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.
School groups as young as second grade and into high school come to ROEE, and college experiences are common. Upper elementary (fifth or sixth grade) is most common.
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:
- Through a sustained group-living setting, including sharing of work projects, group problem-solving, time for personal interaction, and simple fun, students will gain a greater sense of independence and confidence, and have practiced and improved interpersonal skills.
- Students will be in a natural setting to gain a greater awareness of ecological relationships and processes and the identities of local flora and fauna. They are given some positive sense of their role as part of the solution to environmental problems.
An ROEE experience teaches students to care more for the natural world. Students can see environmental living in practice, like recycling, waste reduction, pausing for the sunset, and stepping over erosion-reducing logs on hiking trails. They can be reminded that the trees around them help provide air for breathing and habitat for woodpeckers. They can sing songs around a campfire.
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 ROEE program can be entirely led and taught by the school teachers or resource persons brought in to lead activities. Resource people might include government agency staff, such as from the Wildlife or Fishery Department, experts in related fields, or any person trained to lead a particular program. Some school districts operate their own program on a leased site for an entire season or school year. In these scenarios, the camp acts as an "innkeeper."
The primary advantage to the innkeeper model for the school is that teachers are fully involved with planning and student experiences. Since teachers know the curriculum, it can be easily integrated with classroom work. Also, teachers know their students, so they know the most effective educational approach to use to reach them. The advantage for camp is clear: very little investment of money, liability, or people is required.
The difficulty with this model for a school is the amount of work the teachers must do to plan and conduct the program. The down side for the camp might be that communication with the school is limited causing an us-versus-them mentality. Another disadvantage for camp may be that the camp will question whether the school’s program is consistent with the camp’s mission.
The full program-provider model
In a full program-provider model, the camp provides food service, all of the educational programs, cabin supervision, student discipline, medical care, and even provisions for before-and-after trip programs. The school simply decides to come, and everything is done for them.
For camps, the advantage is that this model will most likely be consistent with the camp’s mission. Schools will benefit from camp staff relieving the teachers of the burden of teaching in an unfamiliar setting.
Finding good ROEE staff for this plan can be a real chore, and it is not always easy to pay them well or help with their housing. Conducting similar few-day programs repeatedly gets old for some people, and there is frequent turnover.
Creating the Program
The following are some ideas to get your ROEE program starting and to keep it growing.
The two most expensive parts of ROEE are staffing and facilities. ROEE facilities include winterized meeting space for teaching classes and sleeping quarters geared to the size of a typical class. Many summer camp facilities can easily adapt to the needs of school groups, and many school groups are quite willing to adapt to the camp facility. ROEE staff can be senior summer staff, young professionals, or more experienced professionals. Teaching certificates are generally not required (in many school system-based programs they are) but are of course very helpful. ROEE work tends to pay better than summer camp. Professional benefits, housing, staff policies, and any other perks should be considered for staff. Program equipment can be a major expense as well, but it doesn’t have to be.
Design a skeleton curriculum
If you are just beginning an ROEE program, you should first create a skeleton curriculum, showcasing the camp’s facility, natural and human resources, and solid science and group-building activities. A key step is to know the target market’s prescribed classroom curriculum and tie the outdoor program to it. For example, if the fifth graders in you area are supposed to understand biomes, include the camp’s biome in the lessons. The curriculum should not be "cast in stone," however; let the school know you are willing to flex and meet the specific needs of the school group. Also, keep in mind the curriculum can act as the basis for mutual planning between the school representative and camp staff.
Know your priorities
Staying in the ROEE business is basically a matter of customer relations. Use this question-and-answer format to identify priorities:
Q What is most important in ROEE?
A The safety and welfare of the students. The program must be child-centered.
Q Who are the customers?
A The teachers decide whether to come back, or at least they make recommendations. Make sure to have good programs for the students, but please the teachers, too.
Q Who evaluates the program, and who works with policy issues?
A Reports from those who attended the program should be sent to parents and the school board, who can be your evaluators and also your allies. A program with a strong reputation can ride through rocky times with these people on its side. They are also key marketing agents for a growing program.
Keep your promises
Thoughtful and friendly relations between people — before, during, and after the experience — is the single most important ingredient. Keep your promises to maintain good business relations; don’t surprise your customers. Many schools love their ROEE centers and are fully aware that the camp’s primary mission work occurs in the summer. Good communication and honesty are key.
Professional-looking mailings, brochures, videos, Web pages, and planning materials are certainly helpful, but they will not, in themselves, help your ROEE program grow. Teachers will remember good experiences, and obviously, they have many contacts with other educators. Teachers meet with others in their district, and sometimes they change schools. They might have a cousin who teaches in the next town. Enthused teachers are — bar none — the best marketing tool in ROEE.
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 shar