Outside Education: Teaching Kids What’s Missing in the Classroom
Spending four days and three nights with middle schoolers on islands in the Willamette River isn’t something most of us would do… willingly. Dan Coyle of Coyle Outside, who organizes trips like these, told me it’s only a little like Lord of the Flies. But there’s adult supervision so no one is fighting over a conch. While the children do go a little wild, they’re learning how to build rafts, shelters, and more while also building teamwork, responsibility, and confidence.
We live in a highly technological consumer society which can leave manual, observational, and self-care skills undeveloped. Coyle brings out these untapped skills by leading his campers through activities like building fires, setting traps, making pottery, and navigating.
Skills like these not only give children an increasingly unique experience of their humanity, but, as Coyle explained to me, teaches them “how the physical world behaves and what their relationship is to it.” Knowing from experience what angles to set stakes at while setting a tarp in soil, sand, or snow isn’t the same as learning about tension and resistance in a classroom. Imagining a deer running through the woods based upon a set of widely spaced tracks pressed deep into the ground is not something possible at a desk. For Coyle, focusing on direct experiences like these that don’t require a lot of gear or technology is the best way for making a difference with children around personal growth, which is what he’s after.
Previously, Coyle had worked as a guide and counselor at Catherine Freerer Wilderness Therapy in Albany, a place for children who were not having success in clinical settings. When he left in 2010 to make wood and cork helmets, Coyle also made a few contracts to lead camps with the City of Corvallis. In a few short years, his company Coyle Outside grew and now works with 12 Oregon municipalities putting on over 30 day and overnight camps as well as leading extended camping expeditions around the state.
An important ingredient for growth is risk. While there’s certainly a place for safety, focusing on it too much can lead to lost opportunities. But risk isn’t something Coyle seeks out for his campers on their adventures – rather, it comes from things that arise spontaneously, like scraping a knee or getting in an argument over the best way to tackle a survival exercise. When a challenge arises, Coyle wants his campers to look back and realize, “‘That’s a great thing!’ because then they can experience what it’s like to be challenged and learn from a failure or build self-esteem from a success.”
The timing on when kids are exposed to these risks is also important. And, as Coyle told me, “You don’t really teach kids, you just create spaces for them to learn.” Younger children (before the whole puberty thing happens) are into dangerous things like fire and knives. From Coyle’s experience, at this age the kids are still open to adult guidance. The teenagers? They’re still into risk, but not so much listening to adults. Having strong adult guidance at an early age around risky experiences helps to build a healthy and well-informed relationship to risk while also creating a sense of responsibility and accountability.
More direct lessons around risk occur at survival camps where campers have to build a shelter in 20 minutes for an imagery grandpa who hurt his ankle while Christmas tree hunting in the woods. Knowing when to lead, when to follow, and how to communicate become very practical in these situations. What we usually think of as moral characteristics like being organized, grateful, and responsible for what we have, and having empathy for one another become extremely useful. Coyle described these skills as “not right or wrong” in these situations since “it’s just life or death. And it turns out that treating each other well just works better. And taking care of your stuff just works better.”
Last year, Oregon voters approved a measure to use lottery funds to make Oregon the only state to fund required outdoor education for all sixth graders. Through the new initiative, Coyle hopes to build stronger connections to schools. For now, Coyle and his staff continue to organize day camps like ones in Willamette Park and overnight camps with four days of minimalist backpacking around Oregon. There are still a few spots open in the Corvallis and Lebanon summer day camps.