Why All Girls Need an Outdoor Education.

Into the Wild: Celebrating 30 years of Outweek

WRITTEN BY JENNIFER VAN HARDENBERG | FEATURE STORY IN SPIRIT MAGAZINE, THE EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING ISSUE
 

Outweek is a cornerstone of the SMS co-curriculum, and a beloved tradition to boot. It affords girls a variety of opportunities designed to challenge and educate them using our coastal environment and travel abroad. Integral to Outweek’s success is the school’s 30-year partnership with Strathcona Park Lodge (SPL), Canada’s oldest and leading outdoor education centre located at the edge of BC’s oldest and Vancouver Island’s largest provincial park. Strathcona’s outdoor education programs challenge, inspire, and enlighten students in a positive and exciting environment. Through a combination of teamwork initiatives, outdoor sports, and engaging instruction, shy students shine, new leaders emerge, accomplishments bolster confidence, and bonds form.

It’s 7 a.m. and there’s a chill in the air despite it not yet being autumn. There’s a ripple of anticipation in the assembly of parents, teachers, and students. Young children weave between piles of outdoor gear strewn among the rocky outcroppings of the front of campus, calling to each other in excitement. And then there’s a hush… followed by a cheer in response to a low rumble approaching at a distance. The coaches are here; it’s time to depart for another Outweek.

Above: Laden Strathcona Park Lodge canoes await their paddlers for a back country camping trip.
 

Hugs are exchanged; final head counts are taken; laden backpacks are hoisted. Students look excited and just a little sad saying goodbye; their parents look a little concerned but a little relieved; younger siblings look on with envy, wishing it were their turn. Everyone waves as the buses pull out from safe harbour, casting off from the everyday. The next five days will challenge youth and mentors alike to step outside their comfort zone and accept the challenges that await them at the end of the four-hour drive north into the wild.

Starting in the Foundation Years, students focus on developing leadership and basic survival skills, and practising courage and integrity during Outweek on campus. In Grade 4, they move on to an overnight at a nearby site, like Camp Thunderbird. All students in Grades 6 to 12 attend the Strathcona Outweek to further develop important “soft skills” (leadership and global mindedness, courage, and perseverance) an appreciation of service and the natural world. As students progress through the program they are offered greater choice in advanced challenges (including sailing, backcountry camping, and scuba) and have the option to join a service trip or cultural exchange abroad.
 

Above: A student belays for a peer climbing a tree. | Foundation Years students learning to paddle board.

See 4 Awesome Benefits of Nature Kindergarten about SMS's innovative approach to Early Learning

Included in the cost of tuition, Outweek is a significant investment, taking a week out of class-time every year and involving months of careful planning. In fact, the timing of the outing in early September is a considerable challenge amid back-to-school busyness paired with logistics of sending 200 girls to the lodge at a time (most other groups are much smaller). SPL works very hard to accommodate the school’s needs, not only to find enough beds, but to innovate and create new programs in collaboration with SMS—many of which later are adopted into the offerings for other schools.

However, the benefits of the experience warrant the hard work of planning, and the third week in September is now a spot highly coveted by other school groups. “If we gave it up it would be snatched up in a second,” says Jeanine Stannard, veteran phys ed teacher and steward of the Outweek program at SMS. “Sure, it might be easier to go in spring, but you set up the whole year on the student successes and shared experiences at Outweek.” Ask any staff member about the buzz on campus the week after Outweek: there are new friendships, rapport between teachers and students, and a special kind of giddiness that can buoy students through academic struggles for weeks. 
 


 

Ultimately, Outweek is an example of doing something hard for all the right reasons. “This is what you do for people you care about,” explains Paul Chatterton, SPL program director who has been managing SMS’s visits for the past 12 years. “We’re building something bigger together.”

In the 1980s, SMS was searching for a new edge in a changing educational (and economic) landscape. Nestled among the trees at our semi-rural campus, the decision to focus on outdoor education may seem natural enough in hindsight, but it was “kind of edgy back then,” according to retired teacher Gregor Campbell. Gregor chaperoned many of the early Outweek trips alongside Jeanine and brought the Duke of Edinburgh Award to the school, another key experiential learning program.

