Many Oregonians share happy memories of attending fifth- or sixth-grade camp, or Outdoor School, as it’s now known. These days away from the classroom (and nights away from home!) were filled with campfires, s’mores and the novelty of hanging out with friends in some of Oregon’s most beautiful natural settings.
And while it might be fun for kids to see teachers emerge from rumpled sleeping bags in their pajamas, there is serious learning to be done, too. Today, 92 percent of participating schools design camp programs to support their existing science curriculum. Even better, most report significant growth in students’ leadership, critical thinking and decision-making skills.
Because of these extraordinary results, Oregon voters decided that all Oregon fifth- or sixth-grade students should have the opportunity to share in this classic childhood experience, funded in part by Lottery dollars. While not yet at 100 percent, participation is growing, ensuring that Oregon kids can continue to participate in this defining opportunity, hopefully for generations to come.
When you read the amazing stories from kids around the state about their eye-opening Outdoor School experience, you’ll wonder why the program wasn’t funded earlier. Outdoor School is a transformative outdoor education experience for Oregon’s fifth- and sixth-graders in the world’s greatest classroom, the great outdoors. Check out the numbers:
And next year promises to be even more spectacular, according to Kristopher Elliot, Assistant Director, Outdoor School Program Leader. “We anticipate 42,456 students will attend Outdoor School this year, increasing the cumulative days spent outside to 167,126,” Elliott said. “We are thrilled to see the increase in students, the number of new schools, and the increase in the total number of days Oregon students are learning outside.”
Laurie McDowell has attended Outdoor School with her students for some 20 years, giving her a deep perspective on how the program impacts students’ lives, often long past their return to the classroom. Not only do kids get to learn whether or not an area is a healthy habitat for animals and plants, Outdoor School also gives them important social interactions that simply can't be replicated at regular school.
“When you’re at Outdoor School, everyone is on equal footing,” she explained. “Kids got to know students from other parts of the city that they never would have had a chance to get to know.”
Additionally, for many students in her urban school, Outdoor School was their first encounter with Oregon’s natural beauty beyond the manicured borders of a city park. She remembers checking in with a student who had been very challenging in the classroom, just to see how his Outdoor School experience was going. His unexpected response was, “Mrs. McDowell, no one’s ever told me that this was here. How come I didn’t know this was here before?” The experience at camp revealed a world previously unknown to him. According to McDowell, these are the “Aha” moments that Outdoor School brings to students’ lives long beyond the sixth-grade.
What has Lottery funding for Outdoor School meant to Oregon’s school districts? In the case of the Baker School District in Eastern Oregon, it means local sixth graders get to attend an expanded four-day/three-night residential program for the first time!
During a time when many district’s were cutting their Outdoor School programs due to budget constraints, the Baker School District was able to keep their program intact. Through reliance on contributions from PTAs, community partners and grants, they were able to maintain a daytime schedule of classes at the Elkhorn Wildlife Area 25 miles northwest of Baker City.
But this year, with added support from the Oregon Lottery, the district was able to contract with a local residential camp located near La Grande, including four full days of action-packed adventure! Camp Elkanah offers a wide variety of different habitats within walking distance, not to mention a staff of professionals to handle issues from facilities to food service — leaving school staff free to present lessons and oversee student interactions.
Since Lottery dollars have been added to the funding mix, several Oregon School districts are planning to offer Outdoor School programs for the first time ever. Others, like the Baker School District, have been able to expand existing programs for an even better student experience. Either way, when you play, Oregon’s fifth- and sixth-grader Outdoor School students win!
Milton-Freewater may be a small, rural school district, but the new Outdoor School program has already had a big impact. Approximately 135 fifth-graders participated in the inaugural two-night/three-day outdoor school at Buck Creek Campground, made possible in part due to new lottery funding. “We had the opportunity to get the kids away from the iPads and the laptops and get their hands on the soil and water instead — something a lot of our kids don’t have the opportunity to do,” said Principal Don Davis.
The district developed its own program for its inaugural year. One of the more innovative curriculums involved observing a small salmon hatchery and the subsequent release of the fish to the wild. The district also developed a program to train their local high school students to become outdoor school leaders; “Something the younger kids aspire to so they can return to participate in the future,” said Davis. “All in all, the program was a success and could not have happened had it not been funded. We purchased sleeping bags, cots, binoculars and other essential outdoor items, and all was paid for because Oregonians voted to have the funds appropriated.” Needless to say, the district, parents and the kids are all knee-deep in planning their next Outdoor School adventure.
Chris Wick is an Oregon Lottery employee. But he’s also the parent of a son who recently attended Outdoor School. And, knowing that Oregon voters think so highly of Outdoor School that they directed lottery funds to help support it, Chris didn’t hesitate to sign up as a parent volunteer. He arranged for time off work, completed the required training and accompanied his son’s class to Camp Meriwether on the northern Oregon Coast for a three-day, OMSI-led Outdoor School Adventure!
Three days might not sound like a particularly long time, but Chris helped supervise students during an itinerary jam packed with activities. Some you’d expect like hikes, beach walks and campfires. But others leaned more toward the academic, like studying the connections between wind, water and waves; dune grass; and even shark trivia. An unexpected highlight was the opportunity to dissect a squid; despite some initial hesitation, Chris’s group became enthusiastic participants.
“There is no doubt that my son and I made some lifelong memories at Outdoor School. I am almost certain I could say the same for every person who was able to participate,” said Chris. He was especially impressed that for three days OMSI staff, teachers, parents, and kids alike were able to work together and have a great time without the comforts of home. “I would strongly urge anyone who has the opportunity to try to be involved. It was an amazing experience my son and I will never forget.”
It’s not only about Outdoor School. Since 1995, when Oregon voters first directed the Lottery to support education, almost $7 billion has been directed to public schools across the state, from kindergarten through college. Learn more.