Demand has surged for outdoor and wilderness programs, driven by parents desperate to get their kids off-screen and out of the house. Numerous New England wilderness schools report they could double or triple their already increased programming and still have waiting lists.
“I think we’re entering the golden age of outdoor education,” says Sam Stegeman, executive director of the Vermont Wilderness School. “Because of COVID, one of the silver linings is we’re finally getting huge numbers of American children outdoors during the school day.”
But who gets to participate in wilderness education? Like the much-hyped learning pod phenomenon, the rush to secure spots in wilderness home-school groups can easily become another example of the opportunity hoarding that leads to learning inequality. David Brownstein is executive director of Wild Earth, a wilderness school in New York’s Hudson Valley. He says that for years he called his school accessible because of its generous financial aid program.
“But it really didn’t meet the needs of people who are like, ‘I don’t have money for these kinds of things at all. They’re not even on the menu of what’s possible for my family,'” Brownstein says. Four years ago, Wild Earth began a collaboration serving the 2,200 public middle school students in the urban district of Kingston, N.Y. The instructors took the kids on forest field trips, and they met the same kids on the school playground twice a week during recess.
The collaboration is especially meaningful to Zachary Jones, a Wild Earth program team leader. Jones is Black and Asian — that’s rare in the world of wilderness education — and he was one of the few kids of color in the woods with Wild Earth when he started doing their programs 17 years ago, at age 9.
“Nature doesn’t care how much money, what your race is, all these things,” Jones says. “It doesn’t care how cool you are. It doesn’t care [about] your social status in school. It’s a level playing field.”
Mary Beth Bonville, assistant superintendent of Kingston schools, says the forest field trips were a revelation to many Kingston middle schoolers. “We have students that have commented that they’ve never been in the woods before. They didn’t know certain insects; they didn’t understand how to build a fire.” Bonville adds that there are numerous academic benefits to Kingston’s collaboration with Wild Earth. “We’ve had teachers that have actually taken the programming from outside and brought it into their classroom,” she says.
But ultimately, Bonville says, the benefits to Kingston students come down to the social and emotional support kids receive from Wild Earth staff. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has put that social and emotional support for students on hold, at least for now. Kingston — like most urban districts across the country — is starting the year remotely. Field trips are canceled. Recess doesn’t exist. Instead, David Brownstein hopes Wild Earth will find other ways to meet kids’ needs for safe, structured outdoor play.
“We may end up in a parking lot running games after the school day,” Brownstein says. “And then, as soon as they’re done, we’re like, ‘Come on out, and let’s run around together.'”
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