 

Above: Tent at Beaver Lake Camp, circa 1925 | Kids practice kayak skills at Outweek, circa 1990

See A Shared History Outside for a timeline of Outweek and outdoor education

“Our students had never been challenged this way,” recalls Gregor. “Outdoor education in the schools was still in its infancy, but Jeanine had the mindset that SMS would prosper by incorporating it before most other schools.” Jeanine presented her idea to the school’s administrators, including Mickey Sendall, the Head at the time, and the rest is history.

Although some of the activities and methods may have changed—even the girls have changed—since SMS’s first Outweek in 1986, the core goals and benefits of learning outdoors have not. Remove the classroom and the comforts of home and you have changed the learning dynamic entirely, which is why every girl needs an outdoor education.
 


 

Embracing Challenge

As Jeanine puts it, “Even though the activities themselves may not be more difficult than what we demand of them at home, by taking girls outside their normal environment we are upping the challenge.” In fact, stereotypical gender roles are often flipped on their head in the outdoors: even in co-ed groups. Paul has noticed that it’s the girls who inevitably shine, which he credits to girls’ greater levels of maturity but also their mental toughness.

It’s 11:30 a.m. and the first lunch bell is ringing clear and piercing outside the Whale Room. It’s been raining for two days, but if you look around all you see are smiles and excitement. Girls are running from all corners of the property, rubber boots slapping, all the colours of the rainbow in their Gortex jackets. They are flush with discovery, accomplishment, and anticipation of further adventure. Challenge meets you where you are at SPL and then fuels you with great food and warm words to get you ready for your next feat.


Activities present infinitely scalable challenges. Students are introduced to new activities of incremental difficulty: from a low ropes course to a zip line in the forest canopy, from indoor climbing walls to tackling the cliffside, from water games at the beach to paddling across the lake. However, even within a given activity there are many levels, and girls are free to advance at their own pace, finding success wherever they are: for a girl who is grappling with a fear of heights, maybe climbing up the first ladder of the ropes course is an achievement; for others it’s sleeping outside for the first time, learning new skills in a second language, or launching down a waterfall in a whitewater kayak. This is the essence of challenge by choice.

The calibration of challenge also represents a shift in the SPL’s approach to find ways to “connect with kids where they are," according to Paul. As kids arrive with a changing set of needs and skills in this digital age, “maybe this isn't the weekend to make the kids drink their dish water,” says Paul, explaining the shift in how insrtuctors are trained to focus more on empathy and creating positive experiences outside. Mastery of survival skills is still present but de-emphasized; each new obstacle overcome gives girls a sense of ownership and confidence to step further outside perceived boundaries.

On the other hand, once students have a few skills under their belt, they are ready for advanced challenges like whitewater kayaking, rock climbing, and alpine hikes—additional options opening up in Grade 11 and 12.

After two days of rain the sun is shining. A colourful group of kayakers have gathered in the shallows after descending a waterfall, looking like a flock of tropical birds at a distance. A black bear sow and her two cubs are fishing a little further upstream, and there are salmon leaping out of the churning rapids. The water is like molten gold reflecting end of summer sunshine and early autumn leaves. One girl finishes a cookie and leans over to say to her instructor to say, “This was worth putting on the cold, damp, wetsuit this morning!”

Connection

Extraordinary experiences can create bonds that bridge perceived differences, which is why Strathcona is used as the kickoff for the school year. There is a key challenge to team building at Outweek, where girls are faced with both unfamiliar activities and unfamiliar faces: “Fear of the unknown can bring a team closer, but it can also be debilitating to team building if not aired,” says Paul. This is where the expertise of the outdoor instructor s comes in. Connections made during Outweek are multifold: student to student, student to teacher, and the special bonds of students to the SPL instructors themselves.

Interpersonal connections are only half the story, though. Equally important is the communion with the natural world.

“There are very few things I love more in life than being outside, specifically hiking. But like most people, I have a busy life. I’m juggling a lot,” says Caroline Erickson, SMS Senior Years science teacher, mother of three girls, experienced outdoors woman, and chaperone of this year’s advanced hike. “I’m so glad we take our students on trips that give them a glimpse of the beauty and restorative qualities of nature, while offering the challenge of something out of their comfort zone.”

The environmental aspects aren’t lost on the students, either. Ask any Outweek participant and they tell stories of amazing phosphorescence and thrilling encounters with elk, owls, eagles, and bears. “It’s so important for people to see the natural world, so that we as the next generation know what we have to protect,” explains Alice Brown, Class of 2017, “There’s no way to look at Strathcona without thinking ‘this is really beautiful,’ and having that point of reference is so important.”

