Outdoor Education

When I was in college, I took a course called “Outdoor Education.” To be honest, I was just a few credits shy of graduating, and I was, okay, I’ll say it out loud, looking for a blow-off class. How hard could “Outdoor Education” really be, right?

Wrong. There really is so much to learn about the great outdoors and about understanding your place in it. I was always an outdoorsy, athletic person, a tomboy, if you will, who preferred sports and sneakers and playing in the parks. However, I was not an outdoor-educated person, and this “blow-off class,” well, was anything but!

First, was the simple art of canoeing. Mind you, we were just in a small pond on the far fringes of the campus, not on any large body of water. Yet, I still struggled. Certainly balance was an issue even just getting into the boat. Then, the paddling: J-strokes, backward paddles, sweeps…who knew? Trying to canoe with another person seemed impossible at first, too. We were each trying to do our own thing, but we quickly realized that wouldn’t work. Teamwork! Rhythm! Yes, that made it work. We paddled around that pond for about two hours learning every stroke and every square inch of that canoe. It was tiring! It was good I learned how exhausting rowing can be even on a campus pond, before finding that out on a trip to, say the Northwoods or something.

After a few weeks of some classroom learning and First Aid basics, we headed out on another excursion. This one was simply a “walk in the woods.” Easy. Got that! Well, not so fast. We were teamed up, dropped off at the foot of a forest preserve, and given a map, a circled destination, a compass, a two-way radio, and a list of what to do and what not to do. I guess I missed bullet number seven that said, “Do not wear shorts.” Actually, I did see it, but didn’t recognize the rationale. So I wore shorts. Well, we didn’t walk on trails or on yellow brick roads, we had to cut directly through the forest preserve to find our “destination,” which was a small pond in a clearing. Prior to the clearing was just brush and thorns and thickets and poison ivy (which I only dodged by luck, not by knowledge). My poor bare legs had bloody scratches all over them. For weeks. A nice reminder to trust those who have gone before you. As far as reaching the pond, my group never did. We had to be rescued. Turns out, we couldn’t read the map at all, struggled with the compass, and the radio only helps if you know how to tell people where you are. We didn’t. We eventually found a road, and our instructor eventually found us. Scratchy, bloody, irritated, and failed in our task. A tad humiliating.

As the class moved through the semester, I learned to read a map, “read” a trail, and “read” the sun. I tried my hand at cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing, and a variety of other outdoor activities. My footing was always feeble at first, but I got better as the activities went on. The main thing, though, was that I trusted my instructor, and I respected the environment around me. Those two things made all the difference.

Looking back now, that wasn’t a blow-off course, obviously. It was a terrific learning experience, and one I wish all young people could go through. We should teach Outdoor Education in middle school or high school. We should teach the fundamentals of outdoor activities, the basics of outdoor First Aid, and we should teach how to respect the natural environment. I think this would actually inspire young people to get outside and play some more, too. Sadly, that is something I feel is missing more and more.