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Outdoor Adventures Support Indoor Learning

Fifteen sixth-graders are gathered on a soccer field on a muggy afternoon. Their task is clear: to erect three camping tents, without instructions.

Rich Youngberg, camping guide extraordinaire, hands out tents and tarps to three groups of five. Work fast, he tells them, because a make-believe storm is bearing down on their impromptu camp site behind Highlands Middle School.

“Are you all fired up to put up tents?” he asks. “Yeah!” they shout. And off they go.

In no time, students are lifting up tarps and fiddling with tent poles. “It’s like a starfish!” one girl says of the tent stretched between their hands. “Just start hookin’ it up, hookin’ it up!” urges another as she helps attach the poles.

Youngberg walks among them, beaming and encouraging. It’s all going the way he hoped it would: students working together, teaching each other and having fun outdoors. That’s why he’s heading the Adventure Leadership Program, a new initiative for Highlands’ fifth- and sixth-graders.

It brings together 35 students from each grade who are considered at risk in their school work, to meet for an hour each week after school. Youngberg, who has long experience in outdoor education, takes them away from computers and cell phones and into the fresh air to discover new skills and make new friends.

“What’s cool about this program is these kids love to be outside,” Youngberg says. “They want to learn. They want to play. It’s just refreshing to see that.”

McKenzie Devries, Nicole Denboer and Nick Denboer team up to connect the tent poles

Outdoor Fun Helps Indoor Learning  

The program emerged from an initiative by Superintendent Scott Korpak to promote development of the whole child, said Highlands Principal Jamey Vermaat.

Adventure Leadership aims to develop leadership skills and a caring culture among students who might otherwise fall through the cracks, and to “let them know they’re part of Team Highlands,” Vermaat says. “It’s a way to connect with students outside of the traditional classroom, but still teach those skills required to be successful in the classroom.”

For instance, students may learn about the history of Grand Rapids by exploring the Grand River downtown. Youngberg hopes to arrange a canoe trip on the Grand next spring for the entire school.

He is steeped in such activities, having led wilderness expeditions for 15 years for Wilderness Inquiry, a nonprofit providing adventure travel experiences for people of all ages including those with disabilities. He runs a fly-fishing club at Northview High School and has worked as a paraprofessional at North Oakview Elementary for students with emotional impairments. This year he is the district’s coordinator for outdoor experiences and community learning.

He hopes students’ outdoor activities will foster teamwork, focus and hands-on learning that will translate into greater success in school. They’ll also go once a month to the Wolverine Worldwide Family YMCA in Belmont.

Jessica Schmidt and Jack Botsford lead the pack in a running exercise before the tent-building

“Studies show the more opportunities kids have to explore the natural environment, and explore with their hands and get dirty, it does wonders for them in the classroom,” Youngberg says.

In the tent-making session, Youngberg schools them on the relative functions of the tent, rain fly and ground tarp, then lets them figure out how to erect them. All three groups get theirs up, each led by students with camping experience.

“Everyone was working together with each other to help out,” Taygan Fuller says about what she learned.

“I’ve never been camping before,” Gavin Law admits to Youngberg.

“What? Did you just say that out loud?” Youngberg marvels. “We’re going to have to change that.”


Highlands Middle School

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio


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