Tarriers of all ages connect with nature, each other, and themselves through Outdoor Education
By Kim Banti
“We believe students need to head outside to discover what’s inside.”
This is how Lower School Director Nick Zosel-Johnson described the heart of Charles Wright’s decades-old Outdoor Education program. Tapping into core principles of the school’s mission— particularly self-reliance and achieving one’s personal best in mind, body, and spirit—Outdoor Ed exposes Tarriers in all three divisions to the great outdoors as well as to the deep recesses of their inner selves.
While Outdoor Ed has been a part of CWA for more than four decades, school leadership has focused in recent years on coalescing the experiences to make for a more deliberate scope and scale.
“We are running a more consistent program,” said Katie Miller, Outdoor Ed coordinator and Upper School math teacher. “We have worked to ensure students have similar experiences, we have clear guidelines and policies on trips, and that we are more intentional with the experiences we offer.”
These experiences start with the youngest Tarriers and don’t even require participants to leave campus at first. Beginning with age-appropriate weekly trail runs and building to overnight camping trips, the Outdoor Ed program grows with students. Much of the current Lower School setup has been carefully crafted over the last 10 years and is a thoughtful expansion of the successful third grade curriculum, which includes 10 field trips and a two-night visit to Mount Rainier. “Most recently, the fourth grade team added a one-night trip to central Washington,” Mr. Zosel-Johnson said. “Students studied renewable energy and visited a wind farm. A quick stop at the Ginko Petrified Forest shed light on the state’s early geological formation. Finally, the students set up tents and camped along the banks of the Columbia River. In each of these examples, the Outdoor Education activities are connected to curricular goals.”
The Middle School Outdoor Ed experience is bookended in sixth and eighth grades with trips to Sea to Sky Outdoor School for Sustainability Education in British Columbia and four-day beach hikes along the Washington coast in Olympic National Park, respectively. These opportunities come at pivotal points in students’ emotional and social development and, as noted by Visual Arts Department Chair Christopher Hoppin, reinforce the 11 faculty commitments. “Healthy risk-taking is an essential part of learning and at the core of our Outdoor Ed program,” Mr. Hoppin said. “Resilience and self-discovery are inherent in our program, and students can learn more about themselves, their teachers, and their classmates in one week of Outdoor Ed than they can over the course of an entire term.”
The capstone Outdoor Ed experience is the beloved sophomore hiking and camping trip that takes place every fall. Whether hiking the High Divide trail in the Seven Lakes Basin Loop, kayaking in the San Juan Islands, or exploring the Enchanted Valley, this four-night adventure is a right of passage for Upper Schoolers as well as a CWA career highlight for alumni. “These are experiences our alumni remember and often reminisce about,” said Ms. Miller. “Last year while hiking on Mount Rainier, one of our groups ran into an alumnus on the trail who shared stories of his Outdoor Education experience during his time as a student at CWA.”
Emotional growth is a key component of the program, but physical preparation for larger trips is a long process, with planning meetings for faculty and families occurring months in advance. One item not seen on the packing lists among bear cans, sleeping bags, first aid kits, and other equipment? A phone. Faculty trip leaders say that in recent years, students have been increasingly appreciative of the mandatory tech-free time during Outdoor Ed. “Our lives are increasingly digital and connected, and we want our students to succeed with those tools,” said Associate Head of School Greg Bamford. “But as we get more connected, it becomes increasingly important for students to have opportunities to engage without technology, to slow down, and to think deeply. This time outdoors supports brain development, executive function, and emotional intelligence. The Outdoor Education program helps our kids to be both ‘high tech’ and ‘high touch.’”
Unique to CWA’s Outdoor Ed program is the fact that trip leaders are exclusively teachers, staff members, and retired faculty members who are still engaged with the community. Cross-divisional bonds are strengthened when, for instance, a Lower School teacher serves as a leader on a sophomore trip or an Upper School faculty member leads eighth graders on a beach hike. “I believe this allows us to run a stronger program, because all of our leaders are invested in the mission of the school and our students’ success,” said Ms. Miller, whose goals for the program going forward include building a significant outdoor experience for every grade and developing a trimester elective for the Upper School curriculum that ties in outdoor skills and leadership. “Outdoor Education is a great opportunity to build community and trust. It allows students and teachers to work together toward a common goal. Having these shared experiences creates stronger connections in the classroom.”
Fourth graders experienced this community and trust firsthand last fall, when a raging windstorm disrupted their Columbia River camping trip. “The wind was so strong that they actually needed to move some tents in the middle of the night,” Mr. Zosel-Johnson recalled. “When the students returned to campus, it was clear that the trip had brought them all closer together. The shared experience helped them all shine and built a sense of group identity. They had accomplished something hard together. They had persevered together. These feelings last and pay dividends in the classroom.”