Editorial: Children need a week in the woods to learn outdoors

By the editorial board of the Herald

Ask former Everett School District students about Camp Silverton, and you’ll likely hear stories from former fifth-grade campers and high school counselors about days spent identifying trees and plants, visiting historic mines and the Big Four ice caves, testing river water for pH levels, sleeping in open-air A-frame huts, singing around the campfire, and generally snooping around in the wild, freed for a few days from the four classroom walls.

Used for outdoor education since the 1940s, the school district leased the former U.S. Forest Service ranger station site on the Mountain Loop Highway near the south fork of the Stillaguamish River, but citing the costs, ended the lease and closed the camp in 2003. Many of the camp structures have been demolished in recent years.

The memories remain, however. Kathi Garcin, in a 2019 Herald article, recalled visiting Silverton as a student at Jackson Elementary School. Her family didn’t go camping often, so overnight camp was a way to experience nature.

“It really built my love of the outdoors,” she said.

Similarly, current Snohomish County Councilman Sam Low, for the same story, recalled his experience at Silverton as a fifth grader at Garfield Elementary in the 1980s.

“That was 38 years ago, and I still remember so many of those memories like they were yesterday,” he said.

Supported financially by the school district, these week-long night camps were not typical of school districts across the state. But now, even if Silverton never sees another camper, all students in Washington state can have the opportunity to attend three- to five-day summer camps and outdoor day camps.

State lawmakers are considering legislation, House Bill 2078, that would establish an outdoor learning grant program to develop and support educational programs for students across the state. Administered by the state’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the grants would be made available to school districts to partner with outdoor school providers and state environmental agencies.

Although children and parents were eager to return to classrooms after two years of remote learning, there is now a louder voice to give students a better opportunity to learn outdoors, especially away from screens.

“Our kids are on the screens all the time, it seems,” state Rep. Alicia Rule, D-Blaine, said in a Jan. 25 hearing before the committee. of House Education. “They’re on screens from the time they wake up, sometimes at school, and often until they fall asleep.”

A mental health professional, Rule said she’s seen students “thrashing between the four walls of a classroom going out to learn in the wild, and their eyes light up when they come out.”

The legislation follows a 2021 report by Western Washington University’s Center for Economic and Business Research that recommended funding outdoor day and night programs at facilities operated by state parks, the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Fish and Wildlife and create a list of learning outcomes for outside programs.

Prior to the legislation, state lawmakers in last year’s budget earmarked $10 million for OSPI and an educational foundation to establish programs and grants for school districts aimed at providing up to five outdoor learning days to 20,000 fifth and sixth graders as a starting point. The legislation has since been amended to create programs at all school levels.

Such programs, said Roberta McFarland, director of outdoor education for the Highline School District during a House committee hearing Feb. 5, can provide an interdisciplinary approach to science education and encourage students’ natural curiosity when observing “nature in nature and not through a screen.”

Additionally, she said, setting up programs in 12 regions of the state, as proposed, would make this education accessible to all students.

Among those who testified in support of the legislation were Samantha Fogg – and her 6-year-old son Jacob – about nature’s ability to attract children’s attention. Her children attended an outdoor preschool program offered in the Seattle area.

“As a parent, it was amazing to watch a whole class of 3-5 year olds spot an owl flying through their ‘classroom’ and all of the kids, without being told, slowed down their body and soothed their voice so you could watch the owl,” Fogg said.

Students at all grade levels, especially now, need this exposure to the environment in “an outdoor classroom” as a place where a range of lessons – science, biology, state and local history, including that of Native American tribes, the environment and climate change and even future career opportunities – can be explored. Most importantly, students will gain first-hand experience of their responsibility to be good stewards of the earth and its resources and an appreciation of its beauty.

“This is our chance to give every kid in Washington a week in the woods to fall in love with nature,” Rule said.

Back to fir trees and ferns covered in lichens, Camp Silverton lives only in memories. But today’s students need that chance to make their own memories again among the woods, rocks and rivers.

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