CfA's Op Ed

Out of the Classroom and into Nature

by Rachel Freierman and Sarah Davidson

Northeast Woodland Chartered Public School

It’s 4 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon in late January. Snow has started to fall and the wind picks up as the 7th grade class from Northeast Woodland Chartered Public School in Conway, NH crosses the frozen ponds of Carter Notch. Packs feel heavy on the students’ backs, loaded down with three days’ worth of clothing and food for a stay at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Carter Notch Hut. For many, the hike is their first backcountry winter experience, and it has been challenging and not without moments of self-doubt for some students. As the group climbs the final rise to where the hut sits nestled amongst fir and spruce trees, the relief at having reached the destination is palpable. Fatigue is replaced with excitement as the students settle into bunkrooms, don their cozy layers, and get a feel for a winter hut stay. The students are accompanied by their class teacher, Mike Fitzharris, and their Outdoor Education teachers, Sarah Davidson and Rachel Freierman. For the next 48 hours, the group will live together in the backcountry hut. They will take turns preparing meals for each other, assist the caretaker in drilling through two-foot-thick ice, explore the area, learn to manage their needs in a remote setting, and observe the winter ecosystem in connection with a climate change curriculum they have been studying back at school.

This winter hut trip is just one of many backcountry learning experiences for middle school students at Northeast Woodland as part of their Outdoor Education curriculum. The school, which is currently in its 3rd year and was the first public Waldorf school in the Northeast, prioritizes time outside for students in all classes. Outdoor Education is a class for 1st through 8th grade students. The curriculum of the Outdoor Education program leverages the incredible outdoor opportunities in the Mt. Washington Valley to work toward the goal of building a sense of place for students while simultaneously helping them deepen their understanding of self and community.

Sense of Place

We begin building this sense of place in 1st through 3rd grade by means of outdoor exploration, games, and art that help students develop skills to observe the world around them. We connect to and expand upon the traditional Waldorf curriculum. In 4th grade, we focus on local geography through a mapping unit that involves the students navigating back to school from Cranmore Mountain and later incorporates multiple field trips to explore the length of the Saco River Watershed, from the headwaters in Crawford Notch to the outlet in Saco, Maine. In 5th grade, we focus primarily on botany as the students learn all about the plants and fungi of the region, tap trees to make maple syrup, and ultimately create a field guide as a class.

As the students enter middle school, our focus on science grows, helping students deepen their understanding of this ecosystem and connect to natural spaces elsewhere. In 6th grade, we study local geology and the geologic history of the White Mountains, which leads us into mountain weather and how to properly prepare for a backcountry adventure. In 7th grade, looking through the lens of change, we first explore the history of logging in the White Mountains and forest succession, before segueing into climate change and building an understanding of how this ecosystem as well as our local economy might be affected by a changing climate. Finally, in 8th grade, students spend much of the fall learning about the history of public lands, including the White Mountain National Forest and other local lands, and how the historical narrative of what it looks like and means to be outside has oftentimes excluded large groups of people. In the winter 8th graders transition to studying the snowpack and learning about avalanches, before carrying these risk management skills into a springtime wilderness medicine unit.

Of course, any of the topics above could be learned in a textbook and taught to students sitting at desks. It is not just the content that strives to cultivate a sense of place, but the method by which it’s taught and the “classroom” that is utilized. As much as possible, our class time is spent outdoors, primarily in our outdoor classroom atop a hill on our school’s campus or walking the public trails down to the Saco River. We also strive to get students off campus to further enhance and enliven the curriculum. These field trips, such as rock climbing on Cathedral Ledge as part of our geology curriculum, traveling to Hermit Lake Shelters for an overnight as we learn about avalanches, and hiking the Boulder Loop Trail to study the impact of forest fire in relation to forest succession, provide hands-on opportunities for students not only to develop real life, local connections to the content they’re learning, but also build familiarity with the incredible outdoor spaces that exist in this valley. While some of the students certainly have similar opportunities with family members or friends, for many these opportunities are unique to their school experience and create an inclusive way for young people growing up in this valley to access and build a connection to the mountains, rivers, and forests of our region.

