Every year, groups of Burke’s students disappear for days at a time, heading off to a variety of locations all over Northern California. While these getaways function as an escape from life on campus, they also serve an important role in a Burke’s girl’s life over the nine years she’s in school.
As the defining element of Burke’s Outdoor Education Program, the trips build the exact kinds of social-emotional learning skills that characterize Goal #1 of the Strategic Plan.
The Outdoor Education Program at Burke’s has a rich history that started in the 1980s. Bobbie Meyer, a Lower School P.E. teacher at that time, thought about how students had the chance to have experiences outside of the city’s urban landscape through eighth-grade visits to the Yosemite Institute and fourth-grade camping trips to Sutter’s Mill. Meyer wanted to provide similar opportunities to girls in all grades.
Her vision culminated in the 1987 purchase of the Mountain Mill House campus up north toward Clear Lake. Mountain Mill, a former Girl Scout camp located on the site of an old mill near Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, became the beloved home base for the Outdoor Education Program for 16 years. Over time, finances became difficult, and Mountain Mill House was sold in 2003. The proceeds from the sale were used to fund the full Burke’s Outdoor Education Program, the focus for which has grown beyond nature to teamwork, social development, skill building, and much more. Currently, girls in every grade from third through eighth go on Outdoor Education trips, all concentrating on academic and social-emotional goals in line with the grade level, but also with the common goals of nature appreciation, development of independence, and empowerment.
“The ‘curriculum’ for the Outdoor Ed trips has been linked both to social-emotional development and learning goals (as well as) our academic curriculum,” says Rebekah Wolman, Head of the Upper School. “Once we sold Mountain Mill House, we identified outdoor/experiential education providers whose programming and locations were well matched to our students’ developmental levels and our program goals.”
The program’s challenges increase by grade level, and Wolman says that the long-term goal is “for the girls to learn to work together, rely on themselves, learn what they are capable of, and also support and rely on each other. We also hope to instill in the girls a love and appreciation of the natural world and an understanding of the ecology and geology of at least part of California.”
The trips each grade takes vary in goals and activities:
- The third grade goes to the Marin Headlands for one night as a warm-up, learning to be away from the comforts of home and thinking independently.
- The fourth grade takes a Coloma trip for two nights as a part of the Gold Rush portion of their study of California history.
- The fifth grade spends two nights with the Web of Life Field School (WOLF School) in the Santa Cruz mountains, focusing on redwood forest ecosystems and interdependencies in ecology.
- The sixth grade spends two nights with Naturalists at Large, camping and hiking on Mt. Tamalpais. There’s also some field science and ecology education, but the focus on team-building games and hiking.
- The seventh grade has a two-night fall retreat at Camp Newman in Santa Rosa with activities planned by Naturalists at Large and also team-building, as well as a three-night spring camping trip to Pinnacles National Park, continuing both themes and adding hiking, rock-climbing, and also some education in local geology.
- The eighth grade has a one-night fall retreat at St. Dorothy's Rest retreat center in Camp Meeker, which sets the tone for the year as well as a three-night spring backpacking trip, currently to Point Reyes National Seashore, which is about rising to personal challenge, resilience, and a final bonding experience. The girls learn how they can rely on inner resources and each other as they get ready to leave Burke's.
Susan Deemer, who facilitates the Makery for the fifth through eighth grades, is also a long-term Upper School advisor who has embarked on many of these trips with students. She says that these expeditions into nature work wonders when it comes to learning how to manage discomfort and show independence. “A lot of these girls are always being told what to do and where to go,” she says. “On these trips, they have to manage everything down to their own snack pack. It’s a great time for the girls to show strengths they might not get to display in the classroom.”
Seventh-grade advisor Damian Gates says that he enjoys watching the girls bond. “A lot of the tasks require working together to accomplish the goal, and if they don’t work together, they won’t complete it,” he says. “It’s meaningful and empowering to see girls have breakthroughs on the trip.”
The lessons learned while on Outdoor Education trips extend their reach back into practical, day-to-day classroom situations. Alice Moore, Head of the Lower School, says that confidence and complex thought about changing things for the better shows up early in a student’s life if it’s allowed. “We just have to get out of their way instead of swooping in all the time. The third graders weighed their waste from all their meals on Outdoor Ed last year and came back to school asking if they could do it at school,” she says. “They’re graphing the results and communicating it to everyone. It was their idea and they’re in charge of it.” She thinks that the biggest benefit the younger kids get from the program is self-knowledge and confidence. “Being away from home, getting out of your comfort zone and in charge of your own stuff is so important,” she says. “Sometimes there’s a little homesickness, but that’s part of the experience, and eventually they learn that they can do it!”
Upper School Athletic Director Ashling Bryant enjoys how the advisors are integrated into the group as members and not leaders — there are trip navigators who work at each destination to guide the girls. “It gives the girls the chance to look at their teachers in a different way,” she says. “It helps them learn to advocate for themselves when they return to school; they’re more likely to ask for help from us back in the classroom. It’s kind of like when you’re coaching a team in that your kids see you as part of the group — we’re all in this together.”
All in all, the Outdoor Education Program reinforces Burke’s mission: to educate, encourage, and empower girls. Burke’s students go on to high school as more independent and well-rounded young women who value more of the people and world around them than before, much of it because of this program. “We value highly the development of resilience, and these trips provide a great opportunity for developing it,” Wolman says.Click here
for a taste of Outdoor Ed as the seventh grade experiences it; thanks to seventh-grade advisor Damian Gates for the footage.