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How the Outdoor Program Brings the Benefits of Experiencing Nature to Northwest

Last updated on November 18, 2022

The Northwest School Outdoor Program runs outings year-round to Seattle’s local wilderness ranging from day trips to multiple nights of camping. By taking part in these excursions, everyone can enjoy amazing places in nature within just a few hours by bus. Washington is home to three national parks and has over 4.3 million acres of land considered federal wilderness areas. Sarah C. is this year’s new Outdoor Program Coordinator and has spent many years working with youth in outdoor settings. “There’s so much that we have access to in the state of Washington,” Sarah says. Like her predecessors, Sarah is excited to keep giving students the chance to see these places through the outdoor program.

Seattlites’ interest in nature and green space has grown in recent years because of the many benefits it provides. The city of Seattle as well as private organizations offer numerous programs that expose youth to nature to connect with the Pacific Northwest’s outdoor spaces. In addition to the scores of health advantages reported by experts of regularly being outside, Outdoor Program faculty agreed that nature is a great space for students to learn and connect with peers. Outdoor trips are open to all grades, giving participants the chance to interact with people who they might not otherwise. Students and faculty get to “learn how to better support each other, learn more about each other, and just connect,” says Sarah. She adds that “being outside with a group… creates a lot of fun in kind of the most unexpected way. The students that come on these trips are just hilarious and silly and I think we get to see a lot of that side and sometimes we don’t get to see that side as much in classes.” Students echoed these opinions in a survey. Over half of the students who replied included friendship and connection as things that made their trip a positive experience. Beyond connection with each other, the Outdoor Program also aims to foster a connection with nature. Jeremy D, Northwest teacher and Outdoor Program leader since 2013, says that trips give students the opportunity to “slow down and feel awe and wonder for the natural world.” Trip leaders encourage respect for the environment with sustainable habits and the “leave no trace” principles of leaving areas better than they were found. Several Northwest alumni have gone on to incorporate these ideals into their careers. The Outdoor Program is one piece of Northwest’s larger effort to practice environmental sustainability which also includes the Environment Program, sustainable food sourcing, and responsible investing.   

Unfortunately, the benefits of the outdoors do not reach large parts of the population. “It feels very much like a space for the privileged,” says Sarah. This is the result of centuries of decisions made in the United States. The creation of the US National Parks System hinged on pushing Indigenous People off their land so that white Americans could enjoy it. Outdoor recreation and conservation groups have a long history of excluding BIPOC. Factors like time and money have also become barriers that make outdoor spaces in America dominated by middle to upper-class white people.   

 The Outdoor Program has a focus on ensuring that anyone who wants to participate can. There are some barriers that make trips hard to attend for some students, such as trips always happening on weekends which conflict with sports and other commitments students often have. One student wrote about how leading interest groups or affinity spaces makes showing up for pre-trip meetings hard since they almost always happen during FLEX time. Nonetheless, the Outdoor Program has been finding ways to improve accessibility since its founding. The program both has extra gear and works with the Washington Trails Association’s gear lending library to make sure everyone has the necessary equipment. Fees can be covered by the experience fund, also called the X-fund, which covers school-related expenses outside of tuition for students receiving any amount of financial aid. Every trip has two pre-trip meetings to organize beforehand. Sarah emphasizes that she and trip leaders are happy to answer questions and discuss concerns. “We’ll make sure all of your needs are being met,” she assures. 

For anyone who missed the fall trimester trips, winter trips with snow activities are planned for January and February and more are coming up in spring. Sarah and the other trip leaders are excited to continue getting students out in nature and want to cultivate connection and environmental awareness. “That’s our hope, really, as a program,” Sarah says, “to create that love and respect for the outdoors.”  

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