Into the Woods: Making Connections and Building Confidence Early in the School Year

Taking advantage of perfect fall weather, the five grades in our Middle and Upper Schools, along with their advisors, went off campus this week and last to their outdoor education or leadership trips. Our eighth graders, as the emerging school leaders for the upcoming year, spent three days and two nights in New Hampshire at Boston University’s Sargent Center. Yesterday, Grade 7 was at the Hale Reservation in Westwood for the day, Grades 5 and 6 at Camp Wing in Duxbury, and Grade 4 just a few miles from campus at World’s End in Hingham. There were a variety of age-appropriate, carefully planned activities for each grade at their particular location–from group games and low ropes initiatives for the younger students, to more rigorous high ropes challenges for our Upper Schoolers. Although the activities were varied, the experiences for students at each grade level shared similar overarching goals.

By taking students off campus early in the school year and offering them opportunities to stretch themselves outside of the classroom, we attempt to achieve two things. First, we hope to foster healthy social growth for individual students and for the entire grade as a peer group. In addition, a major goal of our Outdoor Education program is to help new students make a smooth social transition to Derby, as they develop friendships and find their place in a new peer group.

We believe there are other important, tangible benefits from our program. For students, we expect them to return to campus with the following: a greater sense of respect for others; more self-confidence; improved problem solving, teamwork and leadership skills; and a clearer sense of their role in their class (e.g., social responsibility).

For the 37 Middle and Upper School advisors attending the trips, they return with a wealth of information and valuable insights for the upcoming school year. Teachers garner a better knowledge of individual students in the grade level they advise, as well as a greater understanding of the “group dynamic” on both the girls’ and boys’ side. We also gather ideas on how to solve social problems should they arise in the future—both as classroom instructors and as advisors for that particular grade.

I often field the question as to why we schedule these trips so early in the school year – when we are also working diligently to help students establish their daily academic routines. The answer lies in the fact that middle school age children, by nature, are very social beings, and that the best learning takes place when they feel connected and confident within their peer group. The activities each student participates in when he or she attends their outdoor education trip help them develop important collaboration skills that translate well to our classrooms. If a Middle or Upper Schooler can hone their teamwork and leadership skills in these settings, generally they are quite successful when asked to work with peers on an IPC or history project, a science lab or a design thinking project in the Healey Innovation Center.In summary, these outdoor experiences provide an excellent springboard for success in both the academic and social arenas for our Grade 4–8 students.

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