In Prince Albert, Regina, and Saskatoon dozens of students have ditched their desks, donned their hiking boots, and enrolled in Outdoor School programs. Outdoor schools are sprouting up in different communities around the province, built on the philosophy that "the whole community is a classroom," as Mark Gosselig from the Adventures in Learning program at Riffel High School in Regina states. Depending on the program, Outdoor Schools offer students in grade 8,9,10 or 11 to step out of the normal classroom for a term, or in some cases an entire school year, to follow the conventional curriculum in a very unconventional way.
This program opens our eyes to the world, and makes us want to walk our talk. Like, most students in our class have started riding our bikes to school instead of getting rides. When we do reports we also have to try to find solutions, so we don't just talk about a garbage problem, we try to fix it.
"Students who come in meek and mild at the beginning are singing to each other while canoeing down the Waskesiu by the end of the term."
Mark Gosselig, Adventures in Learning program, Riffel Highschool, Regina
"This program teaches us about our comfort zones, and how to go out of our comfort zones"
Grade 8 Ecoquest student, Saskatoon
"We learn that we are part of the future, we make a difference"
Grade 8 EcoQuest student, Saskatoon
While students gain all of the knowledge necessary to meet the curriculum requirements of their classes, the learning opportunities are wide ranging and often very creative. This comes from a philosophy of education that relies very much on first hand experience as the teacher.
Kim Archibald, a teacher in the Grade 11 Outdoor School at Marion Graham Collegiate in Saskatoon, is one of the pioneers of this model of teaching in Saskatchewan. Kim started the Grade 11 school 9 years ago out of a desire to do something different.
I belong to a community of teachers who believe in 'out of school education', which means taking people out to places and different environments where they can learn directly about the world around them. We use 'adventure as the 'hook' to attract students, and when they come we provide a high quality and challenging education built on real experiences.
Camping trips, field trips, urban treks, work placements with community organizations, tree planting, bird banding, culture camps, snowshoeing, wildlife tracking, survival skills, landscape drawing, and community activism are all fair game as teaching opportunities for Outdoor School students. These hands-on learning opportunities are geared towards providing a transformation in how these students see the world.
According to Shelley Loeffler, one of the teachers in the Grade 8 EcoQuest program in Saskatoon, it is all about setting up opportunities for students to take on responsibility for their own learning. "Many students are chomping at the bit to get out there and learn about and engage with the world around them, but they often feel that they have no power to get out there. It is so important that youth learn to make choices and are given some control over what is going on, because in the real world that's the way it is."
This is one of the most powerful aspects of the program according to some of the EcoQuest students. According to one class member "This program opens our eyes to the world, and makes us want to walk our talk. Like, most students in our class have started riding our bikes to school instead of getting rides. When we do reports we also have to try to find solutions, so we don't just talk about a garbage problem, we try to fix it."
The program goes beyond just learning about environmental issues and subjects like Geography, Science, Math, English it is also a place to build relationships, self-confidence, and self-esteem. According to Scott Thompson, a teacher in the Ecoquest program "We know from research that especially in middle and highschool years, students yearn for a sense of belonging. In these outdoor school programs, the experience of bonding is great, students come together and commit to be with each other, and by participating in group activities that involve some level of risk, whether it be physical or emotional, the group really feels empowered together."
After visiting some of these schools firsthand and talking with teachers around the province, I have a renewed hope in the education of some of our younger generations. The students in these classes are taking on challenges and experiences as a group that will prepare them to be leaders in their communities. They will be leaders who understand who they are in the world and in relationship with the earth. They are leaning about what some of their responsibilities are as human beings, and how working together and supporting those around you is a necessary part of thriving and surviving in our world. These students will be on the forefront of helping us through the challenges that lay ahead, and that these schools are providing the kinds of learning and development opportunities that we will need to get past them.
If you are interested in capturing some of the spirit and philosophy of outdoor schools in your school, classroom, family, workshop, or community, the leaders of the existing programs provided some insights based on their experiences:
For more information about Outdoor Schools in Saskatchewan, contact one of the fine trail breaking teachers who are doing it now: