Column: Outdoor classroom experience is dynamicFive years ago my husband chaperoned a trip for the tough to Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center. He and the children came home with harrowing tales of winter survival, a ropes course and skin-chapping adventures in the snow.
Five years ago my husband chaperoned a trip for the tough to Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center. He and the children came home with harrowing tales of winter survival, a ropes course and skin-chapping adventures in the snow. I was ever so grateful that I didn’t have to be part of it.
My turn came last week when I accompanied a class on an educational adventure at Wolf Ridge. Initially dreading the challenge, I checked out the website, wolf-ridge.org, which describes Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center as an “accredited K-12 school” whose “educational activities immerse participants in nature exploration, cultural history, outdoor skills, team-building, and personal growth.”
I’m all for “cultural history.” Organized “team-building” is terrific fun. However, “outdoor skills” and “personal growth” are clauses which concern me. My aims for “personal growth” in the past have generally accompanied discomfort or pain, and now I was afraid this discomfort might involve my lack of “outdoor skills.”
I needn’t have worried. Upon our arrival at the gorgeous compound nestled between pine hills and vast Lake Superior, our liaison quickly soothed fears and promised to keep our spirits high. In fact all the guides at Wolf Ridge were remarkably adaptable, kind and strong. Each one made each class very special.
The outdoor classroom experience was dynamic. My 12-year-old, a boy who vibrates out of his desk on a good day, was exhilarated and passionate about learning. Normally in a classroom he wrestles to keep his attention focused. When he is out in nature, there is no struggle. He naturally attunes himself to what’s in the trees, what topography is ahead, who’s got a great stick, what are those tracks. Instead of the constant scolding to pay attention, he receives kudos for all he notices and calls everyone’s attention to. Instead of being the class problem, he is part of the class solution. This role is vital to a positive understanding of himself.
One morning we spent an hour learning how to use harnesses and carabiner clips in order to complete the ropes course. I couldn’t have completed it had not an 11-year-old girl, Lydia, talked me through it. Her ability to guide and encourage gave me hope for our country’s future!
One afternoon we donned snowshoes to find great things in the woods. We DID find great things. We found a station of benches where wild birds are conditioned to eat bird seed off of squirmy grade-schoolers’ heads! We also found a Native American settlement where we got to sit in a teepee, eat venison jerky and hear Native American tales. The students were so rapt with attention they called for “More! More!”
One afternoon the guide gave groups of kids tarps, a little twine, a couple of matches, pots and some hot chocolate packets. She told them to spread out, make shelters and fires, and have some hot chocolate.
As parents we had to do the same thing. Although my group didn’t struggle with the challenge, we did struggle with NOT helping the kids around us. One dad gave in to the group with the smallest and most discouraged members, encouraging them to come to the base camp (ours) and borrow a firebrand. We obliged them; it seemed like an important survival move.
One group which intentionally didn’t receive parental intervention (even though they asked for it) was fighting over the quality of the melted water. The girls found the water filthy and refused to make hot chocolate with it. The boys refused to go find cleaner snow. This bone of contention was remembered all the way home to Duluth.
One lesson we learned in our survival skills class was the utmost importance of PMA — Positive Mental Attitude. I must admit, before every class I struggled with this. My inner princess whined while my outer teacher bit her tongue. I jumped into my snow pants and endured and then thrived. How could I not be positive when I saw our students respond with enthusiasm and joy — so different from many days in the cramped classroom?
Both public and private schools in Duluth send upper elementary students for an educational adventure at Wolf Ridge every year. Don’t miss the opportunity to send your kids. And if you want to be even richer, try to finagle a spot as a chaperone.
As my 9-year-old said, “It was the best trip we’ve ever tooken!”
Note: In addition to K-12 school programs, Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center offers summer camps, family vacations (including a “Grandparent & Grandchild Road Scholar” program), wilderness trips, graduate naturalist training, and live education animal programs. Check out its annual open house on June 15. Learn more at wolf-ridge.org.
Monthly Budgeteer columnist S.E. Livingston is a wife, mother and teacher who writes for family and education newsletters in northern Minnesota (and lives in Duluth). E-mail her at email@example.com.