Students in Dawson’s AP Human Geography course empathize with refugee experience through a challenge-course exercise. Courtesy Dawson School

Private schools tout learning through experiences — not just in class

Heidi Burke, the daughter of immigrants from Argentina, grew up on a rural Wisconsin farm and remembers playing outside with her siblings — partially because she had no choice.

“My mother expected that we spend time outside as much as possible in all kinds of challenging weather,” Burke said, “and would repeatedly tell us, ‘Being outside makes you stronger!’ ”

Some area private elementary and secondary schools have embraced that philosophy, and made outdoor experiences — complete with appropriate levels of risk — key parts of their curricula.

Now a preschool and kindergarten teacher at Boulder Valley Waldorf School in Niwot, Burke passes along the love and lessons that lurk outdoors to her students.

Burke said children who “go outside in rain, sun, snow, and all kinds of challenging weather … are much happier, healthier, innovative, and adaptable, especially when they are wearing the right gear. When they are dressed appropriately, they can be outside for hours at a time and are

much freer in their play, which also allows them to take risks and prepares them for life.

“Without risks, children cannot learn how to have boundaries, awareness of limits and

how to be safe,” she said. “Challenging weather creates risks, and risks create opportunity for growth. Because risks teach, they have real consequences that ask us to be aware — aware of ourselves, others and nature. Taking risks is becoming less of an opportunity for children today as we become an increasingly worried and anxious society. At real play, children are in charge,

instinctively making hundreds of decisions as they assess and determine levels of risk they want to take physically, emotionally and socially, mastering day by day an increasing repertoire of skills, adding to their ‘bank’ of experience. They learn a series of lessons for the world they will have to negotiate for real.”

Ruth Godberfforde, outreach and admissions director at the school at 6500 W. Dry Creek Parkway that formerly was called Shepherd Valley Waldorf School, added that those outdoor lessons include life skills such as creative problem solving, critical thinking, “negotiating with each other: How do we move this massive log from one side to the other side?

BVWS offers preschool starting at age 3 and classes through eighth grade, and currently enrolls 133 children. Its campus’ 38 acres include a farm where older students might use math and measurement units to estimate volume and mass in wheelbarrow loads of compost,” Godberfforde said. In a more wild and wooded area, she said, children build forts during the year and then return the area to the way they found it.

Students learn about buildings found in different parts of the world and then work together to build such a structure, she said, adding that it’s “meaningful, purposeful work.

“They’re involved in the daily chores of everyday life, like growing fruits and vegetables,” she said. “On Tuesdays, they help chippity-chop the vegetables to make soup and then share the meal. They have child-sized snow shovels to clear the walks.”

While learning about ancient Egypt and how the Pyramids were built, she said, they’re learning math and physics. “I’ve seen them out in the playground using short or long sticks as levers to move rocks.”

The founder of Alexander Dawson School, which opened in 1970 and educates 530 students in kindergarten through 12th grade on its 111-acre campus at 10455 Dawson Drive in Lafayette, echoed that ethic through two tenets: “nothing without labor” and “love of the land.”

“We have a history of recognizing the importance of being outdoors and respecting the land,” said George P. Moore, Dawson’s head of school. “We focus on healthy risk taking. We want to provide this idea of pushing boundaries, trying to do things you didn’t think you could do before — and that’s also important out in the real world.”

Part of that focus is its annual “Winterim” program in March that includes experiences that increase in level and rigor by grade level — from a single overnight for second graders to several in more far-flung venues as the ages progress, Moore said, “being away from home and engaging in new challenges. Some of those trips for older students have been as close as Brainerd Lake and as far as San Diego and the Galapagos Islands, he said, allowing students to “do academic work in different areas and tie it back into our college-prep curriculum.

“Our high school students go by class on different trips that reflect some of the character work we’re doing,” Moore said, with sophomores focusing on community service in the Boulder area, juniors venturing down the Colorado River and seniors taking a “pretty intensive” backpacking trip.

“We have a lot of things on campus here to allow our kids to get outside as well,” Moore said. “We have two learning gardens, a chicken coop and an orchard. We have a labyrinth that ties into our mindfulness initiative, and a recently updated challenge course.”

That challenge course is for more than exercise, he said — it also can teach current events and compassion.

“Our high school history class simulated the path of a Syrian refugee, either returning to Syria or finding a home in another country,” Moore said. “They start out on the ground and work their way up to a level in a scenario based on the real experience of refugees. They’d roll dice, and some had to come directly back down. Even the students on the ground were negotiating with each other. They’d been given some ‘money,’ and they were trying to figure out should I use my money to move up in line or save it for food in case I land in a country to get my life started.”

Seventh-graders recently took ingredients from a garden and used math skills to figure out what they’d need to host a dinner for their parents and families. Engineering students developed solar heating for the chicken coop and a small windmill that generates power, as part of a program that is integrated with Dawson’s college-preparatory curriculum. They also develop their own products and present them to faculty members, who vote on things they think will be the most successful. “It’s sort of a ‘Shark Tank’ experience,” Moore said.

Bixby School, which has a student body of 100 in preschool through fifth grade at 4760 Table Mesa Drive in Boulder, partners with the Kiva Center, a nonprofit founded by one of the school’s alumni, said Patricia Jarvis, the admissions director who was first attracted to Bixby as a parent. Through Kiva, she said, Bixby can “provide classes and experiences that help students learn about the impacts of humans and the environment.” They go to camps where they learn outdoor skills, she said  — “how to camp successfully or survive if you don’t have your REI equipment with you.”

Multiweek projects simulate experiences such as what it may have been like to live in the age of the Mayans, she said, making “what can be a really dry and abstract subject engaging.

“The core of our learning is really only meaningful and deep if we can supply children with experiences that are relevant to them.”

Heidi Burke, the daughter of immigrants from Argentina, grew up on a rural Wisconsin farm and remembers playing outside with her siblings — partially because she had no choice.

“My mother expected that we spend time outside as much as possible in all kinds of challenging weather,” Burke said, “and would repeatedly tell us, ‘Being outside makes you stronger!’ ”

Some area private elementary and secondary schools have embraced that philosophy, and made outdoor experiences — complete with appropriate levels of risk — key parts of their curricula.

Now a preschool and kindergarten teacher at Boulder Valley Waldorf School in Niwot, Burke passes along the love and lessons that lurk outdoors to her students.

Burke said children who “go outside in rain, sun, snow, and all kinds of challenging weather … are much happier, healthier, innovative, and adaptable, especially when they are wearing the right gear. When they are dressed appropriately, they can be outside for hours at a time and are

much freer in their play, which also allows them to take risks and prepares them for life.

“Without risks, children cannot learn how to have boundaries, awareness of limits and

how to be safe,” she said. “Challenging weather creates risks, and risks create opportunity for growth. Because risks teach, they have real consequences that ask us to be aware — aware of ourselves, others and nature. Taking risks is becoming less of an opportunity for children today as we…