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Privilege, 100 feet Up a Tree

KYLE MACDONALD

The 8th Graders. Opening circle at Outdoor Education camp. Day 1 of 5, immersed in wilderness. 

The 8th Graders. Opening circle at Outdoor Education camp. Day 1 of 5, immersed in wilderness. 

I drove my daughter and her eight grade, private school classmates to outdoor education camp last week. I was very happy about this, and left after staying the first night feeling extremely grateful that she gets to have this week outdoors. She loved it. Really loved it. Most kids in the US don’t get this chance.  In fact, Tim, the founder of the school, a passionate, grizzled outdoorsman and nature photographer urged the kids’ sense of gratitude, during his welcome speech by telling them “Appreciate this. Not one public school teacher has been able to make this happen, not one.”

But why is this camp experience, sleeping and eating outside, getting dirty and sweaty and freezing cold dipping in a mountain stream, such a privilege?  In large part because they get to build a connection, maybe a deep connection, to nature and all of her benefits to health and well being.  They are fully immersed in it.  They use all their senses, splash in an icy mountain stream, and see the whole Milky Way, and get to experience how small we really all are in the face of the billion stars, and a culture that tells us we humans can solve all our problems with technology. Some of them will come back changed. 

For most, the lessons will steep, and percolate up over time. “Tell me I’m wrong, but my feeling is that your generation is too soft” Tim continues. What he wanted was for the kids to know they could push; get dirty, bruised and scraped, and that despite the risk of temporary pain, they’d be OK.  Maybe its called “building character”.  A new favorite book I read this summer- Barbarian Days, from William Finnigan ponders this question of testing one’s self. He writes about his life as a surfer, and what the ocean meant to him as a young boy.

Waves were the playing field…the object of your deepest desire and adoration. The ocean was like an uncaring God, endlessly dangerous, power beyond measure. And yet you were expected, even as a kid, to take its measure every day. You were required- this was essential, a matter of survival- to know your limits, both physical and emotional. But how could you know your limits unless you tested them? And if you failed the test?
— William Finnigan

My daughter, and her classmates benefit from the class privilege that allows them to test their limits.  But this is what teenagers are meant to do. So many teens, who don’t have the chance to test themselves taking physical and emotional risks with one another in nature, often take other risks.  For example, drugs, crime and unsafe sex to name a few within a long list of self-destructive possibilities. These head towards powerful, sometimes life altering negative consequences.

There are so many reasons why I believe outdoor education should be something all kids get a chance do. And there’s now a boatload of evidence that shows it supports success in multiple developmental realms, from a myriad of academic measures to those within the realm of physical and psychological health.  Having a chance to test limits, in nature this way shouldn’t be a privilege, but rather it is, what Rich Louv calls it when he is at his most passionate: a birthright.

In that opening, welcome speech the kids were told “You’ll climb a tree, 100 feet off the ground”, and I couldn’t get it out of my head as I drove south, away from Mt. Shasta, and towards the city. I kept imagining my 13-year old daughter high in a tree, testing, maybe one more branch higher. 

The students homes for the week.  Bark teepees. 

The students homes for the week.  Bark teepees.