Why Outdoor Education Programs Matter

Kids do well when they can learn to value their mistakes as much as their successes. How do these lessons get taught? By allowing kids time and the space to make mistakes, and adults who provide encouragement and support to help kids persevere. Playing outdoors helps develop problem solving and critical thinking skills, builds self-awareness, and leads to resilience and confidence. These experiences evolve spontaneously, but they hold high value for our campers. The size of our groups and flexible structure of our activities allows us the time to focus on these critical learning opportunities in real time and to help kids develop a growth mindset in which they believe that “effort leads to success.” In this way of thinking, success is achieved through perseverance and improvement, not perfection.

While we try to teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life is all about. - Angela Schwindt. Photo collage: six photos of children playing outdoors.

Teaching is Learning
We’ve talked about how our programs provide kids with a space where they can learn about themselves and nature. But have we mentioned how many of them then turn around to teach each other? Children in our programs love to go home and share the things they learned with their families. They are proud that they know about stinging nettle and how to identify a wasp nest. They will not only tell their families about it, but often they will share this knowledge with strangers we come upon when we are out exploring. Also, while not all of our kids become leaders, they all learn valuable lessons in being self-reliant and responsible, lessons that they use everywhere else.

Collage of five photos of kids teaching each other and teaching adults.

Tree Climbing: One Example of Lessons Learned During Outdoor Play

As we’ve said before, the lessons learned are a natural result of the play. For instance, a child who is encouraged to climb trees learns the following (and more) while playing:

  1. Botany: recently a five year old child climbing in a cedar tree exclaimed, “Climbing a cedar is different from climbing a willow!” The child may not conscientiously be thinking of why climbing a cedar (which grows vertically with horizontal branches that make a great ladder to climb) is different from climbing a willow (whose trunk grows low to the ground, nearly horizontally, with small branches growing vertically, creating a “slalom” course), but they will remember the differences, and that is a great start to learning the basics of botany.
  2. Entomology, ornithology, mammalogy: anyone who has ever spent time with a plant knows that insects, birds, and mammals are closely associated with them, and people who climb trees come face-to-face with these friends. The more often a child experiences this, the more they start to see patterns, such as which animals are associated with which tree, what those animals are doing, and how they react to the child.
  3. Physics: a person climbing a tree performs tests on gravity, asking and answering questions such as: how big does a branch need to be to support me? How far out on a branch can I go before it bends? Does wet moss change how I climb? What happens if I fall?
  4. Problem solving, concentration, and patience: in order to avoid falling, a child must think through the movements they’re going to make. Sometimes they have to backtrack, or even start over.
  5. Cooperation and communication: if there is more than one child, they have to learn how to share the tree to keep from accidentally hurting each other.

On top of that, tree climbing enhances physical development, gross and fine motor skills, builds self-confidence, and reduces stress.

From kid to counselor: Our first cohorts are now teens, and several of them have become our assistants. Collage of six photos: three teenagers and themselves as little kids.