Breaking out of the Box of Standard Education (by Jeff Nelsen)

Research Question: Are our youth being educated and exposed to outdoor education?

JeffPictureMy name is Jeff Nelsen. I am a student at Portland Community College. This semester my focus has been on outdoor education within flyfishing. I recently heard the Portland Public school system was planning on canceling their annual outdoor school and feel this topic needs to be explored. Throughout my volunteer hours in this class and research I feel outdoor education and survival skills are extremely important for building skills and self esteem for our youth. In a world of the internet, video games and technology many youth are never exposed to the outdoors and all the benefits it can bring to life.

The Public Writing 

Dear School Board Members,

Education has become a personal issue with me since my brother’s child recently turned 5 years of age. After two years of private preschool the families’ immediate reaction is, “Oh no! Now she’s going into the public school system. It’s terrible and considered behind many other countries.” The traditional education program takes place within classroom walls from kindergarten till end of high school. My main objective is to voice how much knowledge the youth can gain by exposing them to our natural environment and using it as teaching tool.

Growing up in the Northwest I had access to some of the country’s most beautiful scenery, raw nature and was surrounded by outdoor enthusiasts. Having this exposure as a child allowed me to embrace, explore, challenge and learn basic skills throughout my life. I have gained knowledge and leadership skills in an unconventional way. In some areas teachers classified me as an “at risk” student who didn’t catch on by reading chapters in a book , listening to a lecture or being made to do extra homework. Yet when I was given the chance to walk a polluted stream, see a forest that had been cleared cut, etc.,  I wanted to learn more about our whole ecosystem. This included reading, writing, math and science, while developing a sense of responsibility and becoming a morally compassionate individual. A whole new purpose for being able to sound out words or knowing about photosynthesis made sense. This all came about because my fourth grade teacher believed in teaching “outside-the-box” and meeting different learning styles.

Flexible learning environments transcend the classroom walls. An example is Warren Gilifillan who is 1966 started the first Outdoor School in Multnomah County. The goal of outdoor school is to excite and engage students to learn (about math, science, reading,, ect.) by using nature. Six Graders attended a weeklong Outdoor School until 2011 when budget cuts reduced the program to three days. The program was almost discontinued until a group called Portlanders for Outdoor School found support through fundraising . The Multnomah ESD Outdoor School in Oregon is one of the longest running and most successful environmental education programs in the nation. (2)

The reality is Outdoor School could not take over the entire education system. To be successful in life we need balance and a combination of various learning avenues. Much of this depends on individual learning style. It is my opinion that by only doing Outdoor School on the sixth grade level for five days is doing our students a disservice and is out of balance. Our youth spend countless hours within the confines of classrooms. Meanwhile, the California-based State Education and Environmental Roundtable, a national effort to study environment-based education, found that schools that use outdoor classrooms, among other techniques, produce student gains in social studies, science, language arts and math; improved standardized test scores and grade-point averages; and enhanced skills in problem-solving, critical thinking and decision-making. In addition, evidence suggests that time in natural surroundings stimulates children’s creativity.In education, we can build a No Child Left Inside movement.(4)

Because of financial restraints, liability issues and time, integrating this form of education at all grade levels would be challenging. It is much easier to stay with the status quo by buying the newest textbook, giving more homework or “teaching to the test”. In an article by the Search Institute of Developmental Assets balancing the teaching of basic skills while using thematic learning activities based on the child’s world in and outside the classroom gives purpose and addresses the “whole person”. Vancouver, WA Public School System recently came out with their mission statement emphasizing the importance of core values. *   Key words used were: balanced, well-rounded and relevant education. Another component listed as essential to student success was parent involvement (which in many private institutions is mandatory). Parents will be given training and have opportunity to be active with their child inside and outside the classroom.

As a nation we are fortunate that every individual is given the opportunity to access education K-12. Yet what good is an education system that is substandard with our own Portland’s four-year high-school dropout rate of 37 percent. The great outdoors is a teaching platform full of unending learning possibilities that every child should be exposed to in order to well rounded and find their path for a successful life.

Jeff Nelsen


“Outdoor School has been and continues to be the most influential thing in my life. The skills I have learned, the knowledge I have gained, and the amazing people I have met through ODS have molded me into the person I am. It has given me direction in my life, and made me aware of everything this world and this life has to offer.”


The Research

1) “Kids These Days; Why is Americas Youth Staying Indoors”.2014.

This article fits into my project very well. It talks about how kids have a lack of interest in the outdoors from being preoccupied with technology to lack of motivation from obesity. Outdoor programs not being set up in schools to expose youth to skills and knowledge of nature. This article talks about how nature conservation has sparked an interest in youth and lists several agencies that are participating in such work.

2) Profita, Cassandra. “Meet the Creator of Outdoor School.” 2/13/2014. Accessed 5/29/2014.

This article is a column about the announced cut back of outdoor schools within our Portland Public School system. The article interviews the creator of the outdoor school and his feelings of importance in the program. The article discusses how the Portland Public Schools were attempting to cut the budget and cancel the program, but after a Portland School vote and private fundraising the outdoor school will continue…. For now.

3) American Institutes for Research. “Effects of Outdoor Education Programs for Children in California”. 1/27/2005. Accessed 5/29/2014.

This is a research paper that follows 225 students who attended 3 outdoor programs during their 6th grade years. The research paper is extremely vast, but focuses on the impact of outdoor school/skills directly on the impact of the youth. 3 research questions are examined during this paper and they reflect my research question very well. This article is a bit outdated from 2005, but still has application today.

4) Richard Louv. “Why Kids Need to Spend Time Outdoors-Does Your Child Suffer from Nature Deficit Disorder?”. Accessed 6/6/20114

This article focuses on outdoor related education within our school system. A California project focusing on benefits classroom schooling taking place outdoors.



  1. Petra

    HI Jeff,
    thank you for sharing. I totally agree with you. I work in a 5/6th Grade school and our Outdoor School was taken many years ago when we had so many cuts. Some parents tried t keep the program going, but with a poverty level of 70% needless to say, it did no happen. Now It is gone and it is a shame. I think you are so right when you talk about that we just don’t educate a well rounded child anymore. Everything is based on scores. Reading, Writing, Math and even though just like you, I know those skills are important, they are not the only thing a child should learn. In he times where electronics take over their life, spending time in nature would sure help them to put life into a different perspective.
    Great subject !!.

  2. Christina


    ODS has been a huge part of my life and is a huge part of who I have become. This “alternative” method of learning couldn’t be more important in creating diverse and well-rounded youth. Thank you for your superb work on this topic. Your research collection was fascinating and I will definitely be checking them out. I also really enjoyed how you blended your personal opinion with policy and studies in your letter to the school board.


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