Above: Advanced Hike students at the summit of Mt Albert Edward.

See Alice and Venus's story in Two Perspectives, One View from the Summit

Skills You Simply Can’t Teach in Class

Experiential learning is really where it starts and ends. It is about creating meaningful hands-on experiences that allow for trial and error and empower students to tackle new challenges. Outweek seeks to cultivate an openness to new experiences, and being exposed to new social situations and activities contributes to emotional and moral intelligence that simply cannot be taught in a classroom—which is why outdoor education has been successfully adapted for therapeutic purposes for at-risk youth and professional retreats.

When girls step out of the classroom, the wilderness becomes a tool for personal development that gets imported into everyday life. “Taken outside their normal context, girls who may not be leaders in the classroom are given the chance to shine,” says Jeanine.

Whether the girls are learning hard skills, like how to turn a canoe or tie a knot, or soft skills, like problem solving as a team to turn a bunch of materials into a tent, success here is guaranteed, empowering students to tackle new challenges back at home and in their future.

A Career Outside: Alumna Kate Hives (pictured above) shares her Outweek story of finding her path

Empathy through Service

Service at Strathcona is a great example of the strength of the partnership between our two organizations. Originally developed for SMS, service options at SPL are now offered to other school groups. While past examples have included trail building and cleaning greenways, this year’s service project was to build a new backcountry camp at the site of a former squatter’s colony at Paterson Lake.

Donna Holmwood, SMS leadership teacher and a chaperone of this year’s service project, was impressed by the buy-in from her young charges and how interested they were in the history of the community, though very different from their own lives. Although the fire forced the squatters out of their homes and the site was in ruins, the girls were fascinated by what was left behind. “Seeing the remnants of toys, plates, and clothing really brought it home for these girls that people actually lived here. They started inventing narratives from the traces left behind and were very invested in the work.”

The same group later visited a local hatchery to help harvest salmon roe as part of population restoration initiatives. They also served at a food bank, actively participating in different yet ultimately connected parts of the food chain. “A family came into the food bank while the kids were working. It was a single mom picking up a birthday cake for her son. I think the girls really got it at that moment—not just the need but the human element in service, and that a small gesture can mean so much.”

After 40 kilometres in four days, a group of girls sits in a sharing circle on the rocky beach, their summit hike finally at an end. Some muddy hiking boots are discarded a short distance away, and one girl is curling her bare toes in the sunshine. The girls and guides share stories of the obstacle they have overcome, something they’ve left behind on the trail, and something that will stick with them after they go home. They pause in reflection and catch each other’s eye across the circle to validate each other’s truth. The energy is magnetic. They struggled together, and shared in something transformative. They will never forget.

Perspective Taking

Even in a jam-packed schedule there is time to pause for reflection. And that means more than taking in the views (which are exquisite, by the way, whether admired from one of the nearby peaks, up a tree in the climbing area, or out on the water). Breaks on a hike are spent sharing discoveries and moments the girls are proud of. Small progress and moments of courage are celebrated early to build on throughout the week as activities escalate in difficulty. Through being encouraged to share, girls build empathy for each other’s experiences, both in understanding different points of view, and similarities that bridge age, background, and cultures.

In the end-of-the-week sharing circles, students each gather a stone, a stick, and a leaf to reflect on their journey: a stone to represent an obstacle they overcame, a stick for a memory that will stick with them, and a leaf for what they will leave behind. The challenges and memories vary greatly for each student, but there is a common theme when it comes to the leaf. Students speak time and again about leaving behind uncertainty. The bar has been adjusted. Each new challenge will be measured against the mountain they climbed or the fear they overcame.

Above: Students gather for one final photo with a painting students made to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Outweek.

See more staff, student, and alumnae testimonials in Field Notes

As another Outweek draws to a close, staff and students alike look slightly bedraggled, yet flush with accomplishment and a bit of sun. Decades after the program was first introduced, support for it has never been stronger, with teachers keen to integrate what happens at Outweek throughout the school’s programming, encouraging girls to embrace adventure for life.

“To 30 years of sending teenagers into the woods,” toasts Jeanine with a wry smile, at a round table with staff and SPL instructors just before the buses load to go home.

And here’s to 30 more.
 

See the Head's Tales: Our Head of School's take on the value of experiential learning

Below: Read the Winter 2017 edition of Spirit magazine