Inside the Program that Sends Thousands of Middle Schoolers into the Woods

On an autumn afternoon, about 80 sixth graders took a break from class at a Portland, Oregon park. With cedar and redwoods towering overhead, the middle schoolers drew lichen samples in observation notebooks and played games like “predator vs prey,” in which those acting as “prey” found hiding spots from one “predator” student. Their instructors were also students, high schoolers donning woodchip badges with names like Crush, Pineapple, and Bex. (Teenagers go by nature-related nicknames and many Outdoor School staff also have these pseudonyms, included throughout this article.) While this environmental education program looked different because of the pandemic—students wore face masks and it was only a few hours versus a multi-day excursion—they were continuing a decades-old Oregon tradition known as Outdoor School.

Outdoor School began in 1957 as an opportunity for public school students to spend time in nature.

A first connection to the environment

Outdoor School began in 1957 as an opportunity for fifth- and sixth-grade public school students to spend time in nature, conducting field studies and learning to be stewards of the environment while living in cabins with high school students serving as counselors. For many Oregon students, it’s their first experience connecting to the land. It might sound like a large-scale summer camp or a utopian byproduct of Oregon’s hippie culture, but Outdoor School (ODS) has tangible benefits: A study of high school leaders found it improved their relationships with nature as well as their confidence, interest in STEM fields, and desire to pursue volunteering. And while climate change is dramatically changing how we live, many cite the impact of Outdoor School on lifelong decisions to be more sustainable and advocate for the environment.

Some 67% of Oregon voters opted to use money from the Oregon Lottery to fund Outdoor School for every one of the state’s 50,000 fifth and sixth graders.

Funding outdoor experiences

While outdoor education opportunities are offered at many United States private schools, these experiences are rarely available—for free—to public school students. Two pioneering educators, Dr. Irene Hollenbeck and Margaret Milliken, led the first outdoor school pilot programs in the 1950s, working with Southern Oregon University and Oregon State University, respectively, to pilot the potential of this educational opportunity through a research lens. Programs continued to grow in the 1960s and beyond, particularly supported by the Portland area. 

And although ODS programs have struggled financially due to school budget cuts affecting extracurricular activities, a 2016 ballot measure saved the day. The measure set aside money from the Oregon Lottery to provide ODS for every one of Oregon’s 50,000 fifth and sixth graders. In a state where urban dwellers often spar with rural communities, the fact that the measure passed with over 67% of the vote proved how Oregonians value outdoor education, says Dan Prince, the associate director of the nonprofit Friends of Outdoor School.

“There’s a real concern—that’s not just on the part of Boomers—about the dominance of screen time in young people’s lives,” Prince says. “The idea of this incredible, joyful, impactful experience separate from that [virtual] experience, that was in real life, resonated with a lot of people.”

While outdoor education opportunities are offered at many United States private schools, these experiences are rarely available—for free—to public school students.

Expansion and adaptation in a changing world

The ballot measure led to ODS programs expanding across the state, where administrators have freedom to adapt learning to student needs and the local environment—whether it be the Pacific Coast or the high desert. One such new camp is Rogue Outdoor School in southern Oregon, a biodiverse region where oak woodlands connect to old-growth riparian forests. Program Director Bethany “Wren” OK-Carr, a former middle school science teacher with a long history attending and working for ODS, was inspired by the power of ODS to help students guide their learning and center themselves in their bioregion: “When you can connect specific students to specific local natural history, human history, Indigenous history, we’re able to use that opportunity to expand on curiosity that’s naturally there.” 

“When you can connect specific students to specific local natural history, human history, Indigenous history, we’re able to use that opportunity to expand on curiosity that’s naturally there.”

Filling this curriculum gap is a common spark for many ODS programs. While on a hike in 2013, Charlie “Peanut” Anderson stumbled upon Camp Tamarack, a campsite in the Deschutes National Forest that had been untouched for many years. Anderson helped the site begin offering Outdoor School the next year, and by 2015, 35 central Oregon schools were attending, using a curriculum based on the Better Environmental Education, Teaching, Learning & Expertise Sharing (BEETLES) model.

As part of this, Camp Tamarack incorporates social and emotional learning to help students adjust to new environments and build trust through community-building activities. In particular, Assistant Director Melissa “Cedar” Mazzuca says they’ve shifted from the “all-power environmental science educator” to encouraging students to make observations and explore on their own, which has improved students’ success during lessons. The camp also addresses how climate change is impacting students’ lives; given increasingly devastating West Coast wildfires, Camp Tamarack and other ODS programs now teach fire ecology.

