Trail Dispatches: Trails for Education

By Dr. Elizabeth Wargo
Reader Contributor

Sandpoint may be an aspiring trail town, but it has long been a place that values local educational opportunities that get youth into the outdoors. Scroll through Sandpoint High School yearbooks in the archive room at the Bonner County Historical Society and what quickly emerges is just how much time children — even while in school — used to spend in our region’s forests. Yet today, despite being surrounded by forestlands, most youth in the area spend more time indoors (and online) than they do in the woodlands surrounding town. 

View from Gold Hill. Photo by Jason Welker.

Imagine, if you will, what a typical classroom will look like in 30 years. Many will see students sitting at desks with tablet computers in their laps, interacting with online content aimed at equipping them with knowledge needed to excel on standardized tests. While it is important to hold students to high standards, a singular focus on standards disembeds learning from the community, leaving students with few skills to differentiate them from the millions of other standardized students produced by schools around the world.  

Imagine instead a classroom in which technology and standardized tests are one element, but not the driving force — one in which students interact in the outdoors with community members to engage in authentic learning experiences in fields that actually exist in their community. Students work alongside foresters, conservationists, trail designers, planners and builders, recreation and marketing specialists, web designers, geographic and information systems specialists, and other professionals involved in the development, maintenance and management of a local trail network. 

Such “outdoor classrooms” can be thought of as “spaces where students can experience familiar and unfamiliar phenomena beyond the normal confines of the classroom.”  

Part of the challenge faced in providing outdoor classrooms in Bonner County is the limited access to frontcountry recreation spaces, as those woods that used to ring Sandpoint have been developed into residences and commercial properties, are posted with no trespassing signs or simply lack the trails to make them accessible. For whatever reason, publicly accessible forestlands are surprisingly difficult to find near town. More abundant are backcountry spaces, accessible only after long drives up bumpy roads, putting them out of reach for the typical student within a school day.

However, the benefits of getting students into the outdoors are well researched. 

According to one study of students engaged in outdoor learning experiences, while “there were many descriptions of curriculum-related outcomes in terms of increased knowledge and understanding of geographical [and] ecological processes and of the development of values and beliefs about the environment, young people also referred to the development of more personal skills (increased confidence, improved social skills and a greater belief in personal efficacy) and, for some, an understanding that learning could be fun.” 

Stated simply, outdoor classrooms not only make learning more fun, they result in more socially adept, knowledgeable learners as compared to the outcomes observed within a traditional classroom environment.

Today, with the logging industry employing fewer than 2% of the workers in Bonner County, it is a perfect time to imagine the repurposing and revitalization of our public forests for multiple uses, not just for extraction. Looking at a swath of public land like Sandpoint’s historic watershed, it is easy to envision an outdoor classroom, one in which local youth learn the knowledge and skills that will set them apart in the economy of the future, and leave them infused with an appreciation of place and the environment that the alternative view of the modern classroom is unlikely to provide.

Dr. Elizabeth Wargo is an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Idaho whose research focuses on rural schooling and community development.

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