Outdoors experience teaches youngsters

Education: Oakland Mills Middle School sixth-graders at camp find a lot to learn about nature and each other.

October 08, 2003|By Laura Shovan | Laura Shovan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Ten-year-old Marlee Orr spent three days canoeing with friends, observing deer in their natural habitat and sleeping in a rustic cabin last week. Normally, she goes straight home after school.

"I don't really get to run around and stuff," said Marlee, who attends Oakland Mills Middle School.

But getting kids outside and giving them an opportunity to appreciate the environment is one of the goals of the school's outdoor education program.

Beginning Oct. 1, Marlee and the rest of the Oakland Mills sixth-graders spent three days at Camp Letts, a YMCA facility in Edgewater.

That time away from the classroom gives the school's teachers, parents and administrators an opportunity to help children from diverse neighborhoods come together as a class.

Principal Yvonne Smith said the camp "is really an extension of our in-school activities, and it really takes it to another level. ... We want to focus on positive attitudes toward learning, integrating interdisciplinary subjects."

The school has been taking sixth-graders to Camp Letts for about 20 years.

While there, they learn to canoe, work on team problem-solving exercises such as orienteering (navigating with a map and compass) and play kickball. They also study the four habitats represented on the campground: river, pond, salt marsh and forest.

"It's one thing to study what lives in an area in the classroom," said science teacher and sixth-grade team leader George Clifford, who runs the program. "It's quite another to go there and walk amongst them firsthand."

Eleven-year-old Damien Gero said he gained information that couldn't be found in a book.

"The teachers showed us real things that we would miss in a [textbook] picture," he said. "We saw a spot where a deer would sleep."

Teachers use the camp experience in their classrooms. Later this year, schoolchildren will "design a model land mass integrating what they know about geography and geology, and many of them will include features that they saw in camp," Clifford said.

The trip also provides youths with an opportunity to write about the animals and plants they saw, as well as about their personal experiences.

"We have five very diverse elementary school populations who come to us," Clifford said. "My primary goal, even though I'm a science teacher, is to try to teach the kids tolerance for each other. Unless we go out of our way to teach them how to make friends with each other, they'll stay with their little neighborhood clusters all of their lives."

Marlee said the groups rotated lunch tables and activities during the three days, which helped her meet new people. "It was like human relations," she said. "Canoeing [with peers], it helps you trust them not to flip the boat over."

Canoeing was Damien's favorite activity. He said it showed him that he and his new friends could work together.

Several other county schools also conduct camps. "Different schools will have it at different times during the year," Smith said. Although some use the camp as a "reward" at the end of the school year, Smith said, "The fall ... lends itself toward bridging the gap and making a smooth transition from elementary."

One change from elementary to middle school is that children have a new teacher for each subject area.

At Camp Letts, Clifford said, the sixth-graders "connect with their teachers [in] a way they might not otherwise. ... Many kids express how many friends they've made, how connected they feel to their teachers."

This year, about a dozen Oakland Mills Middle School teachers were at the camp.

Clifford pointed out that the youths gain a new appreciation for their teachers when they have spent time together outside the classroom, even doing simple things such as eating meals together. About 30 parents also volunteered their time.

Teachers and the PTA have traditionally sponsored camp scholarships that allow children to attend.

"There are moments, once we're there, when their enthusiasm and their joy is beyond limits," Clifford said. "They are so happy just to be there."

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