The camp also addresses how climate change is impacting students’ lives; given increasingly devastating West Coast wildfires, Camp Tamarack and other ODS programs now teach fire ecology.

For urban students, the focus is primarily on helping them realize they don’t need to venture far to explore their surrounding ecosystems. The largest ODS supports some 7,000 students annually in Multnomah County and the surrounding region, which covers Portland and its suburbs.

Prince, who travels around Oregon visiting ODS programs through his work with Friends of Outdoor School, also notes a larger shift within environmental education to center Indigenous voices and promote racial and gender equality. A central component is broadening STEM and the outdoors to be more culturally diverse, he says, recognizing that all young people experience some form of nature, whether it be through cooking, gardening, fishing, or hunting.

There’s a focus on helping urban students realize they don’t need to venture far to explore surrounding ecosystems.

“If you’re coming from an urban environment and you’re going to a camp at the beach or up in the mountains and spending a week there, it can feel like all that stuff is super cool but it’s not relevant to your neighborhood,” Prince says. “We’re trying to really break that down a little bit and recognize that these processes—like predation and competition and photosynthesis and nutrient cycling—are happening everywhere.”

Prince says this fits within a broader understanding of environmental justice that recognizes the close-to-home occurrence of human-caused environmental destruction and empowers students to make changes. And this ODS model of environmental education is gaining national traction, with similar initiatives like the Science Adventure School through West Virginia University and Teach ME Outside in Maine. 

“We could pin our hopes on big multinational legislation to stop carbon and we could wait for that,” he says. “But the stuff that’s exciting is what I’m reading about the ways that people are transforming the ways that they’re operating in the world.”

This article’s author served as an ODS high school counselor herself. “My time as ‘Au’ (the atomic symbol for gold) dramatically shaped my time in high school.”

Outdoor School experiences, years on

I myself served as an ODS high school counselor in the 2010s at a site on the Sandy River that followed a common ODS model: Students from multiple schools mixed together and learned four field subjects—soil, plants, animals, and water—while bonding over campfire songs and shared meals in the mess hall. 

My time as “Au” (the atomic symbol for gold) felt detached from my life as a burned out, straight-A student. I longed for the week when I would be responsible for a cabin of middle school girls, playing my guitar around the campfire and convincing them that dirt was actually cool. At the end of each session, I revealed my real name, gave away my “beads” (counselors make charms that are attached with safety pins to students’ woodchip lanyards) and sang off the middle schoolers as they drove away in yellow school buses. When I think back, ODS dramatically shaped my time in high school, giving me the skills and confidence to be a leader, and I’m far from alone in this. 

Annecy “Plum” Crabtree, 19, didn’t have the best experience as a sixth grader at ODS, given homesickness and bad weather. But she also thought she’d have a better time as a leader and ended up serving six times in high school to help students struggling away from home and see herself grow as a person. Sporting a red jacket outfitted with ODS patches, she now serves as a program lead, working with Portland-area middle schoolers. Crabtree, who wants to be a child psychologist, has noticed how the pandemic has affected students’ social anxiety, and how ODS is helping: “People think of Outdoor School as just science outside, but so much of our focus—especially this season because these kids have been inside for so long—is getting them to be comfortable with each other again and building those new relationships.”

“People think of Outdoor School as just science outside, but so much of our focus—especially this season because these kids have been inside for so long—is getting them to be comfortable with each other again and building those new relationships.”

In the Portland park, 15-year-old student leader “Crush” (whose name isn’t being used because of her age) begins a session by asking students their preferred pronouns. It’s one of the many subtle but important shifts ODS has made over its long history. Crush enjoys connecting with sixth graders in the same way she did when attending ODS herself. She wants to be a ranger at Zion National Park one day, inspired by her love of the outdoors that ODS encouraged.

Annecy “Plum” Crabtree, 19, has served as an Outdoor School leader six times.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank is a writer and photographer whose work has appeared in Atlas Obscura, Bitch Media, Teen Vogue and Lit Hub. She enjoys learning about forgotten figures in history, sewing her own vintage-inspired clothes and playing 1960s girl group songs on guitar.

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