Sense of Self

In an outdoor setting, especially a remote wilderness setting, students need to be ready to adapt to the present moment. This is why we value the importance of a developed sense of intuition in combination with leadership, cooperation, and communication skills. We want students to observe the natural world around them and have reverence and respect for it, to work with the different elements, and to practice skills for self-reliance. These factors help develop a strong sense of self.

Immersed in nature, we must trust ourselves and rely on one another to meet our most basic needs of fire, water, food, and shelter. We shed the layers of our differences and stand as equals with one another. We have the opportunity to see each other as we truly are, in our strengths and in our vulnerabilities. The wilderness provides space for students’ individual gifts to shine. We seek to foster a culture at Northeast Woodland that embraces challenges of all kinds whether physical challenges such a summiting a 4,000 footer, mental challenges like facing a fear of heights on a rock climbing pitch, or the emotional challenge of spending nights away from loved ones in a new environment without the comforts of home. Embracing these challenges and developing this new sense of knowing one another after having shared a unique and challenging experience builds lasting relationships that carry into the future and helps students develop self-confidence.

Our Outdoor Education curriculum combines these life skills with ecological and historical lessons from the land where we live, while engaging students in every aspect of the learning process. In the 8th grade year, we hand responsibility and leadership over to students so they feel a genuine ownership of their experiences. Students plan and facilitate day hikes for students in grades one through three. The 8th graders spend time learning and practicing different leadership styles and skills including conflict resolution, giving and receiving feedback, and risk management skills. The younger students are thrilled to have an opportunity to hike, play, and learn with the older students and most report it as the best field trip of the year. The eighth graders gain a new respect for themselves and a sense of accomplishment, along with a good night’s sleep.

Sense of Community

An inherent aspect of outdoor learning is community development, which happens through the collaboration of individuals to accomplish tasks and embrace challenges. In a small valley where many students spend much of their school career with the same group of people, it is natural that strong friendships and community are formed. However, embarking on numerous backcountry adventures over multiple years with that group of peers—adventures that involve sharing tents, cooking meals for one another, and pushing each other and oneself out of comfort zones and into challenge zones—can take those friendships and community to a whole new level. Outdoor learning also creates space for students to show up in different ways than they might in the traditional classroom. In our classes, we have seen students step into leadership roles in the backcountry who tended to shy away from such roles in the school environment.

In addition to assisting them build community within their classes, we also seek to help students look outward to the vast array of incredible outdoor organizations operating in this region. Thus far we have collaborated with the Appalachian Mountain Club, International Mountain Climbing School, Green Mountain Conservation Group, the Mount Washington Observatory, the Upper Saco Valley Land Trust, USFS Snow Rangers, Adventure Bound, and the Ecology School. These collaborations not only enhance curriculum by bringing in outside experts and voices, but also emphasize the value of strong community, particularly in an outdoor setting, and expose students to connections that could extend well beyond their time at Northeast Woodland.

Back in the 7th grade classroom at Northeast Woodland the students sit in a circle on the floor, surrounded by smelly gear, drying snowshoes, and some leftover snacks, as they share laughter, memories, and appreciation for one another from their time together in the woods. They also share their newfound understanding of what it means to travel in the winter backcountry and take care of one another, plus a growing sense of how our NH winters might be changing. It is our hope that by cultivating a sense of place, a sense of self, and a sense of community through thoughtful skill development, education, and appropriate risk taking, we will help build caring and safe adventurers and environmental stewards — students that see the collective good in caring for one another and our planet.



Portrait of Sarah Davidson in a snowy landscape

Sarah Davidson is a teacher, whitewater and outdoor recreation guide, backcountry skier, and avid hiker and runner. She is an adventure advocate and educator for everything outdoors. Sarah lives in North Conway with her family.

Portrait of Rachel Freierman in a snowy landscape

Rachel Freierman is a teacher, ski patroller, and farmer living in Bartlett, NH. When not working she most enjoys sharing her love for the outdoors with her two young children.