Outdoor Education Builds Confident Students and Leaders

When I was little, I sometimes went camping with my dad and my younger brother. It was more the “glamping” sort of thing — we had nice tents, campsites with grills and other amenities. There was little hiking involved. I also went to camp at Calleva, a summer camp where I now work as a counselor. I spent most of my time on the Calleva farm, as well as in the woods and out on the Potomac River.

During the summer of 2019, I did a program at Calleva that changed the course of my life, leading me to become the outdoor educator and the environmentalist I am today. I spent a week in the woods of Virginia and Maryland hiking, learning to use maps and compasses for orienteering and spending 14 hours alone in the forest overnight. While I eagerly anticipated my first-ever overnight solo trip, it sounded terrifying to many others. Regardless, the experience taught all of us something new about ourselves. Some people learned that they could face their fears through a night alone in the great outdoors, some sharpened their hard skills by constructing a tarp structure to sleep under for the night and some people simply took time to reflect on the week. For my part, I spent the solo exploring my allotted area, building a small fort and thinking about what I had accomplished over the course of the program.

In 2021, delayed one year by the COVID-19 pandemic, I did another week of overnight camping. This time, I spent more time hiking and navigating the forest solely with a map and compass. In addition to another solo night, I also participated in the firewalk. Walking barefoot over a bed of hot coals was another activity that tended to scare people, but I would still recommend it. That summer, I also became a counselor at Calleva and started helping young people experience the outdoors in a gratifying way.

In the summer of 2021, I also participated in a wilderness program in Colorado for 12 weeks. Along with 10 other people, I spent the entirety of the trip backpacking around the state. The experience was life-changing — I learned new skills related to outdoor survival, including wood carving, and made unforgettable memories with a group of incredible people. During those twelve weeks, I did a four-day solo, another extremely influential experience where I learned that one can spend a surprisingly long time watching cows walk around a field. In all sincerity, though, I had some great, powerful moments out there. One such moment was when I was restricted to only a few pieces of gear: a sleeping bag, a tarp and some food. My reading materials and my journal were taken away during the second half of the solo to enhance the experience, and I used this chance to think about how far I had come during the program and in my outdoors experiences in general.

Seeing young people try something new and completely unknown, struggle with it, then conquer their fears and embrace the experience was amazing to witness.

This past year, I intentionally increased the amount of time I spent outdoors. I participated in the Maine Coast Semester at Chewonki, a semester-long, almost completely outdoors program. At Chewonki, nature was integrated into all of my classes. We learned the Latin names of animals and plants on the campus farm, practiced Thoreau’s methods of walking through nature in English class and visited different locations on the coast of Maine for our field labs. My time in Maine introduced me to the field of environmental preservation, something I am now planning to pursue in college.

Over the summer, I spent more time hiking. I summited a few mountains, rock climbed, completed two more overnight solos and did eight more firewalks. I fostered new relationships with people who also love to spend time outdoors, and I helped campers at Calleva enjoy their time in the outside world. Seeing young people try something new and completely unknown, struggle with it, then conquer their fears and embrace the experience was amazing to witness.

Spending time outside is something that has been an impactful constant in my life. It has provided stability during complicated times, helped me discover different aspects and identities of myself and led me to become a more confident leader in my life. Any form of outdoor activity is productive, and I hope everyone can do something they love outside. Outdoor education is a powerful form of learning and leadership, and I hope to spread it to as many people as I can.