By Glen Herbert
One of Betsy Macdonnell’s first glimpses of life at Lakefield College School was a grade 9 outdoor education class, one of the stops on her first tour of the campus. “I remember seeing how supportive they were with each other,” she says of the students, particularly in the case of one who was struggling with a fear of heights on the climbing wall. “Everyone was helping her to get to the top.”
What Macdonnell noticed most was what it said about the student population, and what it said about the values of the school. “I thought, ‘this is the place where I could be the best version of myself.’” She’s currently completing grade 12. Looking back over her years at LCS, she says “it was 100% the right choice.”
LCS has long been a leader in outdoor education, in large part due to the physical assets of the campus. They include a sizeable lakefront and a vast property with trails, fields, and access to a range of green spaces. “A lot of other schools have what they call outdoor education,” says Peter Andras, Outdoor Education Coordinator and OE instructor for the past 16 years. “They are bussed up to a camp, they spend two or three days, and it’s only done in one instance, or a couple instances, throughout the year. Whereas, at Lakefield, we can integrate it into everything that we do. We have all the canoes, all the climbing stuff. We do it all right here, right on site.”
That said, the reason they do it—and ultimately why outdoor education has become such a core element of the culture of the school—is because of the skills, behaviours, and values that it imparts. “We’re in the business of educating the whole person,” says Andras. “It’s not just sitting in a classroom and memorizing material. … We value relationships, and we value all of those cross-curricular ties. And everything can be integrated into outdoor ed.”
Certainly, the school does a great job of using outdoor experience—getting beyond the walls of the school—across the full breadth of the curricular offerings. Trips are taken into Algonquin park, for example, for sketching and painting the landscape, just as Tom Thomson did to create some of his most celebrated work. Like Thomson, they travel in by canoe, and stay within the landscape they are describing in their artwork.
“In physics,” says Andras, “they’re learning about estimating distances, or working through architectural problems, or trail maintenance. …. There are so many different things that you can tie together through outdoor education if you have the space to do it, and can get kids out of the classroom to do it.” Geography classes make use of the various ecosystems and landforms within the property; Phys ed classes include time on the high ropes course, and, in winter, Nordic skiing on the campus trails; biology classes make use of the various biomes on site. “It’s common to see us going outside in the trigonometry unit,” says instructor Tim Rollwagen, “with the students all focused on the ratios in triangles, finding the height of buildings and the heights of trees.”
Rollwagen is the Director of Global Learning, something which extends the outdoor focus of the school effectively around the world. “All of our international trips do have an extensive outdoor program,” he says. This year's trip to Peru includes a wellness and spirituality piece, and research into Incan culture. A trip to Ecuador includes a first-hand experience of the biological diversity within the Galapagos. “Our whole school is rooted in outdoor education,” says Macdonnell, “our entire school program is based around the connection with the land.”
The feel on campus is perhaps akin to summer camp. “When they go to camp it’s almost like a second family,” says Rollwagen. “And the atmosphere at Lakefield, and the freedom that it allows, including the variety of opportunities that it has … it’s much like that. Maybe it’s even just going for a walk in the woods at the end of the day … it allows you to have this feeling of a second home.”
Decidedly, it’s a way of being that is unique to the school. “You see students coming from around the world, all different backgrounds, and suddenly they’re thrown into the middle of the woods in Canada. And its minus 20 degrees and they’re learning to use a compass, and finding their way back,” says Macdonnell, chuckling a bit as she does. She and the faculty truly appreciate how those kinds of experiences can bring students together around a new, and ultimately more positive, set of priorities.
“Kids need to get outside, and to learn to enjoy being outside,” says Andras. “In life, you have to be resilient, and to be able to rely on each other.” Those are the kinds of lessons that the environment at LCS, and the outdoor education program in particular, has been developed to provide.