Outdoor Education Programs For Schools

By Elissa Miller

Camps across the country are finding new ways to deliver their mission and increase year-round revenues through outdoor education programs in the schools. Outdoor education offers several benefits for youth, including higher grades: the American Institutes for Research reports that children who attended outdoor school raised their science scores by 27 percent, and the State Education and Environmental Roundtable reports that programs integrating environmental education result in higher grades and standardized test scores in reading, writing, and math. And, research shows that outdoor education helps students increase personal skills in self-esteem, cooperation, leadership, and conflict resolution.

In addition, outdoor education programs also introduce kids to nature who might otherwise never have the experience. Consider YMCA Camp Campbell Outdoor Science School (OSS) in Boulder Creek, Calif. Part of the YMCA of Silicon Valley, the camp serves approximately 5,700 students each year from Santa Clara County—one of the most diverse metropolitan areas in the country. “I’m always amazed at how many kids have never seen a Redwood,” says Jill Gary, Camp Campbell’s executive director.

Another important benefit of outdoor school programs is the opportunity for students to thrive who usually don’t do well in a traditional classroom. Says Gary, “We’ve found that kids who have a tough time in the classroom do better here—the way they learn is different, and the day is structured differently. We learn from evaluations that kids who struggle in class tend to not struggle when they’re here, and it’s the first time that their teachers have seen them succeeding.”

Outdoor Education Programs and Camp: A Perfect Match
Outdoor education is experiential education, where students develop and apply critical-thinking skills to real-world situations and problems. And what organization is better suited to deliver experiential outdoor education than a camp? For schools interested in this type of program, camps solve a host of logistical problems:

  • Camps already have an outdoor location, facilities, dining, lodging, a health center, and liability insurance. For school districts and local education agencies, partnering with a camp can be the most cost-efficient way to quickly launch a program. 
  • Camps have proven experience in operating youth programs, especially for those who are away from home for the first time (and for parents whose kids will be away for the first time!).
  • Camps already have special traditions like storytelling, skits, bonfires, and more that add a unique element to school programs and help create a memorable experience.

And, by providing a year-round revenue stream and supporting permanent staff, outdoor school programs offer tangible benefits to camps. “The quality of all our programs is better because we maintain the same staff. The quality of a night hike led by a naturalist or field teacher is fantastic, and we can offer the night hike during summer camp and family camp, as well as during OSS,” says Gary.

Outdoor Education Programs 101
While the exact steps to start an outdoor education program depend on the resources and needs of the community and the camp, the following are some general guidelines:

  • Reach out to the education community to learn if an outdoor school is a fit for your community or region, and whether there’s adequate interest to launch and sustain a program. Check with county offices of education, regional service centers, and school districts within a reasonable driving distance. Is the area already served by outdoor school programs, and if so, do they support all of the public and private schools in the area?
  • Decide what types of programs to offer. With your education partners, consider curricular goals, and select which grade levels to serve and how many students at a time. You might start with a pilot program of daytime-only field trips or a single overnight stay for a few schools for the first year, and then extend the program as interest grows.
  • Determine your funding requirements for startup and for ongoing program delivery, and work with education partners to develop funding sources.
  • Develop a staffing plan. In addition to food service, health programs, and maintenance, you’ll need trained educators to lead the program and additional staff to serve as cabin leaders. Many outdoor education programs, including Camp Campbell OSS, train high-school volunteers to serve as cabin leaders and to assist during field programs.
  • Adapt your existing programs to educational standards, and develop new programs with an educational focus. At Camp Campbell OSS, the curriculum is built around the Next Generation Science Standards and the B.E.E.T.L.E.S. curriculum. (See the Resources section for more information.)
  • Build evaluation into the program. To ensure your program meets its goals, develop evaluation methods at the same time you develop the curriculum. The program will be easier to promote when you can demonstrate you’re meeting the educational goals. 
  • Work with community partners to develop district, school, and family interest in attending the program. A marketing plan can include brochures and newsletters; local media coverage; articles on partner websites; presentations to community groups, schools, and parent-teacher groups; and open houses.
  • Develop seasonal activities—and additional safety rules—for fall, winter, and spring weather conditions.
  • Provide administrative and curricular support to schools. The more you can do to help schools and families prepare for outdoor school, the more they will appreciate it and recommend your program. For example, Camp Campbell OSS provides a 24-page teacher guide and preparation timeline starting 8 weeks before arrival to ensure that teachers, parents, and students have all the information they need for a successful visit.
  • Set up a reservations calendar for schools. For many students, outdoor school is the highlight of their year and will share their enthusiasm with the younger grades. As the program grows, you may find that an online reservations system makes it easier to manage all of the facilities, including school programs, group rentals, family camp, and special events.

In addition to helping your camp increase revenues and operate more efficiently, an outdoor education program can help hundreds or thousands of kids develop an appreciation of the outdoors, as well as have positive memories of  the camp. And, hosting an outdoor school provides a year-round opportunity to deliver the most important lessons of camp to kids who aren’t summer campers: respect for the environment, teamwork, leadership, and friendship.

If you’re interested in learning whether an outdoor education program in the schools is right for your camp, here are a few resources to get started:

  • “Launching, Managing and Sustaining an Outdoor School Program” by the Oregon Community Foundation. This comprehensive report provides detailed information and recommendations for launching, managing, and sustaining a program. Although it’s geared toward community initiatives, the report provides a thorough explanation of all of the factors involved. http://www.oregoncf.org/Templates/media/files/enviro_ed/outdoor_school_program.pdf
  • The North American Association for Environmental Education provides information about aligning environmental literacy with Common Core standards in science, math, and language arts. http://www.naaee.net/
  • B.E.E.T.L.E.S. (Better Environmental Education, Teaching, Learning, Expertise and Sharing) provides free quality resources for outdoor science schools. http://beetlesproject.org/index.html
  • The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s No Child Left Inside® Coalition publishes a guide to environmental-education programs and curriculum by state. http://www.cbf.org/ncli/action/environmental-literacy-plans-by-state.

Elissa K. Miller is a freelance writer and communications manager in Silicon Valley, who is passionate about helping nonprofits and youth-serving organizations like camps to use technology to further their missions. Reach her at Elissa.miller@gmail.com.