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Practical Homeschooling® :

Homeschooling in the Outdoors

By Mary Pride and Others
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #45, 2002.

From Franklin Pride's two-week mountain adventure, to a father-and-son trek, to the outdoors experience that inspired a successful college admissions essay, here's what some homeschoolers have learned in the great outdoors.
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Mary Pride

Most of the photos in this article are from the talented camera work of Randy Levensaler.
Do you have a son who tries to spend his whole day in front of a computer screen or a video game? Is your daughter a "couch potato" who would rather read books all day than ever go outside?

If so, you're not alone. Today's kids are getting fatter, more sluggish, and have far less real-world skills than kids had even a generation ago.

In a future issue, we'll have an article on what is causing this retreat from the real world. But right now, I think we can agree that one of the reasons we're homeschooling is to give our kids more real-world experiences . . . which in turn means they need some adventures away from home.

Great for College Applications

Having taken two kids (so far) successfully through the college application and scholarship process, I can tell you that admissions officials love it when homeschoolers can show educational adventures on their transcripts. In their minds, this proves two things: (1) the kids in question are not "hothouse flowers" who will go screaming back to Mommy out of homesickness and (2) they can hold their own in the real world. Plus, the trips themselves add interest to the application.

Later on in this feature, you'll see an actual college application essay based on one such trip, that garnered its author admission to one of the top universities in the country.

Toughens 'Em Up

I suppose you could send your little darling off to military school, but that would rather defeat the purpose of homeschooling. An outdoors challenge tests body, soul, and character in a way that's unlikely to occur around the home hacienda.

Gets 'Em Away from the Computer

This is the one that got my vote! It's not my kids fault that they get the "techie" gene from both sides (both Bill and I attended engineering schools). But in our suburb there just isn't all that much fascinating to do outdoors most of the year, let alone anything that presents a challenge or learning adventure.

All this led me to start thinking about sending one or more of the kids to Outward Bound. I had second thoughts, though, when I heard from an acquaintance that her son encountered not a few drug users and otherwise uncool lifestyle choices on an OB adventure. She strongly recommended a Christian alternative, one that her son and husband had attended.

That's how I first heard about Summit Adventure. Based in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, they offer a variety of one-, two-, and three-week outings for homeschoolers, fathers and sons, and moms and daughters.

Thirty years ago, Summit Expedition, predecessor to Summit Adventure, was born when author and speaker, Tim Hansel, was teaching a classroom full of apathetic students. He couldn't escape the contrast he saw between the students in the classroom and the group of youngsters he'd just spent three weeks with in the backcountry. This contrast sent him in pursuit of a more effective way to teach. The result has been over 30 years of exciting wilderness ministry.

As former Summit Director of Development (and homeschool dad) Dave Kelly says, "If backpacking or recreation was the essence of what we do here at Summit, anyone could pack up a sleeping bag and some dehydrated food, set off down the trail, and expect to experience the same thing. But it's not just about physical activity, or even great scenery. . . . Summit Adventure is about life-changing adventure that has a lasting impact on participants, their faith, their relationships, and their families."

I asked Dave to list several key components that catapult a Summit Adventure well beyond an ordinary backpacking trip. Here they are:

A New Point of View. Climbing a mountain literally provides a new vantage point on life. Students step outside of everyday life with the purpose of looking at who they are in Christ, how they're living their lives, and how that fits with what God has called them to. In Summit's family programs, the goal is to step out of daily routines to really focus on strengthening specific relationships. Their homeschooling course focuses on discovering the world around us.

Opportunities to Change. The second critical component to what Summit do is that participants come seeking change and are aware that change is important in their lives and faith. As Dave says, "It's difficult for our staff to facilitate growth in someone who doesn't want to change or doesn't think they need to change. A Summit course offers far more than new, interesting information to think about."

Hands-On Learning. Another key element that makes Summit Adventure effective is that the lessons being learned are experienced. Teens don't just hear about leadership, they don't just read about leadership, they lead! They don't talk about working as a team; they must work as a team or dinner doesn't get fixed. They are engaged in the learning process. For example, the spiritual and personal lessons discussed around the campfire in the evening are discussions of what happened that very day during sweaty-palmed rock climbs and trust-demanding rope belays.

Growth Through Challenge. Much of what drives today's world is comfort-based. But spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical growth results from challenging situations, not comfortable ones. The axiom "no pain, no gain" is easy to see as it relates to sports and our bodies. The same is true for our spiritual and interpersonal health and growth. Summit Adventure provides opportunities for growth in faith and in lives - growth through challenge, not comfort.

Small Groups. Summit Adventure maximizes the benefits of small groups. Small groups actually impact how we learn by providing the encouragement, support, and accountability needed for lasting change.

Trained Staff. Summit tries to hire only those who have a heart for ministry and for people. Once staff members are hired, they go through 32 days of training in both "soft skills" (the spiritual and interpersonal skills needed) and the "hard skills" (the back country and first aid skills required for the job). After the team goes through the initial training, they are continually being trained and mentored by peers and lead staff.

Fits the Homeschool Life. