Aaron Wilcox can see the positive influence being a member of the Montrose High School climbing team had on his eldest daughter. Not only did the experience help her find positive role models and a sense of community, it also gave her a passion for the outdoors.
Despite the proximity of the Montrose County School District (MCSD) to the vast and diverse terrain of Western Slope, Wilcox, a Spanish teacher at Olathe High School and father of three Hispanic daughters, knows firsthand that all children of the region do not have the same access to recreational opportunities. Almost 40 percent of students in the school district are Hispanic, and he says these kids often struggle to find people who look like them in the outdoor space.
A new outdoor education center, which was developed by MCSD and opened earlier this month, aims to change that. The ADA-accessible campus, known as the Outer Range, features three tipis, two yurts, and a two-classroom building, dubbed the Lodge. It sits on a 10-acre plot next to the Uncompahgre River and is dotted with Siberian elms and wobbly cattails. “An important component of our mission is to deliver this program ubiquitously to all students and families. This is not an elitist or specific program for a specific population, ”says Jessica Beller, executive director of academic services at MCSD. “We want children to know how to safely interact with the earth, move within their limits, and seek educational pathways, so that they feel comfortable accessing the outdoors.”
To accomplish this, Outer Range will offer a variety of after-school, weekend, and summer programs that will cover topics ranging from geocaching and water studies to hiking and ice climbing. Next fall, the Outer Range Alpine Start Kindergarten, which is currently under construction on campus, will also make its debut. (The area is considered a child care desert.) The National Wildlife Federation’s Early Childhood Health Outdoors (ECHO) program is currently helping with the licensing process and program development. Older students – to senior high school seniors, including all homeschooled children in the area – will even be able to enroll in expedition-style experiential electives on the Outer Range campus in the coming months.
The Outer Range program is based on a continuum of risk that encourages children to comfortably familiarize themselves with new activities and environments. “When we start something new in and out of life, we take on new levels of risk. If we can show students how to take that first step and take risks, they can comfortably take the next step and be confident that they can take it further, ”said Beller. This month’s inaugural after-school program is a prime example. Elementary students will start by familiarizing themselves with snowshoeing equipment on the mulch trails around campus, before working up to a day trip to a nearby trail.
The program also tries to avoid prescriptive outdoor experiences. “It gives kids the chance to be outdoors however they want and define their own success. Said Wilcox, who was involved in planning the campus. “We don’t want Hispanics to change their culture and do hobbies they don’t want to do. We don’t want to force a marketing scheme. This means taking into account the social and cultural factors that often determine the desire of the Latinx community to engage with public lands, including the possibility of having joint outings with large groups of family and friends, as well as the ability to speak Spanish.
Colorado isn’t the only state to combine the benefits of outdoor opportunities with public education. The Five Town Community School District in Rockport, Maine, and the public schools in Falmouth, Massachusetts have started similar programs. Since 2016, the number of forest programs available has doubled to nearly 600 nationally, according to the Natural Start Alliance. “COVID-19 has opened our eyes,” Beller says. “When people are landlocked, they find ways to have fun outside. When they don’t know how to treat the land it can be a nightmare. We want children to be good stewards to protect the earth for generations to come. “
Wilcox knows that at the very least, more children will be supported in their outdoor activities like his daughter was with the climbing team. “I’m excited,” he says, “that the program opens this path to mentorship, a sense of community and connection for children of all backgrounds and ages. “
(Read more: Inside Worldmind, Denver’s First K-5 Outdoor Class)