Outdoor Education. In Alaska? An Interview with Erika Horn

When I read Erika’s about outdoor education–in Alaska?!–I was intrigued.   I can see the value of more self-directed learning/unstructured play for elementary aged children, and the “apprenticeship’ aspect of learning a trade or career for high school students.   Holding classes outdoors can also teach skills, such as caring for or helping others, teamwork and leadership, that just can’t be taught in a classroom.   Plus kids get to be outside and can focus be kids while learning at the same time.   I asked Erika more about outdoor education during our interview.

Deana: Other than the standardization of education and over abundant testing in schools, what else prompted parents and educators in your story to move away from traditional classroom education? Was there a disaster or other calamity, like lack of funding that inspired outdoor education?

Erika: For a successful transition into outdoor education it would require an increase in funding. Teachers would have to be trained not only as educators, but they would also need to be taught about the environment, design a new curriculum and prepare by learning important survival skills. I wouldn’t say it was a natural disaster, but more of a need to change for our physical, social, mental and emotional health. Students are currently going to school for 6 ½ hours a day with on average only receiving 20-25 minutes of recess. The amount of time that is actually spent in nature unstructured is even smaller. In addition to the inactivity, school lunches often are not held to very nutritional standards. The inactivity, poor nutrition and lack of time spent in nature can have detrimental impacts on America’s overall health. This combined with the standardization of education and over testing parents were fed up and wanted a change that would benefit our students now and in the future.

Deana:   In your description of elementary learning, you state all of the core subjects are taught outside of the traditional classroom with environmental elements.  Can you explain how this is feasible considering Alaska’s harsh winters?

Erika:   Growing up in Alaska, I learned early on being prepared for the weather was the best way to deal with it. Before students are enrolled in outdoor school they will have an orientation that details appropriate dress for the school day and year. They also have giant teepees/tents for students and teachers to use in extremely harsh conditions. The tent has a large communal table and stove inside and the teepee is a large open area for play. In different parts of Alaska they will have an inside space that is durable and will allow for students in extreme cases to escape from the weather. For the most part students will be expected to be outside snow, rain or shine. In the entire year my daughter was in outdoor preschool it was not cancelled once.

Deana:   This type of outdoor education sounds promising in small communities with supportive parents and educators.  How would you “sell’ this idea to an urban school where parents may not be as enthusiastic about outdoor learning, where there’s a lack of trades or craft persons to train with or where there may not be sufficient outdoor spaces?

Erika:   My idea was mainly focused on Kodiak and other rural communities, in urban areas how the outdoor design would be implemented would be specific to the area. If outdoor space is not easily accessible it could be set up on an outdoor rotation where students would have the opportunity to spend periods of time out in the environment. With increased funding locations/school centers could be set up specifically in locations to include adequate outdoor space. Having the opportunity to learn in this model of education has shown to provide students with more than just academic success. I think that parents will see all of the benefits and advantages it provides their children and that value will sell itself.

Deana:   Since my story deals with the lack of funding for education, what kind of funding or infrastructure dilemmas are involved with outdoor education?

Erika:   I mentioned this previously, but for a successful transition to outdoor education I believe it would require an increase in funding and support from the federal, state, local governments and community members. Without this support and funding I do not think that education would be able to successfully transition from indoor education to outdoor. Best case scenario community members would actively work with the school district to design and implement the new design of outdoor education. If the community members or parents are not supportive of this shift it would make it extremely difficult to successfully implement it.