Strip down the pomp and ceremony of most schools and what we really want to create is happy, healthy, lifelong learners. As educators we often observe that stress levels appear to be affected by time outdoors. In fact, the science behind the stress levels in children who learn indoors is well documented. For example, In the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (2017), Dettweiler and his team measured daily levels of the stress hormone cortisol in two groups of children. They were interested in the pattern of cortisol levels across a regular day. In a healthy person, cortisol levels spike significantly upon waking up in the morning, then drop until about midday and plateau through the afternoon. At about four or five p.m., cortisol levels drop again until sleep. Dettweiler’s study measured cortisol in students’ saliva three times a day. The intervention group of thirty-seven students spent one day each week learning outdoors and the rest of their time in school as usual. A control group of eleven studied indoors only. The outdoor group showed a healthy, balanced pattern in their cortisol levels, but the children who stayed indoors did not show the expected drop in cortisol in the afternoon. Dettweiler’s study suggests that students who do not go outside keep higher stress level during the whole day.
This is even more true when we are dealing with the adolescent brain. MRI studies looking at the development of teenage brains have shown that it undergoes dramatic change during this time. Teenage brains are busy in a sort-of synaptic pruning, the elimination of unwanted synapses. This pruning is dependent on the environment that the teen is in, and the synapses that are being used are strengthened, and synapses that aren’t being used in that particular environment are pruned away. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore in her 2012 TED talk explains it as just like pruning a rosebush. You prune away the weaker branches so that the remaining, important branches, can grow stronger, and this process, which effectively fine-tunes brain tissue according to the specific environment, happens during human adolescence. This is why a balanced whole-child approach is so entirely important for contemporary education.
Given these ideas of growing developing brains, and bringing balance and happiness to learners how do we ensure that we design outdoor education into the busy of day of learning?
At Unisus, we believe all learners should have the opportunity to build a connection with their environment. With technology and digital learning platforms being readily available we often focused on the tech and forget the environment as a place to explore. For many people around the world, the opportunity to learn about the outdoors is either limited based on the location of where they live, the distance away from outdoor recreation areas, or having people who can support them in their adventures. Outdoor Education at Unisus will allow for learners from around the world to experience the best that the Okanagan Valley has to offer. I am excited that our students will have the opportunity to grow as individuals, learn new skills and be able to go on adventures, all while caring for the environment.
Outdoor Skills are the foundation for outdoor learning. The skills that the learners will gain in this strand will allow them to make connections to the environment. The skills will be applied while they are completing their Outdoor Experiences and Pursuits, and may also be used to complete portions of the Duke of Edinburgh Award. Learners will be able to develop the following outdoor skills while at Unisus:
Archery, Outdoor Cooking, Camp Craft (setting up camp, safe camp practices), Fire Building, Orienteering, Navigation using GPS, Map and Compass, Geocaching, Wilderness Survival Skills, Knot Tying, Sailing, Rock Climbing, Kayaking/Canoeing, Safe water travel/rescues.
Personal Growth in the Outdoors
Independence and personal growth are important for all learners. Learners will be able to grow as individuals and share their learning experiences through on-going reflection journal.
In order for learners to continue appreciating the outdoor recreation opportunities available near and around the Okanagan, they must learn how to care for them. The Environmental Stewardship strand allows learners to gain an appreciation for what the environment is like around them, and how they can continue to protect and use it appropriately. This begins with Leave No Trace principles. Learners will also find ways that they can contribute to the campus by becoming stewards in our school community and in our immediate Summerland community.
Outdoor Experiences and Pursuits
We have designed our programme to enable the demonstration of skills, goals and environmental awareness through outdoor experiences and pursuits. Outdoor Experiences are learning engagements that can be completed during a day at Unisus, while an Outdoor Pursuit would be longer and that require overnight stays. Examples of activities that the learners at Unisus would complete are rock climbing, sailing, kayaking, canoeing, hiking and mountain biking. As learners go through different phases of Outdoor Education, the experiences and pursuits increase with difficulty. Early phases of this strand would be more structured opportunities, which would build to more complex adventures where they would be independent from assistance.
In this way, we have designed a programme around the Unisus pillar of Outdoor Education with the rewards of nice scenery, wildlife spotting, a bit of ‘fresh-air’. But also the rewards of seriously bettering our students mental and physical well-being, developing important skills and attitudes, boosting creativity, empowering independence, reducing stress, and improving sleep patterns.
To learn more about our Senior School programme please reach out and follow me on Twitter. The hashtag we use is #UnisusEDU.
This article was originally published by our Senior School Principal, Tosca Killoran on her Medium account.