Strengthen Your Outdoor Education Program

Vol. 14 No. 3

academicleadership eletter Vol15 No3 outdoorlearnin

Outdoor education has a long and distinguished history in private-independent schools. Whether it involves an annual trip or is a yearlong component of the curriculum, administrators cite various benefits to these programs: personal growth, development of social skills and self-confidence, health and fitness, teamwork, whole student education, fun and recreation, and enhancement of a positive school culture.

As you develop, expand, or assess your school’s own outdoor education program, determine how effectively you address these fundamental areas.

  1. Academics. Parents (current and prospective) expect value for their tuition dollar—real, tangible value. They demand a strong academic program, one that supports their child’s placement and success in college, or at the next educational level. An outdoor program without a connection to the classroom is not likely to gain or retain their support. This is particularly true if parents do not intrinsically value outdoor experiences, for whatever reason (e.g., urban background, lack of or negative experience, cultural). Integrate outdoor experiences with core academics, and validate their impact on the students’ learning.
  2. Character development. After academics and safety, character development is the next factor parents consider when choosing a school. Outdoor education offers a means to enhance that part of your school mission, which makes it a potentially significant differentiating factor in your efforts to attract students.

These programs also have an impact on re-recruitment. They support students’ increasing desire to take on adult-like roles as they go through middle and upper school, and they provide experiences that bond students on the individual, grade, division, and school level. The outdoor program provides a legitimate incentive for students to stay at a school, as they eagerly anticipate the trips and experiences in the grades ahead with the friends they have made.

Schools are also now integrating service learning into their outdoor programs. Combining these two character-development opportunities gives “outdoor” a much wider meaning—it’s the “connection” between the student and his or her environment.

  1. Risk management. Conducting a risk assessment analysis supports you in offering a safe program and allows you to address safety concerns from all groups in the school community. Talk to your insurance agent or broker to confirm whether the activities you offer or are considering, such as a ropes course, are exclusions in your policy.

Risk management raises the bar on performance and creates a standard of care.

  1. Students with disabilities. If you have students with disabilities in your school community, are they able to take part in your outdoor education program? Does it address their needs?

A study by the National Inclusive Camp Practices (NICP), “Inclusive Outdoor Programs Benefit Youth,” found that “across the country youth with and without disabilities make significant growth in their outdoor skills and personal development (e.g., self-reliance, social interactions, communication, and self-esteem) in resident one-week camp and outdoor school programs. The combined results of most measures revealed that self-reliance, or independence, was a predominant outcome for youth.”

The study also found the experience was equally valuable for students who participated with the students with disabilities.

  1. Developmental needs. Student interest has become more diverse and attention span is a more challenging dynamic. In planning your program, consider the developmental needs of your students, and their increasingly strong demands for variety and choice.
  2. Marketing. Don’t expect parents—or even your own teachers and administrators—to intuitively grasp the value of outdoor education. Set the program up for them as an ongoing experience with strong benefits, both academic and personal.

Talk about individual experiences and the overall program during the admission process, in parent meetings, during the Board’s annual orientation, and with donors. Write about and publish photos of outdoor education programs in your viewbook, newsletter, and other publications, and especially on your website.

  1. Evaluation. Assess your outdoor education program and personnel. Besides formal surveys of parents, participants, and instructors, set up an ongoing “feedback loop” to collect written and verbal comments as each project, unit, or trip is completed. Identify where your program is succeeding and what areas need work. Confirm, statistically and through open-ended questions, the value your constituents find in this program. Share the survey results with the school community.

The outdoor education program in private-independent schools has changed greatly over the years. It is now a much more complex undertaking with greater accountability and a more demanding group of parents and participants. Work within those restraints and develop an outdoor program that will enhance academic achievement and character development in your school, improve your competitive niche, and enable you to more effectively recruit and retain students.

Additional ISM resources:
The Source for Academic Leadership Vol. 9 No. 7 Wildlife Cams Give Students a Chance to See Animals in Nature
The Source for Business and Operations Vol. 6 No. 8 Playground Safety Tips

Additional ISM resources for Gold Consortium members:
I&P Vol. 28 No. 3 Planning School Grounds for Outdoor Learning
I&P Vol. 41 No. 5 The Risk Management Assessment Process

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