While Colorado is a long way from Tasmania, Emily Gaughwin is no stranger to the Rocky Mountains’ beautiful natural landscape. As a child she grew up on the Rockies’ ski slopes where her family enjoyed many ski holidays. Following her Leadership Development Program placement at Reece High School in Devonport, Tasmania, it felt natural for Emily to head to the United States and the familiar high mountain ranges on a journey towards inclusive, nature-based learning.
“I’m working for a company called the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Centre (BOEC). It’s an adaptive outdoor education centre, where we’re working with people who have special needs,” Emily says of the facility located west of Denver.
“I’ve worked on courses for people who have multiple sclerosis, we’ve had traumatic brain injury camps, and I’ve done a lot of kids’ courses – that’s sort of my jam, what I enjoy doing – so I’ve worked with at-risk kids, kids from low socioeconomic communities or kids who have been in the juvenile justice system. We’ve done a lot of cognitive behavioural therapy work with them, taking in a lot of Teach For Australia’s teachings in terms of high expectations and negotiating respect and trust and all of those valuable soft skills, which has been wonderful.”
“The camps are largely based around outdoor education so we do high ropes courses in the tree-tops, white water rafting, hiking, kayaking and canoeing. We also do a lot of cooking together, sharing meals and the housekeeping.”
Emily studied Health Science in the Physiotherapy stream for her undergraduate degree, and taught maths and science as well as health and well-being classes at Reece High School.“I enjoyed the health and well-being subjects and really believed that that was the most important things to be teaching that particular group of kids, because without that they couldn’t really focus on their activities in the classroom,” Emily said.
“I guess my outdoor education interest came from me noticing there was a lot of disengagement in the classroom. These were often kids who had suffered a lot of trauma – and they couldn’t stay still and this was impacting on the students who hadn’t suffered trauma. After all, if a kid throws a chair the whole class falls apart pretty quickly.”
Emily’s response was to start teaching her classes outside; doing trigonometry with trees and the angle of the sun, delivering an ecosystems unit in the local forest surrounding Devonport, which allowed her students to identify real decomposers rather than looking at them on a slideshow.
“Attendance rates really improved, students’ scores improved, their enjoyment of learning was boosted.
“That was when I had the idea to look into whether there were any schools in the world that were teaching curriculum outside as a means of re-engaging students in education,” Emily said.
“That’s what brought me to Colorado. There’s a bunch of forest schools and science schools in this area, including a school I’m working with at the moment called Keystone Science School. They teach outdoor education, environmental science and they’re about to go into their snow science unit as winter comes up. There’s a lot of exciting movement over here.”
On the way to the States Emily found herself detouring via Victoria where she sat in on classes at the John Marsden-founded Candlebark and Alice Miller schools.
“They have a bush kinder project at Candlebark and I was really lucky to be part of that. The kids went down to the river, they ran and played and made cups of tea and talked about different species of plants and how to protect the land. It was really wonderful,” Emily said.
“Alice Miller School, the secondary version of Candlebark, is focused around critical thinking and current events, sustainability and raising good people. That was one of the best days I ever had teaching; at Alice Miller I just felt so alive. In every classroom there were really great conversations going on and kids were thinking about thinking and about the self.”
With her experiences in Australia fresh in her mind, Emily’s discovery of BOEC proved a way to focus her thinking.“I’m in a pretty left–leaning greenie community up here. People are talking about climate change and the environment and it’s kind of similar to Tassie, which is nice,” she said.
“The next step for me is how to deliver these sort of educational experiences while targeting those students who are disengaged in schools or maybe had a bit of a rough go. I’m thinking now in terms of how do I publicly fund a school that takes the curriculum outside, and that is feasible?”
Emily’s research pointed her to Canada where she found a couple of schools that are publicly funded and running the curriculum largely outdoors – although those models seem to be more geared towards the primary years rather than secondary schooling.
“The US seems to be doing a lot more adaptive–style outdoor education for people who traditionally would be excluded, which has been wonderful to be a part of. It’s definitely made me feel that anything is possible for anybody,” Emily said, adding, “There’s something to be said for going on a high ropes course with a student who has really low self-esteem; the person that they are when they come off the high ropes course or when rock climbing is often quite different to the person who went up. The self-talk that they have to give themselves to get up that climb is huge.”
“I’ve been looking at alternative models to education and what I’ve been coming up against is that a lot of these non-traditional models of education are unfortunately rarely available for kids who can’t afford them. I think it would be wonderful if we couldget something up and running in Australia which was like John Marsden’s school, like the BOEC, that was really trying to make change through outdoor education and trying to engage students in learning through doing and finding and falling in love with the world again.”
Emily said that she had been looking into longitudinal research on therapeutic recreation. She believed that the amount of anecdotal evidence made it difficult to quantify effectiveness, but argued that when combined with mindfulness, neuroplasticity research and the like there’s enough to suggest that “learning by doing” is the best way to build critical thinking. It’s certainly a focus of her plan to explore and potentially open a school with outdoor education at its core.
“The best outcome would be to target students who have been marginalised in any capacity. I hadn’t worked with people with a disability since I did physiotherapy studies but I think it’s a really important place to be and there’s a lot to be learned from those students. Inclusivity would be my focus; it would be about promoting inclusion, excitement and engagement in learning, and offering a different model for those students who have had enough of traditional classrooms and feel disenchanted by the whole thing,” Emily said.
Emily will spend some time travelling in the US following the end of her initial contract with BOEC, hiking through Glacier National Park and visiting family in Ohio before returning to Colorado to spend the northern winter working through the ski season. There she’ll deliver courses that will see her largely working with people with vision impairment and quadriplegia. She’ll also be working with Keystone Science School, helping to write curriculum to improve inclusion. And of course, she’ll be researching and planning her vision for an education model that lives and breathes the outdoor life.