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In the Outdoors, Friendship, Skills, and Knowledge Grow Naturally

“There’s definitely more laughter; the evening campfires are filled with conversation, jokes and a lot of general happiness”, says Mr. Norman Dods Lower Division Coordinator, as he recalls his many years attending the Grade 8 trip to Strathcona Park Lodge Outdoor Education Centre on Vancouver Island. “In the outdoor setting – and with the absence of phones, social media and other stress-inducing stimuli – students really relax; they have fun, make friends and challenge themselves. It’s good for their overall sense of wellness.”       

While Mr. Dods is quick to share the many positive effects that come from getting students outside into nature and having wilderness adventures, he also acknowledges the uneasiness that outdoor education trips – particularly the Grade 8 Strathcona trip at Southridge – can cause for some students.  “There’s often a fair bit of worry and nervousness around this trip – I get that. It can be challenging, and some of the activities push kids outside of their comfort zones, which can feel scary; but over the years I have come to see that the positive outcomes typically outweigh the initial apprehensions, especially once everyone sees how safe Strathcona really is.” 

In fact, Strathcona’s risk management policies are clear on the fact that there is a low likelihood of any real injury occurring. According to them, most of the risk that participants experience are perceived risks, not real risks. That is, the student perceives there to be real risk – and real consequences – but the experience is actually controlled by the instructor. For example, students on a high ropes course often perceive the activity to be risky because it takes place a few meters above the ground where a fall would normally be dangerous. The real risk of falling, however, is safeguarded by using safety ropes and trained instructors. Activities are carefully designed and facilitated to pose appropriate challenges for participants, to further learning outcomes, develop character, and to contribute to feelings of accomplishment.

“In my many years of attending Strathcona, I have never felt that our students were in any danger or have been unsafe. If this ever changed, we simply wouldn’t return. The safety of our students is too important”, says Mr. Dods. “I like to remind the kids (and their parents) that just because something feels uncomfortable, doesn’t mean it’s unsafe.”

Outdoor Education is an important part of a Southridge student’s experience, one that introduces another arena in which they learn about the privilege and responsibility they have, to influence their community and the world. It’s also another expression of Southridge’s unique mix of lighthearted spirit and serious purpose.

Beginning in Junior School, Grade 4 and 5 students participate in a three-day trip to Keats Island’s Sea to Sky Outdoor School. Students learn how all life is interconnected and how our actions can either strengthen or weaken our communities.

In Grade 6, students head off for four days to Camp Qwanoes on Vancouver Island. This trip focuses on fostering bonding, cooperation, and open communication among members of the class.

The Grade 7 Survivor Trip gives students the opportunity to experience new, fun, and challenging activities in a safe outdoor environment. The students travel to Squamish, where they hike, rock climb, swim, and take part in many “survivor” challenges. These challenges test strategy, communication, and other essential team-building skills.

Upon entering the Senior School, Grade 8 and 9 students head out for five days to Strathcona Park, where they are immersed in the outdoors. Various out-trips are offered at Strathcona depending upon interest and ability, including hiking, canoeing, and ocean and river kayaking.

While the outdoor education program starts early at Southridge, and nearly all students have participated in the trips since Grade 4, the Grade 8 trip to Strathcona seems to elicit a different level of angst for many students and their parents.

“For some reason, Grade 8 seems to be the hard year. By Grade 9, they’ve sort of been there done that, and it’s less of a worry”, says Mr. Dods. “I think a lot of the nerves come from stories they’ve heard about some of the challenges they will be presented with at Strathcona. There is no cell service there, so phones are not allowed. That’s a harsh reality for many students – it’s even hard for parents, who are accustomed to being able to communicate with their children constantly. But without cell phones, the students truly have richer experiences; they connect with nature, they challenge themselves, and they develop positive relationships and deeper friendships, which is really the point. It’s good for kids at this stage of life to connect with each other, make friends, and build trust among their peer groups. The Grade 8 Strathcona trip really bonds the students, and we see those bonds continue to shape more constructive behaviours in school once the students have returned.”

