The Power of Experiential Education

“I saw my friends and classmates in a new way. They acted much more caring and considerate. We never talked about who saw that movie and if it was good or not. We talked about what remarkable event had taken place during the day, and I personally liked that better.” –Taya D. – 2011 Junior High Camping Trip.

Thomas J. Elpel

Working with Kids – From the Junior High Camping Trip, 2011

Working with kids, I can tell when they are having a good time and excited about learning. But I consistently underestimate the true depth, insightfulness, and heart of our young people.

My work with public school kids began in the mid-1990s, when my daughters, Felicia and Cassie, were in elementary school. I volunteered to take them and their classmates out for an all-day field trip every spring. We built shelters, started fires with flint and steel, told stories, did crafts, made ashcakes and wild tea, and played some stalking games. It was lots of fun, and a good opportunity for the kids to get out of the classroom and have some fun at the end of the year. But it wasn’t just an excuse to “get out of school” for a day, as the kids were truly learning, and very importantly, they were learning about the world directly, instead of just reading about it in a book.

We upped the ante a bit when my daughters entered junior high, taking their classmates out for overnight camping trips on a local ranch. Lacking any tents or tarps, we built shelters out of sticks and bark… and survived more than an inch of rain (on multiple occasions). I taught the kids how to start fires with the bow and drill, basically a simple mechanical device for “rubbing two sticks together.” I demonstrated how to do it, then provided a couple of sticks to each group and had the kids figure out how to replicate the bow and drill and start a fire. We harvested edible wild plants and mushrooms, cooked a stir-fry dinner with hot rocks on a slab of bark, practiced stalking skills, observed wildlife, and played games. It was great fun, and the kids ate it up like it was the greatest thing in the world.

That was ten years ago, and my daughters are now in their twenties. But I still do the junior high camping trip every spring, and we now take the seventh and eighth graders out for three days and two nights, charging a small fee to make the program sustainable. Every year we look at new ways to fine-tune and improve the experience for the students, to make it more educational and more memorable.

The seventh and eighth grade teacher at Harrison School is Linda Ehlers, who was bold and adventurous enough to try this wild idea in the first place, and after doing it for a few years, began to realize just how deeply and positively the experience impacted the kids. She has the students for nearly nine months before I see them, and I am told that the kids talk about the junior high camping trip all year long. Two weeks before the campout, she finds it impossible to focus on anything else, so she structures her lesson plans around the upcoming trip, covering skills like plant identification, fire-starting, and knife safety in the classroom. She talks to these same students in the hallways as they continue on through their high school years, and the way she tells it, they never stop talking about the experience and the memories. But sometimes I have trouble believing it. I have trouble believing that three days of hanging out in the woods doing skills and playing games could impact these kids so much.

It isn’t until I see the written comments – in the students’ own words – that I began to get a sense of how deeply they have been touched by this little camping experience. On a purely academic level, it is obvious that they are truly learning, and they resonate with the lessons in a way that could not be achieved by reading about it in a book:

“I think our Indian ancestors were awesome because they lived how we did, but we only stayed three days. I think it is amazing how they lived, and when they killed something, they used everything off of the dead animal. It is also fascinating that they used everything that they found or killed. The coolest thing was all the cooking utensils and how they used fire and coals to cook.” –Brett P.

“The life we lived out there for three days is what our ancestors’ lives were like year-round. I see that my ancestors routinely did what I struggled to do once. It makes you stop and think about how technology has changed our way of living. This experience has changed the way I see people back then.” –Britt C.

Sometimes I try to get in the heads of the kids while we are out in the field, and I imagine them to have little depth beyond the desire to have fun. Yes, I can see that they are excited about learning, but I rationalize it as “excited compared to sitting in the classroom.” After all, this is technically a school trip, and they are conditioned to follow instructions and do whatever I tell them to do. And yet, when the kids have started some game of their own – and it is obviously a healthy and satisfying activity – I hesitate to interrupt them. I experience a moment of self-doubt, thinking that they will be disgruntled at the interruption – that they won’t get excited about learning some stupid stalking skills or playing some dumb stalking game. But when I finally make the call, I am shocked to see their game break up immediately as the students come streaming over, excited for the new activity:

“My most meaningful experiences were Wolves and Deer and the Stalking Game. These were meaningful because they are games that everyone was involved in. We were having fun and enjoying ourselves. Wolves and Deer was meaningful because it involved paying attention and being knowledgeable. The Stalking Game was meaningful because we had to be quiet and know the placement of our feet. I enjoyed this because when I got out, it was very fun watching everybody else try to get the bag of candy.” –Colton C.

“I felt everything I stepped on as I walked in the all-leather moccasins… Stalking to get that candy was so intense. It shows how patient you have to be to get your food in the woods. From the birds chirping to Koby running through the trees, all the natural sounds really made me open my ears and listen.”  –Alecia P.

