A group of excited fifth graders exits the school bus on a brisk Monday morning – the start of an extraordinary week of school. There are no sidewalks, crossing patrols, or brick walls adorned with any "Washington Elementary" sign. Instead, a forest surrounds the dusty road, and there is a lake in the distance, with rowboats racked up on the shore.
This group of children is not here for summer camp, and they are here for more than simply nature study. They will participate in a unique learning experience called resident outdoor environmental education (ROEE). These students will have a terrific time, and they may even learn more this week than any other week in school.
What Is ROEE?
ROEE is more than a field trip and more than a special day program. Ideally, an ROEE experience is an extension of the classroom. Good ROEE classes are student discovery-based and make use of activities best done in the outdoors, in settings not possible at school.
During a few days at an ROEE center, students may take interpretive hikes through deciduous forest and short grass prairie ecosystems, and may discover daphnia and spirogyra in aquatic microscopic habitats by doing a water-study lab by the lake. Students may build lasting friendships with classmates by sharing a meal in the dining hall or by walking down the trail, arms around shoulders, chatting together. They learn that support is real among the group at the challenge course where they cross the King Kong Walker or the Australian Trolley. They learn, too about growing a little stronger and independent during a week or several days away from home.
With all of the time required to prepare and energy spent during the program, a five-day week impacts learning more. Many groups come for four-day, three-day, or even two-day trips and have excellent results. In general, the longer the stay, the better.
A common chaperone method is parent volunteers. Teachers and trained high school or college students can also do this job. Some centers provide cabin chaperones. Teachers (through pre-experience training) and the center staff usually share the responsibility of teaching and leading activities.
The Main Objectives
ROEE generally focuses on two main goals: get to know people better and get to know nature better. These goals can be further defined as follows:
After students have experienced ROEE, they are able to make correlations between textbook concepts and the encounters they had during the program. The teacher may say, "Remember when we saw the waterfalls on the limestone cliff?" Each student feels more part of the group, with the shared experience in common. And they get to know their teachers better.
Summer Camp vs. ROEE
ROEE is not summer camp, and it is not a classroom school experience either. It is a taste of how much fun summer camp can be, but the experience is rarely long enough to compare with all the activities and experiences of resident summer camp.
Many camp activities may be reserved strictly for summer camp. The atmosphere of summer camp is not quite as academic. Students are reminded by teachers in blue jeans to get their backpacks and journals; at summer camp, college-age counselors walk around in shorts, asking kids, "Are ya having fun?" Where ROEE involves nature classes and group projects, summer camp features more song, games, swimming, recreation, and personal growth. The two overlap but are not identical. They can cross-market one another.
The Faces of ROEE
Two distinct models of ROEE programs exist. Although, these models are helpful, beginners should avoid either extreme and incorporate the needs and resources of both the camp and the school group clientele. As varied as schools, students, and teachers are, there is a corresponding variety in program offerings.
No matter which model is used, the camp staff should provide a certain service level, including thorough pre-trip communication and planning, consultation several times per day, written evaluations and response. Camp staff should be at least partially involved as curricula are developed and be able to help with supplies and teaching.
The innkeeper model
The full program-provider model
Creating the Program
The following are some ideas to get your ROEE program starting and to keep it growing.
Design a skeleton curriculum
Know your priorities
Keep your promises
Developing Your ROEE Lessons
One method of program planning is to offer a menu of classes, and the school groups may choose the programs they like, as time and resources allow. Another method is to create a series of integrated programs that focus on a certain area, such as group development (through adventure and initiative-type activities), nature study, environmental issues, or history. The group’s entire visit may focus on one broad topic.
Once you have developed your menu of classes, create the lesson plans. Many ROEE lessons are adapted from those offered by nature centers and classroom curriculum books such as Project Wild, or they are published as nature activity books. It is a mark of professionalism for an ROEE center to have attractive and thorough lesson plans for ROEE activities. However, many good ROEE centers have no formally written lesson plans.
Lessons should be adaptable to the various needs of any group. Most of the larger programs have plans for their most common classes. A few centers have not only written, but published, their curriculum, and offer these for sale. Some ROEE programs copyright their lessons, and others will share their material freely. You may or may not be able to simply borrow and copy lessons from another ROEE center. In any case, it is ethical to give credit where it is due. Finally, it can be very rewarding to develop your own material, and then it is most likely to fit your particular needs.
ROEE is an intense educational experience with many components that successfully work together. Starting and adapting your program to students, teachers, and camp can be the beginning of an inspiring connection between the outdoors and the classroom.
Jim Parry is the outdoor school director at Camp Classen YMCA in southern Oklahoma. Camp Classen serves about 9,000 students each year in ROEE. The camp also offers summer youth camp, weekend family programs, and group camping opportunities.
Originally published in the 1998 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.