June 22, 2013 - 6:00 AM
SICAMOUS — "THEY'RE THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX, AND LIVING OUTSIDE IT TOO"
As Canadian kids spend more and more time in sedentary activities—sitting at desks, watching television, facing the computer—a North Okanagan highschool is taking a stand against the trend.
Born out of a need to offer more course selection to its students, Eagle River Secondary, in Sicamous, launched Outdoor Education, also known as Backcountry Travels, this year. It's been an ongoing challenge for the 160 student school to remain open with many students choosing to enroll outside the community where more electives are offered. But the school isn't giving up, and in many ways, its limitations on resources have been the impetus for its innovations.
Teachers Rory Taber and Curtis Bellows came up with Backwoods Education after a trip to the Kootenays to see what other small schools operating on the brink were doing to boost enrollment.
"We said, we need to do something to keep our students enrolled," Bellows says. "The idea was finding what teachers were passionate about."
Backwoods Ed was offered in the school's last quarter term, leading 30 Grade 9-12 students on camping, fishing, hunting, and whitewater rafting adventures. During classroom time, students earned their first aid certificates, and learned about camping gear and outdoor destinations in the province. This weekend, the students will embark on a three night, four day backpacking trip to Mount Robson.
With the average Canadian kid spending six hours a day in front of a screen (seven on weekends) and much of the rest of their time in other sedentary activities, Outdoor Ed provides much needed physical activity. Statistics Canada says physical activity levels are "low" for youth in Canada, and the "persistence of these lifestyle choices among young people could hasten the onset and development of chronic diseases."
Bellows says the course was a bit of a reality check for some students. "The kids thought it was going to be easy, hanging aound a campfire, just a fluff course," he says. "We bike everywhere, and we do really challenging hikes that were hard for the students at first."
The distraction of electronics has been tough to beat. On hiking breaks, students would pull out their cell phones and play games while they rested, but that's happening less now, Taber says. On the Robson trip, cell phones will be banned.
"We're pulling them out of their comfort zone and giving them a new way to interact," Taber says. "It forces them to have a connection with each other."
Taber went on a hiking trip during his days as a student at Pleasant Valley Secondary School, and says it changed his life. For him, the class is about giving students a taste of the great outdoors.
"If we do one thing that opens their eyes we've done what we set forth to do," Taber says.
At least one parent is appreciative of the exposure. Tamy Simcoe says her son Kiel loves the outdoors, but didn't have anyone to guide him through them.
"It's not stuff that I do," Simcoe says. "He has a passion for it, but I can't offer it to him."
Simcoe likes that the course connects students with the outdoor destinations immediately around them. "We have lots of hiking and biking trails here, but a lot of kids didn't really know about them," she says.
The course is physically challenging, mentally stimulating, and above all, engaging.
"There's so much about school kids hate," Simcoe says. "Kids always ask, 'when will I ever use this?'(Outdoor Ed) has transferable skills, they're learning how to survive in the wilderness."
With summer vacation fast approaching, some students may have added outdoor plans to their itineraries. "I don't believe every student will spend a lot more time outdoors as the draw indoors is too great for them," Taber says, noting electronics and gaming. "But I do believe a number of the students will begin to explore the natural environment and playground we have all around us... I know this could have a large impact on some of the students, being exposed to backpacking, and hopefully encourage them to backpack on their own with friends and family."
Simcoe is grateful for the course and the teachers behind it. "They're thinking outside the box, and living outside it too," she says. "We're hoping this, and some of our other new courses, will keep students here and maybe attract new ones."
Having made it through its pilot project year, Outdoor Ed will be offered again next year.
To contact the reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston at firstname.lastname@example.org, call (250)309-5230 or tweet @charhelston
News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2013