I am always surprised at how much the students comment on the importance of teamwork, friendship, and appreciation of each other, especially because our schedule doesn’t have include any specific team-building activities or agenda. But from the kids perspective, it is all about teamwork:

“My most meaningful experience was being able to work together to start a fire with the bow and drill. The campout taught all of us that we had to work together or you wouldn’t get anything done.” –Gabie A.

“The bowdrill is one of the best ways to make a fire. It takes teamwork and passion. When my group was making fire, Britt was working the bow, then she said, ‘Help!” I grabbed the other end of the bow and helped her through it. We were the first group done because of the teamwork we did.” –John E.

“Friendship and teamwork are priorities above all others. Without these I would have never been able to start a fire, find Kris, or even fix the wickiup. You need friends and partners to survive in the real world, and without them, we are lost.” –Jon S.

More surprising to me is that the kids truly connect with the natural world. I often imagine our young people as being totally into the social scene and not really interested in nature beyond the excuse to be out of the classroom for a few days. I imagine them to be patiently tolerant at best, when we wake them up early in the morning to go stalking through the woods in the hopes of seeing wildlife:

“Another meaningful experience was when we went on a morning wildlife walk. This time, I could hear the animals waking up. That morning was very peaceful. I felt proud that I was on this walk seeing animals, not disrupting them, and making my way through the great outdoors.” –Taya D.

“Before I went on the campout, I did not take the time to enjoy all of the experiences that are out there. I would walk to the bus each morning with my headphones in my ears, ignoring all of the natural music around me. The birds sang their songs each and every morning, and I ignored their exquisite music. Now, when I walk to the bus in the morning, I try to listen to each and every song that the birds have to offer. I slow my pace as I indulge the sound of the songs. I allow myself to ‘stop and smell the roses’ when I stroll along the twisting, winding road to the bus.” –Michaela J.

Most of all, I am surprised at the depth, reflection, and insightfulness of many of the comments. These comments come from young teenagers, yet sound more like adults:

“For three whole days, we were shut off from the TVs, the iPods, and even the world famous cell phone. It is hard to believe, even now, that we could survive without these advances. Now, new things can replace this “junk” that has taken over our lives. Instead of watching TV, we can play the real live video game of marshmallow wars, instead of being stuck on a couch with a joystick in hand.” –Britt C.

“It has always seemed to me that nature is like a piece of artwork, fragile, but only to be admired through the gentlest of hands. We go walking on a weather-beaten path that so many have followed, but never step off to travel farther into the heart of the forest. I now know what it is like to go into the depths of the forest, experiencing the full force of the wild. Nature is not a picture. It is much more than that.” –Chas B.

Seeing feedback like this from the kids makes me realize just how deeply they are affected by this one-time experience in nature. And they are definitely hungry for more. In his book Last Child in the Woods, author Richard Louv called the nation’s attention to the growing problem of “Nature Deficit Disorder,” a concern that was shockingly brought to life in the documentary Play Again: What are the consequences of a childhood removed from nature? The book and the movie highlight the crisis that faces our young people and the future of our society. How can society function if we raise an entire generation of kids who are plugged into something like Second Life, while lacking a First Life in the real world?

I never imagined that our little camping trips would turn into cutting edge work that could make a critical difference to the future of our young people. But while Last Child in the Woods and Play Again have called attention to the problem, we have apparently stumbled into a critical piece of the solution. The experiential model that we have created resonates with the students and reaches them at a deeper level.

It is my greatest hope to expand our programs to many of our other local schools to share similar experiences with the kids that are currently missing out. More than that, I hope that our work can become a role model for other people seeking to introduce experiential outdoor education to the young people in their lives. As one student wrote this year:

“The outdoor classroom experience has given me a more in-depth look at nature and our ancestors than any movie or text book has or ever will. Living in the outdoors has shown me that nature is full of surprises and that it provides everything that we need to survive. If more schools took their students on outdoor trips like we do, humans might learn to be more conservative and save our world.” –Spencer O.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

For more information about the Junior High Camping Trip, be sure to read Outdoor Classroom (Bozeman Daily Chronicle, 2011) and more comments from students of the 2011 camping trip. Also, take a look at our Classroom in the Woods DVD, and please check out Outdoor Wilderness Living School (OWLS) for more information about our classes.

Classroom in the Woods DVD.


Filed under Education Reform

3 responses to “The Power of Experiential Education

  1. Pingback: The Power of Experiential Education « The Centrist Point

  2. Bonnie

    Oh, this is so beautiful! Thank for for writing about it.

    I, too, wish I had had such an experience when I was that age, instead of reading about it in booksI

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