We stood smiling for one more picture at the mouth of the cave. It was the third cave our group had visited in two days, and we were muddy, tired, and overjoyed to feel the warmth of the sun on our skin again—at least the skin that wasn’t caked with mud.
Our caving adventures were part of a larger outdoor education expedition. On the trip, we backpacked through rhododendrons and past waterfalls, canoed and rafted down the Cheat River, and biked through remote areas of the Allegheny Mountains. Over the course of our two-week trip, participants discovered nature, learned about themselves, and developed lasting relationships with their trip mates.
When people look at posters or visit websites of outdoor education programs, they often see photos of whitewater rafting, climbing, backpacking, and other adventure sports. It’s easy to assume that outdoor education is synonymous with ‘adventure vacation.’ And while that is not necessarily incorrect, it also falls short of the depth provided by an outdoor education experience. “Education” is the key word, and “outdoor” is a qualifier encompassing what and how we teach.
Although programs vary in their goals, activities, location, and curriculum, the outdoor education industry typically focuses on helping people learn about themselves, how to interact with others, and the natural world. Adventure, community, and nature are key components of most outdoor education programs around the world.
It’s the exciting part of the experience. Outdoor education often has white knuckle components, such as rafting, mountain biking, rock climbing, and high ropes courses. For some, the white knuckles appear when considering spending a night outside on a backpacking or canoeing trip, crawling through the total darkness of a cave, or leaving technology behind to venture into the wilderness.
While adventure experiences are fun, they also involve risk, uncertainty, challenge, and growth. By overcoming obstacles and learning to manage risk, participants reflect and grow from their experiences. Thus, adventures can create the opportunity to build self-efficacy, self-esteem, and self-identity.
Whitewater rafting, for example, is exciting and fun, but it can also teach participants how to navigate obstacles, go with flow, and work together as a team. Likewise, when faced with the challenge of paddling long miles on rainy days, participants often say things like, “If I can do this, I can do anything.” A simple ray of sunshine that dries out the participants’ boots the next day becomes euphoric, a pleasure often overlooked in everyday life.
When people return home, the stories most often told are of the wild and exhilarating adventures, but the enduring parts of the experience are usually the relationships. Many outdoor education programs focus on developing an intentional community. As the group moves through dynamic and challenging environments, individuals must work together to accomplish a goal and support each other through the most difficult obstacles.
The dynamic and immersive environments that are critical to the outdoor education industry create ideal opportunities for teaching participants about leadership, communication, and conflict resolution. These important life skills are not always taught in schools or learned at home.
The setting of these programs is a key element of their successes and outcomes. There is an abundance of research showing how beneficial nature is for the body, mind, and spirit. The natural world eases and relaxes our minds, inspires creativity, and increases our physical well-being. An immersive experience in nature without cell phones and other technology allows us to get away from the daily stresses of everyday life.
Nature is the best teacher. There are patterns we can see in the veins of a leaf that follow the same patterns of the rivers and tributaries of a watershed; that same pattern repeats in our own circulatory systems that pump blood through our bodies. Spending time in nature can open our eyes to a new perspective on life. It can help us understand who we are as individuals and who we are as a species on this planet. It provides us with a blueprint of the way the world works, and when we look closely, we can see how that pattern is deeply embedded in who we are.
Location, Location, Location
Many outdoor education programs can be found out west. The sweeping vistas, towering mountains, and rocky canyons create a landscape well-suited for adventures far from home and away from the doldrums of everyday life. But that doesn’t mean that the Rockies or the Canyonlands are the only place we can find adventure, build community, or learn from nature.
The Mountain State boasts some of the most pristine, wild landscapes in the eastern United States. One aspect that makes this place so special is the ability to get far away and yet still be close to home. There is a movement in outdoor education toward place-based learning and developing a relationship with the natural world near our homes. With numerous wilderness areas and untamed rivers in and around the Potomac Highlands, this area is prime territory for outdoor education.
There are endless opportunities to learn from the wild rivers and flourishing landscapes of West Virginia. Here, nature grows—and overgrows—faster than trail maintenance crews can keep up. The numerous wilderness areas, state parks, national forests, and a National Wildlife Refuge provide some of the best opportunities to bike, backpack, canoe, kayak, raft, spelunk, and climb in the United States.
Through these incredible landscapes of West Virginia, we have spectacular opportunities to grow and learn. Outdoor education is an underappreciated and powerful tool to teach participants life skills that otherwise may be hard to learn in the classroom.
Alex Snyder is co-founder and executive director of Appalachian Expeditions, an outdoor education nonprofit based in Tucker County. He lives in Davis with his wife and APEX co-founder Libbey Holewski.