The Power of an Outdoor Education Field Trip

Plant a group of kids in cabins in the mountains, and watch them grow.
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Fifth-graders mesmerized by the fire and camp in general.

School districts across the country often curtail or eliminate outdoor education when budgets are tight. Don’t let your kids miss out on this powerful experience: It’s different than a family hike, as I learned on a recent trip with 79 fifth-graders. Take a bunch of 10-year-olds out of school and stick them in cabins in the mountains for a three-day outdoor education field trip, and magic is bound to happen.

I witnessed the magic as a chaperone on my son’s class trip to Cal-Wood Education Center near Boulder, Colorado a few weeks ago. (The trip was funded by the school, by fundraisers, and by parents.)

Amidst days of hiking through the snow and learning about nature and wildlife, kids got an education in surprising ways.

I watched a girl—we’ll call her Terra—transform from reluctant to confident in 24 hours. She was sitting by herself and debating going home on the first day, and the next she was consoling a homesick friend. What happened in between? Terra had been captivated by the sparkly quartz rocks she’d seen during a hike, and really perked up when a teacher told her about career as a geologist.

I saw a boy—I’ll call him Aaron—start off on a night hike in tears because he missed his family, only to say the next day that walking under the stars had been his favorite part of camp. In particular, he enjoyed the part where each kid hiked alone in the dark. It was only a few hundred yards, but it had a huge effect.

The last morning, we awoke to falling snow and dropping temperatures. The activity planned was a game of “predator versus prey,” which is designed to help kids imagine what it’s like to be an animal on either side of that great divide. Besides hiding from and “attacking” each other, they would also be using a map to find resources like water or food, which were noted in the woods by colored rope around trees.

It may have been dumping snow and dipping into the 20s, but the kids were fired up. For the next hour and a half, those 79 kids stomped around in the snowy woods, stalking their prey or hiding from predators. They read maps, crossed ravines, and hiked up hills. And I didn’t hear a single one of them even mention the weather.

“We teach kids more than science and that kind of stuff,” says Cal-Wood Executive Director Rafael Salgado. “The teachers say, and I agree, that they really believe the kids show their full potential up here. I think it’s a good way to get kids excited about life, really.”

Salgado, who has been the Executive Director at Cal-Wood for the past 20 years, says he first became interested in nature because of a duck. “My dad was a duck hunter; we’d make duck tamales,” he explains. “I was out with him one day, and a duck had a metal bracelet on its ankle.” Salgado says he learned that the bracelet helped biologists track the duck all the way back to Canada, which fascinated him and inspired him to pursue a career in natural sciences.

“With programs like Cal-Wood,” says Salgado, “we want to be that for the kids. We want to be their duck.”

Watching the kids hoot and holler through the falling snow, pretending to be red-tailed hawks and amphibians, it was obvious that they've succeeded.

How to Tap Into Outdoor Ed

To help your child’s school get involved in outdoor education programs, follow these tips:

- Ask around. Inquire with friends and teachers at other schools within the same district or others what they do for outdoor education.

- Research. "Most states have an association related to environmental education that might have a list of environmental education providers,” says Salgado. “Some are called (state name) alliance for environmental education, (state name) association for environmental education, environmental education association of (name of state), and (name of state) association for environmental and outdoor education, etc.” Salgado explains that some counties might also have more local resources. For instance, in Boulder County CO teachers can go to this E Movement website to find environmental education providers. At the national level, teachers can start by checking the North American Association for Environmental Education. Also, check out websites like Project Learning Tree, where you'll find information and resources.

- Make contact. Contact the outdoor education programs’ administrators to find out what kinds of programs are available. “After a school finds a center,” says Salgado, “it’s important to invite the organization to present the program to the interested teachers and principal as well as to the parents and kids, separately.”

- Connect with staff. Find out which staff member(s) at your child’s school are the right people to talk to about the potential for outdoor education, or have the outdoor education contact you’ve established reach out to that person to describe their available programs.

- Get enthused. Direct your school to any resources (like this story, and this research and ) to help get them enthused.

Know that most outdoor education centers have scholarships available for low-income schools, but that schools still need to raise some funds and parent need to pay a portion of the fees regardless of their socioeconomic status.