Research has shown that outdoor learning has substantial benefits for students of all ages. Outdoor environments provide opportunities for hands-on learning and experiences that they may not have in other areas of their lives. Rather than seeing the world through screens and digital images, they get the chance to see, touch, smell, and feel nature. Outdoor education experiences (like Strathcona) push students outside their comfort zones, presenting them with situations that expand their thinking, enhance their perspective, build confidence, autonomy, and resilience.

“Probably the hardest and most uncomfortable part of the Grade 8 Strathcona trip is the overnight excursion”, says Mr. Dods. “Everyone sleeps outside under tarps, and the weather is very unpredictable. There have been years where it has rained hard. And frankly, even without any inclement weather, it’s not a comfortable sleep. But, that’s ok. Life isn’t always comfortable – that’s an important message that our students learn through these types of experiences.”

“Strathcona isn’t intended to be a restful vacation – it’s an educational and experiential trip”, says Mr. Brad Smith, Senior School Principal. “When students and parents shift their mindsets to embrace the idea that the goal here is to challenge perspectives, to give students opportunities for adventures and experiences that they’ve never had before, to help them build friendships and confidence, and a greater appreciation for the outdoors, they do have a much more positive experience.”

Southridge Alumna, Thalia Otamendi, Class of 2007, looks back on her trips to Strathcona with fondness, even though they came with some challenges and discomfort.

“I loved Strathcona! Spending half of my childhood in Mexico City made me appreciate the access we have to the outdoors in Canada, and that feeling grew even more with my trips to Strathcona. That's not to say that I didn't have some challenging moments – like sleeping in a wet sleeping bag or having to start a fire without matches or a lighter to cook dinner! But some of my favourite high school memories are from those trips. It was a great opportunity to bond with friends, and to learn useful skills and knowledge that I still use today. I'm fairly certain that Strathcona is what inspired an annual kayaking trip that some friends and I went on during and after university.”

Alexandra Pintea, Class of 2006 shares similar feelings. “In Grade 9, I participated in the five-day sea kayaking trip at Strathcona and absolutely loved it! The opportunity to explore nature with a group to keep me safe, take care of food, and map out the route was truly a gift. Strathcona sparked my love for the outdoors, which I still have today. The laminated map I kept from this trip still brings back many fond memories." 

Beyond building connections to the wilderness, an enhanced appreciation for nature and more deeply embedded friendships, outdoor education provides significant mental health and wellness benefits that can resonate with students for years.

Research shows that outdoor education helps students develop a sense of self, build resilience and self-reliance, while also helping them learn to live and cooperate with others. In addition, connecting with nature can help improve psychological well-being, which is an increasingly important consideration, given the current statistics on mental health in Canada. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, in any given year, 1 in 5 people in Canada will personally experience a mental health problem or illness, and it is estimated that 10-20% of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness or disorder. However, a growing body of evidence shows that outdoor activity not only improves mood and enhances well-being, but also relieves stress, promotes psychological, physical and spiritual heath, and stimulates overall happiness and feelings of connectedness to others and to the world.

Avery Laird, Class of 2015 acknowledges that the trips to Strathcona at Southridge are as good for building relationships with the outdoors as they are for enhancing feelings of overall wellness. “I'm grateful that Southridge provided a unique opportunity for outdoor experiences. Strathcona strengthened my connection to the outdoors and sparked a continued interest in physical activity. Wilderness experiences offer much more than physical exercise, and profoundly improve our well-being.”

While there are many students who simply will not be convinced of the benefits of Strathcona – particularly the Grade 8 trip – until they’ve had the chance to experience it personally, Mr. Dods hopes that everyone will remain open-minded, despite the stories they may have heard about rain, physical challenges, or food at Strathcona (which he notes is very healthy, locally-grown, and not full of refined sugar…another hard thing for kids to give up for five days).

“The opportunity to experience something bigger than yourself through interacting with nature; to strengthen friendships and connect with your teachers; to challenge yourself, overcome fears, or try something new; to laugh, joke around, and let go of some of the worries that get into your head at school or home, it’s all there at Strathcona. For some students, it can truly be a transformative experience.”

By Erin Labbé, Marketing and Communications
From the Spring 2019 Spirit Magazine