Outdoor School combines learning and fun


Last updated 10/24/2023 at 9:52am

Photo by Jim Cornelius

Sisters Middle School students enjoyed glorious autumn conditions at sixth-grade Outdoor School at Camp Tamarack last week. Science observation mixed with fun is a long-standing Oregon tradition.

"I found an invertebrate!" a sixth-grade girl cried out, bringing her net dipper to the lake-shore at Camp Tamarack, west of Sisters near Suttle Lake. She dropped her find into an ice cube tray where specimens from the water were collected.

Meanwhile, on the ridge above the camp, other students were gathering pine cones and observing their state of decomposition, learning how forest materials live, die, and cycle back into the soil.

This was Outdoor School (ODS) 2023, the latest iteration in a long-standing Oregon tradition dating back to 1957. Each year, in districts across the state, fifth and sixth graders get out of their brick-and-mortar classroom and into an outdoor classroom, where they study plants, animals, soil, and water. In Sisters, Outdoor School has been a milestone for sixth graders.

Friends of Outdoor School, an advocacy group that seeks to support and sustain Outdoor School programs across the state, describes the value of outdoor learning:

"An inquiry-based program, ODS is a unique chance for kids to experience the connections among living things and biological systems, such as watersheds or riparian forests. Instead of learning these concepts from a book, students develop critical thinking skills by asking questions in the field then working together to investigate, measure and report their discoveries. Students simply can't get the same natural science experience inside a classroom."

Science exploration is a big part of the Outdoor School experience - but there is a lot of fun and bonding, too. Students canoe and shoot bows and arrows. According to staff, gaga ball - a kinder-gentler form of dodgeball - "is a huge favorite." Getting together in the dining hall and having a sleepover in the cabins is part of the fun, too.

For some students, Outdoor School marks their first overnight away from family.

Sixty-five Sisters Middle School sixth graders participated in the activities that ran Monday-Wednesday, October 16-18. Campers stay overnight in cabins at Camp Tamarack. This year, in response to parental desires, a day-only option was made available. Seven students took that day-only option. Parent volunteers were also given the opportunity to stay overnight, Principal Tim Roth earlier told The Nugget that some parents expressed discomfort with Camp Tamarack's policy on nonbinary counselors, while others had concerns like simply feeling that their child was not ready for an overnight, or medical issues.

The day-only option gave those students a way to participate. Roth and parents provided transportation to and from camp.

Photo by Jim Cornelius

Students hike out to study decomposition in the forest.

Part of the camp experience is working with high school-age counselors, five of which were Sisters High School students.

Berit Dart, a life-skills teacher (camp name "Bear Hit"), said that the middle school kids look up to their counselors and connect with them during the experience.

"They want to have those relationships with the high school students," he said.

Monday gave the students a taste of outdoor recreation in the rain, while Tuesday and Wednesday were balmy and full of sunshine that glinted off the lake's waters and set off the rust and gold of the trees surrounding the camp.

Wednesday's activities ended in the morning, so parent volunteers and kids went to nearby Suttle Lake for a hike and an ice cream feed to close off a three-day experience that many students recall as a highlight of their school days in Sisters.

Author Bio

Jim Cornelius, Editor in Chief

Author photo

Jim Cornelius is editor in chief of The Nugget and author of “Warriors of the Wildlands: True Tales of the Frontier Partisans.” A history buff, he explores frontier history across three centuries and several continents on his podcast, The Frontier Partisans. For more information visit www.frontierpartisans.com.


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