Education requires more than just schooling

Last weekend my seven-year-old daughter spoke those three words us outdoorsy dads absolutely relish.

“Let’s go fishing.”

A short time later I watched her and her four-year-old brother cast and subsequently tangle their lines into the dock on our neighbor’s pond. Some untangling later, she got the hang of it. The boy, not so much. He lost interest, as four-year-olds tend to do, and took to exploring. Knowing he was more likely than his sister to land himself in trouble, I followed, but left enough distance not to helicopter over his independence. 

That’s when I saw it. There, among a pile of old lumber. A black rat snake. I held still and quietly but urgently called to the kids. 

Learning opportunity. 

They came quick, just in time to see it sneak away into a hole. They didn’t shriek or yell or draw back, which is impressive considering the snake was roughly as long as the boy was tall. I even had to discourage them from digging in after it. 

“It’s okay to observe wild animals, but it’s always best to leave them be and not disturb them or their habitats,” I explained. They were curious. I told them that unless you’re a mouse or a rat (hence the name), black rat snakes are pretty much harmless. 

“I can’t wait to tell mom,” said the girl on her way back to back to her fishing spot as Boy went back to searching under rocks for other creatures that freak most people out. 

Fearlessness. That’s one of the many attributes you gain from the natural world. And I’m not talking about the reckless kind you see on TV. It’s fearlessness derived from knowledge, familiarity, and respect. You see a snake, you know it for what it is, and you know it’ll leave you alone as long as you do the same. Nothing to fear. 

I believe it was Mark Twain that said, “Don’t let schooling interfere with your education.” I agree, which is why my department is constantly trying to get more students outdoors.

This summer, I helped lead some summer school programs. We kayaked Big Hollow Lake. We biked on the Flint River Trail. It was always like a thousand degrees out. Some of the kids brought water, some didn’t. We went anyway. There were some crashes. And it turns out the Skunk River doesn’t flow very fast in the middle of a drought. Stranded on a no-flowing river in the middle of nowhere, you don’t have much choice but to figure it out. 

Lesson: Self-confidence. Things can and do go wrong. But with experience comes knowing how to prepare and how to handle yourself when things don’t go as planned. 

I helped my staff with a summer camp that spent three days canoeing the Iowa River and camping in tents. The last day we hiked way back into a nature preserve where we found, then helped researchers record, some rare snakes and turtles. 

Then it rained. A lot. 

Lesson: Gratitude. You really learn to appreciate the little things like hot showers, clean dry clothes, and home cooked meals after you’ve lived on a river in a tent for a week subsisting on cold cuts, peanut butter, and burnt marshmallows. 

Also, resilience. Outdoor adventures teach resilience in so many ways. It’s just rain. It’s just a skinned knee. It’s just a few more miles pedaling or paddling. Only two more days until a shower and mom’s lasagna. Keep going. You’ll get there. 

How many employers these days would love to have resilient workers with the confidence to be able to just “figure it out” when something goes astray?

I know of corporations that send their staff on wilderness retreats as leadership training (look up NOLS - the National Outdoor Leadership School). There are park and conservation departments all over that take kids on wilderness trips. We led one of our own a few years back which was, in the words of multiple parents, “life changing” and “transformative” for the participants. 

When you’ve spent a week in the backcountry, literally days away from civilization (and sometimes even rescue, should something go wrong), living on your ability to work as a team and what you can carry on your back, your perspective changes. When you can’t pick up the phone to have mom or dad pick you up, or have your secretary order you lunch, you learn what self-sufficiency really means. When your very survival depends on everyone in your group bringing their A-game, you learn to trust your team in much deeper ways than just making this quarter’s sales quota. 

Likewise, when you know your team’s survival relies on your own performance, “leadership” takes on a whole new meaning.

We’re at least a day’s drive from true wilderness, but we don’t lack for wild places close to home.

So many of the lessons and life skills that are learned in the outdoors simply cannot be taught in a classroom or, god forbid, online. It requires getting lost, getting dirty, getting scared, and getting back home, having been made better from the experience. 

So as our kids head back to school, I implore the parents and teachers reading this to remember one thing: there’s much more to education than schooling. Carve out time for some outdoor experiences, the lessons will present themselves. 

Although, sometimes, so will snakes. But that’s kind of the point. 

This article first appeared in my monthly Living Land column in The Hawk Eye