Shining Mountain Waldorf School using outdoors to challenge students

On the final evening of a three-day backpacking trip, 25 seventh-graders and a few of us teachers and trip leaders gathered around the campfire. After much tired laughter and a few silly songs (think Arlo Guthrie’s “The Motorcycle Song”), the group settled into a more serious mood.

The tight circle of 13-year-old eyes looked across the fire to Craig Rubens, trip leader and movement and outdoor education director at Shining Mountain Waldorf School, an independent pre-K-12 school in Boulder.

“Your future is approaching you from a distance,” Rubens said. His voice was quiet, just a little louder than the crackling of the fire. His white beard was bright in the firelight.

Rubens has decades of experience working with youths in the backcountry. He and I had been teaching many of these students since they were in first grade, but this trip was different than anything we’d done together in the classroom.

“And that is your work as teenagers, discovering who you are and what kind of a person you are becoming, realizing how your individual identity is distinct from your family and upbringing,” he told them.

This is hard work, he acknowledged, and it’s part of the turmoil of adolescence. The students listened, taking his words in with the radiant warmth of the fire on their cheeks and the smell of pine smoke in their clothes.

The seventh-graders had carried full packs into the Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forest, past pines and golden aspens, to the meadow-side site where we set up camp. They took care of themselves and each other. They played stalking and hide-and-seek-style games like camouflage, sardines and fox walk. They set up their own tarps and cooked their own meals.

They’d also had solo time, sitting with their thoughts for an hour in the forest, their socks and shoes off so they could feel the skin of the mountains on the soles of their feet. Afterward, they’d navigated back to camp in small groups, on their own and off trail, as we adults watched from afar.

On one hand, I thought as we sat by the fire, it had been a powerful, even magical, trip, watching our students learn and practice new skills and seeing them reflect and try to find their place. On the other hand, this adventure was nothing special — just another snapshot of Shining Mountain’s robust outdoor education program. The school’s middle- and high-schoolers get outside every year, car camping, snowshoeing, exploring rivers, backpacking.

“My hope,” said Rubens as we talked afterward, “is that [students] feel, through their experience, a greater sense of connection to their world, their classmates, the natural environment, and ultimately to themselves. By meeting the natural challenges of the trip, ones that are physically tangible, ancient, and in our blood — like creating their shelter and learning the knots, cooking their own food, building their own fire, drawing water from the source rather than from the tap and purifying it — they are better able to meet both physical and nonphysical challenges by having a stronger core.”

Indeed, even though this group had worked well together, there were challenges for some: homesickness, difficulty sleeping, mild altitude sickness, brief social unease. But, as Rubens wrote in an email to their parents afterward, “everyone met their own challenges with courage, humor and relative ease. The group vessel can be a wonderful means to overcome fears and meet the unknown when surrounded by wise guidance and supportive friends.”

Seeing those faces, flickering orange-red and bunched together around the campfire under a sky filled with stars, I couldn’t agree more.

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