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Learning from the Outdoors

By Kathy Haight

Posted: Friday, Oct. 22, 2010

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Many kids today don’t know what it’s like to play in the woods. They’re so plugged into laptops, iPods and cell phones that the outdoors may seem as foreign to them as a black-and-white television. But at schools like Cannon, Woodlawn and Countryside Montessori, students have ample chance to explore the wilderness – and develop self-confidence and teamwork – through programs that send them into the woods to catch salamanders, climb mountains or go white-water rafting.

The experience was powerful for 16-year-old Jane Campbell, who spent four days in the N.C. mountains last year with her class at Concord’s Cannon School.

“We realized you can do so much more than you think you can,” says Campbell, who did her first backpacking on the trip. Students made their own tents out of tarps, went climbing and rappelling and hiked off-trail using a map and compass.

Some experts believe contact with nature is essential to a child’s physical and emotional development. Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods,” says time spent in nature can help combat obesity, depression and attention disorders – and it can even increase test scores.

Amanda Sturner also believes in the transformative power of nature. She’s the Charlotte program director for North Carolina Outward Bound, a nonprofit wilderness education organization that runs the program for Cannon School’s 10th graders.

“We call the wilderness the great equalizer,” says Sturner, who got hooked on the wonder of nature on an Outward Bound trip at age 16. “Everybody is out of their element. Everybody has to work together to make the trip successful. They’re all out there wearing dirty clothes, eating dinner out of the same pot.”

When students are rock climbing, for example, the star athlete can be on the rock face, while the quiet kid from the back row of biology holds the ropes that keep him safe. By working together, they’re able to find common ground and build self-reliance. Students gain “self-confidence from challenging themselves physically, mentally and emotionally,” says Anne Hoffman, Cannon’s upper school counselor.

Plus, she says, “There’s no way to text in the woods. It’s just a nice, slower pace for them, even though it’s hard work. They learn they’re only as strong as their weakest member. And it’s not just about rushing to the next endeavor. It’s about the journey – which is a metaphor for life.”

At Woodlawn School in Davidson, 6th and 7th graders spend time in the N.C. mountains each year, hiking and studying plants and animals. “We cultivate an appreciation of these animals and the wilderness on which they depend,” says Woodlawn science teacher Cathy Denham. “Each new generation has to come to love the natural world in order for us to think it is worth preserving.”

Woodlawn 7th graders build their own rafts and taste edible plants like sourwood and sassafras. Sixth graders comb the woods and creeks for salamanders and wildflowers at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont.

“When you get kids out in nature, they feel things for real,” says Denham. “It’s not a virtual world. They touch things and feel with all their senses.”

At Charlotte’s Countryside Montessori School, students spend time at YMCA camps or other outdoor settings beginning in first grade. High school students spend three days at the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Bryson City for climbing and white-water rafting.

Such experiences can be as valuable to a student as history or algebra. “When you’re outside, there are fewer distractions,” says Outward Bound’s Sturner. “You’re able to focus better. You connect with the natural world, which helps you understand your place on the planet and how you function.”

More Information

North Carolina Outward Bound: ncobs.org

Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods”: Richardlouv.com

Nantahala Outdoor Center: www.noc.com

Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont: www.gsmit.org

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