Outdoor School is a four-day sleepaway program run by Penn State’s Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center.
“It’s real.” “It’s not textbook, nothing is predictable at Outdoor School.” Program director Ellen Will
When the buses arrive at Camp Blue Diamond to signal the start of a week of Outdoor School, there’s a chance that some of the students had never really spent time enjoying the outdoors. By the end of the week, they’ve made memories they will never forget.
Outdoor School is a four-day sleepaway program run by Penn State’s Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center. The program hosts fifth graders from various local schools and provides the students with a positive outdoor educational experience.
What makes outdoor school so meaningful? According to program director Ellen “Xylem” Will, it’s quite a simple answer.
“It’s real,” said Will. “It’s not textbook, nothing is predictable at Outdoor School.”
From digging in the dirt to inspecting different types of leaves to searching for invertebrates in the stream, Outdoor School is a hands-on experience.
“You can read about soil layers in a textbook, but until you actually go out and dig around in the soil it’s not going to be meaningful to you,” said Will. ”So we give them that meaningful experience that ties back to what they’re doing in the classroom.”
Penn State students earn credit through Outdoor School as they teach lessons and lead activities. The Penn State students come from all majors and all levels of experience.
Penn State students act in one of two roles, counselors and Learning Group Leaders. New students to ODS get two credits and act as counselors, helping lead activities where they can and learning with the fifth graders.
After two weeks of being an ODS counselor, college students can apply to be LGLs and teach the lessons. LGLs earn three credits and take a class at the beginning of the semester before the first week of camp that teaches them the techniques and the knowledge they need to lead the lessons.
“This is like a student-teaching experience,” said Will. “It’s like a very intense, short-term internship. You get a lot of experience in many subject areas in a very short amount of time.”
Those who have taught at Outdoor School will tell you, however, that it’s not the credits that make the experience worth it.
Caitlin “Tiger Lily” Teti, a 2017 graduate of Penn State, many-time LGL and current Outdoor School assistant reflected on what she would say to a possible new counselor.
“Very few people ever have a bad experience here, everyone I’ve ever talked to has had such a positive experience,” said Teti. “I know when I first did Outdoor School I had no experience with kids and had very little experience in a camp setting at all so just getting to take a break from undergrad to come out here, be with the kids, make a difference was life-altering to me.”
Will enjoys seeing the growth and fun the college students are having throughout the week.
“One of my favorite parts is seeing counselors who are very quiet on Monday when it’s just the staff and even Tuesday when the kids get here they still feel a little bit unsure,” said Will. “By Friday they’re singing the loudest and you can see on their face that they’ve finally relaxed and they’ve finally stepped out of that shell of ‘I don’t know if I can do this’ to ‘ok, this is fun, I can make a difference for these kids.’”
As well as building confidence in the Penn State students, the Outdoor School experience hits the elementary schoolers hard, as well.
The counselors and LGLs know how much they mean to their students when they see the tears well up in the fifth-grader’s eyes as they climb back onto the school bus at the end of the week.
For more on Outdoor School and how to volunteer, visit shaverscreek.org.