With summer setting for another year and the crisp fall air on its way, teachers, administrators, community members and older students spend weeks preparing for Ridgefield’s fifth graders to head off to outdoor school.
As they head to Randle, and the Cispus Learning Center in the first week of October, the experience can have as much of a transformative effect on the students as it does the organizers and volunteers. Cispus Learning Center offers a host of outdoor learning activities from environmental analysis with water and soil sampling to the identification of different trees and plants during hikes through the surrounding woods. Cispus also includes a team-building component for students with a challenging ropes course and other activities.
In addition to the numerous laboratory activities Cispus offers, students learn responsibility by keeping their cabins clean, helping with chores in the cafeteria, and even learning to remember how to take care of themselves, like bringing a jacket for evening activities or if the temperature drops.
Co-coordinators Laurie Pritchard and Erik Nosler, who also teach at Union Ridge and South Ridge elementary schools, respectively, spend all year working with Paul Hulbert, Union Ridge’s Assistant Prinicpal and the outdoor school’s administrative supervisor, ensuring all volunteers, materials, bookings and other details and arrangements are secured.
Students volunteers from Ridgefield High School, ranging from sophomores to seniors, serve as camp counselors for the fifth graders.
“We actively recruit the best and brightest high school students to serve as counselors,” said Nosler. “This year, we have some of the best in recent memory.”
Nosler believes the all-encompassing nature of evolving technology in children’s lives helps to necessitate an experience like Cispus.
“There is a great need for young people to see nature in the outdoors - to live it, touch it and smell it,” said Nosler. “For many of our fifth graders, Cispus is the first time in their lives that they have ever had an outdoor experience, and it’s thrilling to see their interest, amazement and curiosity bloom.”
“Kids don’t have the same opportunities to be outside and aware of their natural environment that we had in the past,” agreed Pritchard. “Outdoor school provides students with an opportunity to discover an outside world where learning takes place.”
Many elements come together to make a successful experience at Cispus. Hulbert attributes the event’s annual success to the community members who volunteer.
“They believe in the program so much that they give up their week to attend – not including the days spent preparing – to help the program run smoothly,” said Hulbert. “Without their hard work and support, the program would not be able to function.”
For Nosler and Pritchard, finding qualified student counselors proves to be challenging.
“Since Ridgefield is such a small district, finding the best and brightest student counselors from our high school can be tricky as we compete with the fall athletic teams and Running Start,” said Nosler. “In spite of the challenges, we always enlist outstanding and enthusiastic young men and women to fill the positions.”
With so many volunteers, students and teachers from the Ridgefield School District participating in Cispus for almost 45 years, the many rewards of outdoor school range from the experience itself to longer-lasting effects.
Pritchard started coordinating Cispus 10 years ago and says the kids keep her returning year after year.
“Working with amazing high school students and seeing the tremendous growth in the younger ones provides such great rewards,” said Pritchard. “Students blossom and thrive in the outdoor environment so far beyond that of a traditional classroom.”
Nosler appreciates how many students return to Cispus as counselors once they reach high school, “Watching high school students give back by becoming counselors can be incredibly fulfilling.”
Serving as a counselor can affect students’ future plans.
“Since being a counselor for three years, I’m now looking at becoming a preschool teacher,” said Rachel Herz, a senior at Ridgefield High School. “Watching students with such varied personalities interact with each other outside of school can be downright fascinating.”
Some counselors discover more about themselves in the process.
“I must admit I am a little nervous about entertaining my campers and remembering what to do if they get rowdy,” said David Potter, a junior participating in his first Cispus experience as a counselor. “That being said, the training makes me prepared and ready to go.”
For the counselors, the Cispus songs continue to bring enjoyment.
“Both as a fifth grader and a counselor, I just love the songs,” said Terin Schultz, a junior who’s serving as a counselor for her second year. “Experiencing Cispus from this perspective layers on additional responsibility that makes it so exciting to share the fun of learning with the students.”
Loggers Day, the last day of Cispus, adds a layer of competition with events like a muddy slip-and-slide.
“The counselors get to come together for the first time on Loggers Day and the events highlight the camaraderie of the entire experience,” said Alex Lehner, a junior returning for his second time as a counselor. “Even after I graduate, I plan to return to Cispus as a community volunteer.”
Even the adults get in on the action.
“Camaraderie develops among the adults particularly during the waterfall hike and survival fires class,” said Nosler. “There’s a special magic in our team of dedicated teachers and community volunteers.”