The Importance of Outdoor Education at MTS


From the day my children were born until they were about 11 years old, I would sing them to sleep with Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game.” This time of year, I am always reminded of that song and the circles we follow in education. Over the next two months, we are preparing for the Class of 2019’s graduation ceremony and at the same time laying the foundation for the start of the 2019-2020 school year.

One of the key components to the start of the year for middle school students is their Outdoor Education (ODE) trips. Our ODE program is designed to ease students into outdoor experiences as the students move through the grades. In fact, fourth and fifth graders are in the final weeks of preparation for their trips in early May. The fourth graders will spend a night on the docks living as though it was 1906 San Francisco. The fifth graders will spend two nights in the Marin Headlands exploring the coastal hills and learning how climate, weather and humans influence the area.

These two trips lay the foundation for the longer trips middle school students take during the first weeks of school each year. The Middle School ODE program takes students a bit farther afield with sixth graders spending 4 days in Westminster Woods, seventh graders spending 5 days at the Mother Lode River Center on the South Fork of the American River, and the eighth graders spending 6 days in Yosemite, 4 of those days on the backpacking trail focused on summiting some of the highest peaks in the park.

These programs are true outdoor education. Students learn not only about the environment they are in and its history, they also learn about the importance of caring for the habitat and the human impact on these areas and beyond. Equally important, students on outdoor ed trips engage in activities that build their independence and self-confidence. On these trips, students are asked to actively engage in the caring and cleaning of the community they share, to push their perceived physical limits by standing night watch in fourth grade, or on a high ropes course in seventh, or carrying a pack for miles in beautiful and rugged terrain in Yosemite.

Each year, I am amazed at the impact these trips have on our students. During advisory/morning meeting last year, I asked the eighth graders what the most significant memory they had experienced this year. The vast majority of them said it was outdoor ed and their trip to Yosemite. This also reflected what many of them said when talking to admissions tours during the winter months.

I wondered about what it was on these trips that was so impactful for them. I think Rob Potter, who has led many of the seventh-grade trips to the American River, captured it for me when he said, “While each outdoor ed trip has a curriculum of its own, the overall program affords the students an opportunity to be completely immersed in the natural world. Today, we find ourselves increasingly plugged in, with more and more of our experiences being of the virtual variety. The slower, natural rhythm of outdoor education, devoid of constant stimuli and distraction, allows the students the chance to learn more about themselves, to find a greater sense of self reliance, to realize their role in something bigger than themselves, and to make meaningful connections with their classmates and teachers.”

These experiences help weave the fabric that supports a class as it moves through the circles at MTS. They create opportunities for students to dive deep into an experience with classmates and teachers, make new friendships, and learn how to trust and rely on themselves and each other during physical and mental challenges. The inspiration and bonds the students find in these outdoor education experiences can last a lifetime, and the program continues to be an important, foundational strength of the Mount Tamalpais School curriculum and culture.