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Education

‘Wired By Experience’ — Outdoor Ed Institution Wants More Students To Experience Learning Outside

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Glynis Board
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West Virginia Public Broadcasting
During their Experience Learning visit, students from Nrorthfork Elementary worked together to learn basic survival skills like how to build a debris fort.

An organization called Experience Learning in Pendleton County, has been leading kids out into pristine mountain landscapes to learn about the world, themselves and each other for about 50 years. It’s one of the longer running outdoor education institutions in the West Virginia. Organizers say they’ve spent years watching kids be transformed by outdoor experiences. More than anything else, they want kids to learn to love learning and they don’t care if kids find that love on top of a mountain, or in their schoolyards. 

Having Experience Learning

The organization’s base camp is at the Spruce Knob Mountain Center — a collection of yurts which sits in a 400-acre high-elevation nature preserve. Students, families and various groups visit to experience some of the darkest night skies in the Eastern U.S., as well as the surrounding northern hardwood forests, and some of the healthiest streams in the state. The largest structure at the center is an expansive wooden multi-leveled Mongolian-inspired yurt with a dining booths on top of a full kitchen, and a round library fitted with wood burning stoves on top. 

It’s usually very quiet because people don’t often come here to hangout indoors.

Experience Learning was founded in the 70s. It was originally designed to be a resource for individual families. 

One of the organization’s board members, Jennifer Taylor-Ide, has been involved from the start. She remembers that individual families were hard to recruit, but schools from all over the region just started calling. So they started to put programs together for kids, teaching everything from geology to interpersonal life skills.

“What I go back to over and over is the term ‘beyond the classroom education’,” Taylor-Ide said. “I think we are wired to learn by experience — plain and simple. It’s not that there’s something wrong with classroom learning, but if you don’t have the experience of the world to call on, classroom learning gets flatter and less meaningful.”

Kids who visit seem to find meaningful experiences, but mostly they report having a lot of fun. Or at least that’s what the kids who came to visit from Northfork Elementary said.

Kids Experience Learning

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Credit Glynis Board / West Virginia Public Broadcasting
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West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Northfork Elementary Students were told they could get muddy while exploring the Sinks of Gandy in Randolph County, and most were sure not to miss the opportunity.

After a day exploring nearby forests, water, and caves students from Northfork Elementary are headed up a hill in vans and busses to catch the public school bus home. They’re dirty and spent, but still full of energy. 

When asked what he learned today, Cole Harper recalled making a debris fort and his experience letting his eyes adjust to the darkness of a cave. 

When asked what grade they would give Experience Learning instructors who led them through caves and around lakes, collecting hawthorn berries to make jam, students were very generous.

“A thousand percent!” said Dakota Kimble.   

These are fifth graders from Northfork Elementary in Pendleton County, West Virginia. Their school and homes are nestled in the mountains of Central Appalachia near Spruce Knob. At nearly 5,000 feet above sea level, Spruce Knob is is the highest point in the Allegheny Mountains, but today kids spent a good portion of their day in a cave under the mountain.

“I learned not to run and slip,” said Callie Judy who was covered in drying mud. “You get mud in places that there should not be mud.”

It’s the first trip Northfork Elementary’s new fifth grade teacher, Stacey Slaughter, has taken with students. She said she’d love to see programs like this, that teach kids life skills in combination with academic skills, more regularly built into the public school system.

“It builds a community, it builds relationships with the kids, practical living experiences that they aren’t always receiving,” Slaughter said. “It just takes learning to the next step for me.”

Learning Rooted In Community

Experience Learning Executive Director, Vicki Fenwick, explained that the mission of her organization is really to leverage the rich resource that is the natural world to develop healthy communities. She said her organization is supported by public and private donors as well as program fees for schools and organizations that can afford them — grants pay for programming for local surrounding schools. 

Fenwick wants to partner with schools in deeper, more regular ways. And while she loves bringing kids to the mountain, she wants to help teachers and kids get engaged in their own backyards. 

“Schools and teachers are experts at delivering curriculum, and classroom management and all the things that have to happen in a school year, but we’re experts at taking kids outside and finding ways to use a landscape whether it’s a city block, a mountain, a cave and using that as a tool for learning,” she said.

Fenwick, and Experience Learning under her leadership, have been heavily influenced by the educational concept called place-based education. The idea is to use local communities and environments as hands-on and engaging fodder to teach concepts like language arts, math, social studies and other subjects. Research indicates that kids who use their communities as extended classrooms have increased academic success, and that there are a host of other benefits for both kids and communities. Fenwick believes it’s a model of learning that would improve community pride and investment.

“There’s some really interesting research out there about community revitalization or community problem-solving, where students are active participants and oftentimes the driving force behind real, effective changes in communities,” she said. “So we want to see that happen all over the state and region.”

She said she’s seen a growing appetite for this kind of outside learning among some school administrators throughout the region. Whether programs can take root and shape healthier learners and communities relies on whether visionary leadership exists to implement best practices. 

When asked about the future, Fenwick says she also wants to see Experience Learning become more relied on to educate educators on those best practices. But in the meantime, work continues to enhance learning for kids around Pendleton County.

Learning That Transforms

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Credit Glynis Board / West Virginia Public Broadcasting
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West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Students from Northfork Elementary worked on art projects inspired by their woodland surroundings during their Experience Learning outing.

Today, a wide assortment of visitors visit the group’s mountain campus — from homeschool groups to private and public schools. Students learn about everything from watercolor painting to social justice. The kids from Northfork Elementary, for example, spent two school days collecting berries, making jam, and exploring nearby ecosystems. 

“We want to get kids outside whether it be in their community or here just to learn about themselves, to be curious, to explore, to get excited about learning -- just to ignite that spark,” said Program Director Melinda Brooks. 

Brooks works with various groups to design programs to fit their learning needs. She says Experience Learning has no political agenda, and there’s no overarching academic focus, there’s just a driving desire to inspire kids and adults to care about the world around them. 

She and the seasonally rotating staff of about 20 collect some surveys and program assessments, but don’t spend hours collecting data or assessing established measurable outcomes. But they do believe they’re having an impact. 

“There’s so much that you can learn out here that I can’t even tell you want that particular student might get out of it,” Brooks said. “They might get something totally different than what the school even had in mind. It’s the transformative nature of the programs that I think is the greatest impact that we’re having.”


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