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It's near the end of August, and everywhere around the country kids are saying goodbye to the summer sun and heading indoors for another school year. Pretty much everywhere except The Country School in Madison, that is.
Founded 60 years ago, The Country School has a unique mission, one that depends on time spent outdoors. Its goal isn't just physical activity—that's more of a side benefit.
"If you're trying to teach leadership, what better way than to take kids outdoors and ask them to be the leader on a hike?" said Bob McGee, director of the school's Outdoor Education program. McGee believes that the outdoors is the perfect place to learn a wide range of social and emotional skills: decision-making, problem solving, conflict resolution. The term character-building exercise sounds hollow in any classroom context—not so in the woods, where students learn to depend on each other for route-finding, canoe-steering, belaying.
It starts in fourth grade, with a springtime camping experience on campus. The fifth graders camp at Deer Lake, where they hike, canoe, and navigate a ropes course. Sixth graders go caving and canoeing in Kent, and seventh graders are tested with an orienteering experience at Ward Pound Ridge in New York.
"It's just one of the best experiences in decision-making and leadership," said McGee of the orienteering program. He noted it's a chance for the quieter students to prove themselves leaders. "They're taught how to orienteer, and then given a map and compass and off they go."
Finally, in Grade 8, the program culminates with a nine-day camping trip in Moab, Utah. The trip includes whitewater rafting, rock climbing, and hiking from a 100-degree desert up to the snowy alpine summit of a mountain.
McGee recognizes that it's a hefty investment of both time and money to complete the trips. But the school has decided it's well worth it to complete the half of their mission statement that goes beyond rigorous academics.
"Fifty percent of that mission statement is talking about character and having kids be true to who they are," commented McGee. "The Outdoor Program exists and is as strong as it is because it is integrated into who we are and what we do."
It's not a philosophy unique to The Country School. Nationally, more schools are recognizing the need for affective education—in other words, education that includes the social and emotional development of students.
"We're trying to really help the kids grow as individuals," McGee said.
At The Country School, it pays off. Especially during their Moab experience, the students dig deep within themselves and come out a little bit better for it.
"It's really, really tough and the kids seriously go into this with some level of angst and worry, and what they get out of it is the recognition that they have the strength to not only do this, but to do it really well," said McGee. "It's part of something bigger, and it has a purpose and it has a meaning."
According to Head of School John Fixx, their students' success rate proves the value of the program.
"Our students graduate into the top honors and AP programs in both the public and private schools," said Fixx. "These are highly focused, ambitious children who take academics seriously."
But that's only half of who they are.
"You can't spend time out in the woods next to streams without being sensitive to protecting what you're enjoying in nature to be able to pass it on to future generations," Fixx said. "It's even more important today because children are being more cut off from nature. They don't have as much free time to go out into the backyard and build a tree fort, dam up a little creek, collect frogs and such. Our program maybe is substituting for what they've lost."
That environmental sensitivity—plus the opportunities to develop problem-solving skills they will need to become the next generation's leaders—may well be worth spending a little more time in the sun.
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