Without Walls: How CG Outdoor Education Adapted to COVID

 

When Catlin Gabel made the announcement that our students would be sent home for virtual learning in March of 2020, Outdoor Education Program Director Lindsay Babbitt had to evaluate what the COVID-19 situation meant for her students.

At first, outdoor trips completely stopped. “We hit pause,” Lindsay recalls, “We needed time and guidelines to decide what, if anything, we could do.” 

Prior to the pandemic, the outdoor program hosted a multitude of trips during the school year and in the summer for middle school and upper school students, some of them overnight trips or ones far enough away that they required the school to arrange transportation. From the rapids of the White Salmon River to the summit of Mt. St. Helens, students are encouraged to learn new skills, explore areas outside their comfort zones, care for one another, and form meaningful working relationships with adults. The Outdoor Education program is an essential component of the Catlin Gabel mission to educate the whole student. By providing extensive avenues for children to learn and grow outside the classroom, this education enhances their emotional, social, and ethical development. 

Like many things, over time and as restrictions opened up, opportunities developed for outdoor learning. As Lindsay evaluated where her program could take foot, concern grew for our students who were struggling with social isolation and increased time indoors. “We were wanting to offer things to students without neglecting the circumstances. Kids were struggling at home, [and] these classes could offer an opportunity to connect with one another and get some fresh air but we wanted to do so in a responsible way.”

It was clear to Lindsay that these educational experiences needed to be not only closer to home but also safely distanced. Restricted to day trips and keeping the trips local, “We had to get creative” she says, “which I think was good for the future, actually.” Early on, they held an event on campus - a Dutch oven cooking class - which attracted new students who had never been involved in the outdoor program before. “That class brought the idea that maybe we should be doing this in the future as a stepping stone for students to learn about and get involved in the program.” 

A whitewater class was scheduled for this spring but with the 6-foot distancing still in place, the scheduled big group raft wouldn’t be an option. Instead, the program shifted so that students could take the class in individual kayaks and visit local rivers for whitewater training. “Kayaks meant that the onus, the learning, and responsibility is on each of the students.” This independence is good for learning outdoors, since the student needs to literally and figuratively take hold of the oar. 

We strive to continue providing the Catlin Gabel educational experience even amidst the current challenges. “We have had success over the past seven months with day hikes in Forest Park, the Arboretum, Powell Butte, and Tryon Creek. We have run Challenge Course, Dutch oven cooking, fire building, and leadership classes on and off campus. Students have done scavenger hunts and urban walks by the Portland waterfront,” Lindsay reports. There are, of course, imperfections and concerns about aspects of the modified program, including equitability as the school cannot provide transportation at this time for local day trips due to current state guidelines. Yet, the program has been able to offer students the chance to be outdoors for part of the day and attempt to alleviate some of the growing social and emotional development concerns from both parents and teachers. So far, this seems to be the case: “We have gotten positive feedback from programs so far this year, hearing from parents that this is needed and brings energy and vitality back to their children.”