Going to Outdoor School: Talking the Talk

Brian Thomas

Returning from the 2011 ACA National Conference in San Diego, I began to reflect on how camps can impact a student's education. For the past forty years, my school district has sent fifth graders to camp to enhance their science education. Our fifth grade students participate in a three-day, two-night program. During this time, the students get to experience science at a school without walls. The hands on classes have a great impact on student comprehension. More camps should increase their involvement in this type of school year endeavor. It is a great way to enhance relationships with the community, make use of your facilities during the school year, and make connections to establish a summer client base.

How Do I Get Schools to Participate?

With the budget crisis hitting educational programs nationwide, schools are looking for inexpensive ways to enhance curriculum. Attending a day or overnight session in the outdoors is an attractive alternative to a museum field trip. Students today are kinesthetic learners and need hands-on, active learning opportunities. Providing an inexpensive program to schools is a great way to establish relationships with your local districts. You might want to begin by establishing a day program — have students attend a four- to five-hour session that combines instructional material with team building.

Before you approach a school or district to attend your program, you must be able to talk the talk. "Teacher talk" is an important attribute when you are encouraging schools to buy what you're selling. Teachers worry about standardized testing. They are being evaluated on student performance on these tests. They do not want to lose instructional time to an outdoor field trip that has no educational value. You need to be able to discuss criteria-based outcomes. Know the state standards for the grade level you are trying to recruit. Show how the curriculum you cover at your camp correlates with those state standards. Create activities that specifically match educational goals for that grade level.

Communication Is the Key

As I mentioned before, I work for a district that sends fifth graders from forty-four schools to a three-day, two-night science-based camp. When I first started in this position, the classes the students took while at camp were basic cookie-cutter classes. My first year as coordinator, I stopped by the teacher cabin one night to see how everyone was doing. The teachers were very plain spoken and forthright and did not hesitate to let me know what was not working for their students. This conversation made these cabin visits part of my routine. Since then, I've made it a habit to visit the teacher cabins after camp fire on the second night and receive feedback. They've told me everything from "there are too many rocks on the ground" to "the microscopes are out of focus" to "we need more toilet paper" to "classes are boring" or "exciting." I've learned to listen and write down all of their comments.

From the teacher visits I learned the weaknesses and strengths of the program. I also learned the strengths and weaknesses of the students. The camp we attend, Collin County Adventure Camp, is run by the YMCA. Jim Parry, the education coordinator, was willing to listen to this feedback and was both flexible and open to all suggestions. Because of the teacher feedback, we were able to revise and upgrade the classes. We customized the curriculum to meet the needs of the students and teachers. The classes became more interactive and matched the state standards the teachers are required to teach. We have taken a program that started as a three-day, two-night program and extended it back to school. The teachers now do pre-camp activities before they attend camp and have two days for follow-up activities once they return to school. We have created the curriculum for the teachers so there is no extra work involved on their part.

Now when I meet with teachers on that second night, most of the complaints are about the weather or food. They still give some suggestions about the curriculum, but we are now meeting the student needs. Because of this, the teachers see an intrinsic value in giving up in-school instructional time to attend outdoor school.

The term outdoor school is another selling point I use. I heard teachers and parents both asking, "Why should I send my children to camp during school time? They should go to camp in the summer." Changing the terminology "going to camp" to "going to outdoor school" immediately changed the perception of the program. Emphasizing curriculum enhancement to parents and teachers and promoting fun to the students sells the program to everyone.

Make Initial Contact — Have a Plan

If you are new to outdoor education, go to the schools and find out how you can meet the needs of the students and teachers. If you have an established outdoor education program, revisit your schools and ask the teachers for input into your program. Do your homework so you have the necessary background knowledge and are able to use "teacher talk." Prepare a list of goals and a few activities that reflect the state standards. Talk about criteria-based outcomes for your program. Have a plan to track results. It does not have to be a written test of the students. Create games or skits the students can do to show the knowledge they have gained.

The main thing is to listen to teacher input. Do not try to sell your program so forcefully that you are not hearing what they need. Be prepared to be flexible. In order to succeed, the program needs to conform to teachers and the school system because these are their students. These teachers are responsible for their students' progress and they take this responsibility seriously. Your best route to success is to be a valuable resource for the teachers.

In Texas, our state standards for science (TEKS) declare that kindergarten and first grade should "facilitate classroom and outdoor investigations for at least 80 percent of the instructional time."

For second and third grade, the requirement is 60 percent of the time, and for fourth and fifth grade, it is 50 percent of the time. This is a very powerful tool to have in convincing schools your program will benefit their students.

Camps can and should grow past a strictly summer camp mentality. We have the opportunity to influence children during the school year. By providing educational opportunities for students, we are not only helping our community, but we are establishing camp as a valuable and critical educational experience for children year-round.

Brian Thomas is the outdoor education coordinator for Plano Independent School District in Plano, Texas, which sends approximately 4,000 students from forty-four elementary schools to Collin County Adventure Camp for science-based experiences each year. Teachers serve as support personnel and parents act as chaperons staying with students in the cabins. Contact the author at brian.thomas@pisd.edu.

Originally published in the 2011 September/October Camping Magazine.

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