Town Crier January 2004
Town Crier Newspaper
It's not about the paddle . . .
Outdoor education has always been acknowledged by educators as an important component in any student’s tutelage. In the not so distant past, many of us fondly remember going on forest field trips, walking in the woods attempting to identify local flora and fauna, collecting leaves to take home to mount on Bristol board, and then poring over books determined to unearth arcane information to dazzle our friends and perhaps stump the teacher. Recent cut-backs in the public school arena, however, have hit the outdoor education “believers” quite hard, and left them shaking their heads.
Intuitively, most people recognize that appreciating the environment as a whole follows only after a fundamental understanding of the individual parts and how they work together. Consequently, there is despair amongst educators generally not just because the programmes have been severely curtailed, but because of the long range ramifications for our world.
I, too, share their profound concerns for the future, but I’m most concerned about the immediate impact of the absence of these outdoor/environmental programmes on the individual students. Outdoor education, in my opinion, is less about the wonderful, vibrant outdoors than it is about the care and feeding of each person’s interior landscape.
Getting students outdoors, whether it’s in a local park or paddling Algonquin has never been so important for boys and girls. In an age where virtual reality is becoming the preferred and most easily accessed reality by our children (and many of us!), the outdoors offers challenging personal lessons that are not Internet accessible. Arguably, a lot about the outdoors is Internet friendly. My ancient quest for the accurate and appropriate leaf names would have been made immeasurably easier had I had Google. Data about the environment has never been easier to find and organize. But God help us all if the only reason we walk in the woods is to amass more data for our brains to process and hold. So the question still remains: What does outdoor education provide for our young men and women?
I referred to an interior landscape earlier. A walk in the woods, a paddle in the river, and some time setting up a tent, tending a fire and watching the sun set and rise are all means to an end. Certainly, there is an inherent beauty in each of these things, but the real realities, so to speak, are not the leaves, roots, stamens and tent poles, but rather each individual’s opportunity for reflection, and the recognition of the centrality of self-reliance, respect for the self , others and the world, and the need for personal responsibility. Environmental education is a means to learning about the self – and self-knowledge trumps acer saccharum every time.
Outdoor education experiences put students not only in touch with nature, but directly in touch with their own, complex human natures. The noisy distractions of urban life with its highly programmemed existence – if it’s 7:00 p.m. Tuesday then it must be ballet – is replaced by, well, nothing. Structure, necessarily, must come from within. For students, this unstructured time’s value is inestimable. Certainly there are things to do on a camping trip that are necessary and prudent – it’s much easier to pitch a tent in the daylight, one soon finds out – but there are times when a student camper, paddler or hiker is not faced with the need to do something, or is not told to do something by someone else, and is left with the rare joy of freedom.
Students need time to reflect, and outdoor education is the vehicle. In the absence of the familiar and structured, they peer inside to decide for themselves what is important – and what’s not. They find their place in the universe by gazing at the stars. Humility, in the face of such grandeur, occurs with introspection, and provides much needed perspective. Removed from their plugged in devices, they are left to their own. And despite what the pessimists think, my experience as an educator would suggest that students learn a great deal about themselves and how they fit into this great big world in moments such as these. Character is built one quiet, rhythmic paddle stroke at a time.
Lance Armstrong had it right. It’s not about the bike or, by extension, the paddle. It’s not about mastering the intricacies of the j-stroke. It’s far more personal. Outdoor and environmental education is about self-awareness. At its heart, outdoor education is character education. It’s about the critical decision each time to plunge our paddle into the water – despite fatigue and countless reasons not to – and having the fortitude to pull hard to propel oneself and one’s canoe forward.