Outdoor Overnight Expeditions: A Cornerstone of the Ridge and Valley Charter School Experience

Overnight and expeditionary experiences that are embedded into the curriculum, from kindergarten through graduation, offer some of the most important and exciting opportunities to Ridge and Valley Charter School (RVCS) students. Not only are these experiences a critical element in the development of self-confidence and a love of the natural world, but they also provide a rich, integrated way to learn and apply the skills and knowledge that the students are studying throughout the year.

Consider this quote from a study by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies on this topic:

…the benefits of outdoor skills education [include] improved interpersonal and intrapersonal skills; environmental awareness and stewardship ethics; physical, mental, and social health; and ability to learn and concentrate.”

This is only one of many formal research studies that document the numerous and compelling positive outcomes that are a result of expeditionary types of experiences like the ones that are integral to the RVCS curriculum.

Ridge and Valley Charter School Outdoor Overnight Expeditions Tents

Benefits of Outdoor Overnight Expeditions

Many students often report that these experiences are the most memorable and life changing of all the experiences they have during their time at RVCS. This is not a surprise or a coincidence. The following is a list of many of the benefits of expedition style experiences:

  • Confidence, self-esteem, maturity, self-awareness and independence
  • The ability to be part of a team, to lead and be led (setting up camp, making sure everyone gets to the top of the summit, delegating and sharing in tasks, etc.)
  • An ability to communicate with others day-to-day and under pressure (ensuring everyone in the team knows what is going on)
  • An understanding of the importance of humility, empathy, compassion, gratitude and pride
  • Organizing, planning and preparing
  • Problem solving, flexibility, adaptability and initiative
  • Skills to assess and manage risk
  • Financial management, budgeting and the value of money (fundraising/planning for an expedition fosters entrepreneurial skills and gives real and relevant business experience)
  • Knowledge to travel safely and responsibly
  • Learning from mistakes
  • Reflection and debrief reinforce everything that is learned
  • Participants can use the expedition to provide evidence of personal key skills on college and/or job applications
  • The lessons learned, cultures explored and environments visited during an expedition meet and go beyond the standards found within multiple academic content areas

Taking the Classroom Outdoors

We are fortunate to be located in an incredibly rich area in terms of natural and recreational resources. We have easy access to the Appalachian Trail, Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, the Paulinskill Trail, as well as numerous YMCA camps and outdoor centers. At RVCS, we continue to hone a developmentally appropriate, K-8 expeditionary scope and sequence of skills and experiences connected to the curriculum lenses for each academic year. Teachers, referred to as “Guides,” fold content and assessment into these experiences, building from one year to the next, so that by the time students graduate from RVCS they will have had a variety of overnight experiences and practiced a wide range of outdoor skills, all while engaged in content rich studies. Often times, due to the high engagement of the students, these experiences feel less like “school” or academic learning and more like fun adventures, thus on the surface and from an outside view their value may be overlooked.

Ridge and Valley Charter School Outdoor Overnight Expeditions student looking ahead

Planning for an Outdoor Overnight Expedition

A great deal of planning occurs behind the scenes prior to each expedition to allow for the students to have a safe, developmentally challenging experience. Guides are trained in the skills necessary to handle a variety of emergency situations and help facilitate a group working through the above mentioned challenges. Additionally, during each trip, there is consistent contact between trip leaders and emergency contacts back at RVCS to continue to evaluate and adjust for safety and/or changing weather conditions. This planning and on-going assessment of the group is what allows for these safe, but transformative experiences.

The Academic, Physical & Emotional Value of Outdoor Overnight Expeditions

Not only do students engage in experiences that address common core content standards for traditional academic areas, but they also practice and are assessed on a number of mission related goals and standards, as outlined in the RVCS charter agreement with the state of NJ. We are committed to not only teach common core content standards, but also demonstrate that we are achieving our own mission specific goals. The expeditions/overnights are a perfect medium for students to engage in these critical learning experiences, from the planning stage all the way through the trip debrief upon return to the school.

While the expeditions have a quality of adventure and fun, they can also be physically and emotionally challenging. This is as critical a part of the experience as the physical skills and academic content. Students of all ages are sometimes anxious about being away from family or, often in the older grades, the physical challenge of backpacking or dealing with uncomfortable weather conditions. These are all normal feelings and in the end add to the incredible sense of accomplishment that comes with facing and overcoming a challenge. While students prepare for the experiences over the course of the year, it’s not easy to simulate all of the physical and emotional challenges that will actually occur on an expedition and this experience with a real-world challenge actually adds to the overall value of the experience. It is not uncommon for students to struggle somewhat, either individually or as group, during parts of the trip. It’s often that feeling of elation at overcoming an obstacle that solidifies the experience for the student. These types of breakthroughs are incredible moments that we hope all students have at some point during their RVCS journey.