Written by Micah Leinbach
Hands on Human Interaction – Wilderness classrooms can let kids tinker with society
There’s nothing that can launch you into an internal rant about “kids these days” quite like camping on a Canadian riverbank, swatting mosquitoes while your stomach suffers from a 14 year old’s culinary experimentation with “fried ramen.” But, come morning, with a belly still full of slightly burned, yet undercooked noodles, those same kids will inevitably do something pretty amazing, reminding you that the kids are all right.
As an outdoor educator, I spend most of my time thinking about the “these days” part of the “kids these days” equation. We know experience is a powerful educator. Most kid’s experiences “these days” are defined by certain conditions: routine school schedules, hyperconnectivity, and the social pressures of an age of social media. What if we could change those conditions, just for a while, and let kids write the rules of society?
We want to get more kids into wilderness classrooms in order to do exactly that, so we are launching the Bus for Outdoor Access & Teaching, or “BOAT.” We will use a custom-built school bus (which we are fundraising for right now) to build the most accessible outdoor program in America. With an outdoor program on wheels, we can put a fully-functional wilderness classroom at the front door of any school in the country, then provide the transportation, equipment, and leadership to get them out into the mountains. That means a new set of conditions: schedules the kids control, a chance to disconnect from the outside world, and a chance to play with the social rules that govern a small expedition group.
In outdoor classrooms kids face some pretty fundamental life challenges (where do I sleep? what do I eat?) with creativity, experimentation, and a healthy dose of mistake-making. That also means they learn a ton, especially about working together. After all, just look at…
…the kids who built their own government.
Kids in the wilderness don’t see a lot of candy, so it was a big deal when my crew of 20 found a bag of jolly ranchers. Of course there were only 15 pieces, and it’s hard to split a jolly rancher.
What followed was an experiment in civics that rivaled the founding of some nations, with impassioned speeches and pleas for this or that approach to resource allocation. For a moment it looked like the situation would devolve into a dictatorship of a particularly charismatic 11 year old, until she reached for the candy before her case was fully made. She was shouted down and democracy was floated next, with a vote – but a minority insisted on consensus. It took 3 hours, but they came to an agreement – the candy was shunned as “not worth the trouble,” but so was the lengthy consensus process. The group ran elections for every decision from then on.
People often imagine a government of kids turning into a nightmarish Lord of the Flies situation. Just like any invention though, social processes rarely work smoothly the first time. Turns out a government is the same way – but a few decisions in, those kids had built a model of democracy that would make those of us watching today’s national news more than a little jealous.
…the kids in the grilled cheese courtroom.
Sean made a beautiful sandwich. The toast was evenly browned, and the cheese bubbled out the edges, but not quite enough to spill. Satisfied, he left it on a plate on a log near the fire, and went to fill his water bottle in the river. When he returned half of it was in the dirt, and half of it was in Joel’s belly.
When kids are running the show, behavior management becomes a question of justice. A gang of 13 year old boys initially leaned towards punitive justice (making Joel clean up the meal) before swiftly moving through retribution (eating Joel’s sandwich), incapacitation (cutting off Joel’s hands), denunciation (simply bad mouthing Joel), before settling on a more restorative approach. Joel would make a new sandwich, and would help develop a system to separate “shared food” from “private food” moving forward. Peace reigned. Speaking of private food…
…the wisdom in the peanut butter jar.
At the beginning of a trip group gear is divided up and personal items are stowed away, and the final token of independence is bestowed up each participant. In a world of collectively owned food, one’s “personal peanut butter jar” is sacred. You revel in the knowledge that these precious 16 oz. are yours and yours alone.
You’re likely close to a food source, where control of a peanut butter jar feels small. Not so in a world where every ounce of food is carried on your back. Determining how to use it is a lesson in resource management and a master class in the psychology of gratification. Some squirrel it away – petrified of a mid-trail stomach groan, while others blaze through by the spoonful – not stopping until they hear the scrape of their utensil on the plastic bottom. There are lessons in both strategies, reinforced by satisfied (or empty) stomachs. And peanut butter is far from the only thing that becomes a more powerful teaching tool once the conditions of life become a little more rustic!
…the kids who built a fire in the rain.
After a long day of hiking, lounging on the beach during sunset is hard to resist. Despite my best efforts to teach people about the incoming cumulonimbus clouds and what they meant (storms coming!), dinner got pushed further and further back. Soon it was raining, but a fire had to be made. What followed was nothing short of an engineering marvel, as a few tarps, an old poncho, a stick, rope, and a healthy dose of volunteer human columns built a storm-proof cooking fire. The resources were sparse and the weather uncooperative, but we ate our lukewarm soup with pride.
I am a big believer that for kids to succeed in a 21st century economy they will need to tinker, make, and build, as scientists, experimenters and inventors. I’m also a big believer that for the 21st century society to be one worth succeeding in they’ll need to tinker, make, and build better systems of governance, justice, and resource allocation. That means they need practice, and we know just where they can get it – outside.
BOAT will make accessing these kinds of programs easier, but we need your help! Once our bus is built, partners in the Denver area can have a fully-functional outdoor program arrive on-site, ready to offer the outdoor experiences while sparing organizations and educators the logistical challenges of pulling them together. In prototypes of the program we were able to offer expeditions of multiple days at 50% the national average cost – we know it can work! Consider supporting BOAT’s campaign campaign for a custom bus, and a model of outdoor education that is easy for anyone to access. If we can raise $2,500 in our Indiegogo by the end of this weekend, we’ll see that amount tripled by a matching program from our board and an anonymous donor. Feel free to reach out to the author, Micah Leinbach, at micah@theBOATbus.com with questions or to get updates when BOAT launches.