition to daily hikes where children as young as kindergarten learn to recognize flora and fauna as they exercise, the Syringa Mountain School last year implemented an experimental farm-to-school lunch program. Garden beds were built in the schoolyard this year. Next year the students will plant and grow the food, harvest and consume it. Coblentz hopes that by actively participating in the food cycle, the students will come to understand not only where their food comes from, but they will also build eco-literacy and a care for their environment. This type of project-based learning that the school is known for, is “really heart based,” she said.

The value of the outdoor world to our daily lives is not a new one. Wilderness is man’s “daily food,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson; John Muir proclaimed it “a necessity.”

Sage School students planting willows in the fall

Head of The Sage School, Harry Weekes echoes the sentiment of these early naturalists when explaining his pedagogical approach: “Consistent and persistent exposure to nature is critical.” When speaking of outdoor education, Weekes isn’t simply referring to the adventure-based variety, although they do this, too. He defines the outdoors more broadly. “Culturally, we consider that teaching happens in schools, but that is not how people learn,” Weekes said. “As humans, we are built to learn. So we are going to learn all of the time.” The classroom then, in practice, is everywhere. And, according to Weekes, a major part of your “classroom” experience is developing your identity. By enabling students to learn from their social, natural and built environments (a tripartite Weekes calls “human ecology”), these settings become tools for adolescents to understand who they are. 

Sage School students engage “human ecology” daily, whether as part of field study like a trip into the wilderness, community action like restoring a local stream, or wellness-oriented activities such as play or simply running around outside. By challenging the idea that learning only happens within the walls of the traditional classroom, Weekes has created an inspiring program of study that actively engages the surrounding environment and local community, crafting a careful balance between student self-direction and meaningful mentoring.

The result? Sage, Syringa Mountain and Community School students develop a strong sense of their own identities as they work toward becoming fully engaged citizens committed to environmental stewardship and community action.

This article appears in the Fall 2015 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.