Outdoor Education Programs

By Jim Parry

Sometimes known as outdoor school, school camping, outdoor education, or environmental education, a Residential Outdoor Environmental Education (ROEE) program is not summer camp, and it’s not school; it’s the best of both.

In general, ROEE programs are longer field trips for school groups. The majority of the programs serve 5th and 6th graders, but most programs work with any age. Usually, camps and retreat centers contract with schools to provide classes that fit into a basic schedule; the classes are selected from a menu, depending on the focus or intent of the lesson. Centers employ staff who teach the classes and generally carry out the program.

In essence, ROEE has two goals:

  • To encourage participants to know people better
  • To encourage participants to know nature better.

Both of these goals are critical to humanity’s future, and both should somehow be integrated into every program. The goals can be pursued formally, through deliberate programming; or informally, through more subtle and indirect means. But each is, nevertheless, critical to success.

Reasons School Groups Attend
Some teachers have specific goals in mind. While some teachers want to emphasize an educational concept or use high-powered microscopes, other teachers look forward to using the zipline, planning for skit night, or hiking to Lookout Mountain. Some present such a detailed program schedule and list of goals they seemingly leave no room for input!


Sometimes clients voice what they don’t want. These may include past experiences not to be repeated, like a certain food, the room with the spider web in the corner, a particular staff member, or an activity that did not go well. Some groups appreciate leaving all the planning to the center staff. Others want it “just like last year.”

What A Program Should Provide
Regardless of the reasons schools attend, there are certain standards ROEE strives to achieve for all participants:

1.) A positive outcome. What will participants say to their family and friends when it’s over? Let’s face it--the program’s academic content and whatever else you may be particularly proud of is secondary. It’s not the cool climbing wall, awesome web page, great T-shirts, or even the scenic views. It’s all about the food, sleeping conditions, and quality people.

2.) Safety and relationships. An effective program must have a relationship-building component. It must begin by addressing the physical, emotional, and social safety of all participants. Since ROEE is a visit to an unfamiliar place, it is critical to make people comfortable, set rules, and assist guests in finding their way around. A program that is too formal and strict in education is likely to miss the mark because it lacks human interaction.

3.) Education standards. Facilities that cater to public schools are familiar with state education standards. They are the language administrators and teachers speak, live, and die by. A program must somehow address these standards, and can be marketed with them as well. Look through the list (available online at the state education department) for the involved grade levels to determine which requirements can be addressed in an outdoor program. National guidelines also are available from the North American Association for Environmental Education (www.naaee.net).

4.) A learning experience. ROEE is fundamentally about experience. It’s not common to ask, “Did you learn a lot?”  Instead, most want to know, “Did you have a good time?” Plan some excitement for the program. Every lesson should be stimulating and memorable. There must be a balance between activity and talk, but the more activity the better. However, the pursuit of excitement need not be shallow and meaningless; there can be a “wow factor” in some of the most important educational experiences. And consider the subtle but profound lessons found in jokes, stories, and songs.

5.) A new attitude. This is the affective, hard-to-measure side of the impact on students. The hope is that participants discover a sense of what teamwork, communication, and cooperative effort are all about. This sense of group should lead to a new enthusiasm for learning in general. Students should be more aware of the natural world, form a positive bond with it, and have some sense of stewardship and concern for it. This affective aspect is important for two reasons. First, it is absolutely the foundation for the effective--content-oriented and testable--side of education. It’s safe to say the stronger the inspirational and attitudinal foundation is, the higher likelihood there will be academic achievement. Second, this approach is often difficult to accomplish in a formal classroom setting.

6.) Additional skills. Part of the formal education goal is to address the standards selected, but new skills, experiences, and other knowledge can be gained also. These might include learning about ecology, plants and wildlife, skills in archery or canoeing, or safety rules related to a ropes course. Pre-experience and post-experience knowledge also may be part of the content.

7.) An effective outcome. What the participants do after the program should be a part of the plan. You want participants to be able to articulate their accomplishments. This might be a phrase or a mission statement or a short list they can repeat. It might include some goals for change, especially for what might happen when they return to school. The hope is that people talk--whether in person or via social media--to friends, family, and classmates, sharing the positive impact of the program.

A Word About Money
Perhaps you have no ROEE program at present, but someone has called with a program offer. Or you are considering joining a competition for a business. Or maybe the board has asked you to consider the idea. Or a previous program might be resurrected. Or an activity at the facility is just begging for a school program. Starting a ROEE program is no small chore, even if it’s only for a short while, or for a small group.

In fact, operating a ROEE program on a limited scale and then having to end it may be reason enough to avoid the program in the first place. But it also will be richly rewarding, fun, and one of the greatest things you and your team could ever do. In any case, don’t sugarcoat the facts or the dollars; let them be a real part of the discussion.

Do not expect ROEE to be a cash cow. These programs are hardly ever money makers, and most are somehow subsidized by other programs, an organization outreach, or grants. A certain revenue volume is needed just to break even. Most programs must constantly make tough choices about how to spend their money, and a wish list may remain a wish list for a long time. Furthermore, a ROEE program should not be run with the intention of using its revenue to subsidize other programs.

Do not move forward without a thorough justification. Passion and ideas are great. Some influx of money is nice, of course. It’s wonderful to have the right facility. It’s fantastic to have school groups ready to come. None of these factors alone will cut it, though. Your unique program can come to life if enough cylinders are working in the engine, and the fuel is there to keep it running. You must do the homework. Look for a balance between the wisdom of common experience and the unique genius of your specific place.

Jim Parry has taught and supervised ROEE programs in seven states for 30 years. He lives in north Texas and teaches science. His book on Resident Outdoor Environmental Education is now available at Amazon and from Healthy Learning Publishers. Contact him at jjkkparry@gmail.com .

Possible Program Ideas

  • Natural science in the field
  • Adventure (ropes course: high and low)
  • Outdoor skills (canoeing, archery, skeet-shooting, horseback, compass, GPS, survival, cooking, etc.)
  • Environmental issues
  • Experts or speakers
  • Sensory awareness
  • Hiking
  • History
  • Leadership
  • Character and values activities
  • Farming
  • Gardening and animals
  • Outdoor investigation
  • Student-led projects
  • Recreation and sports.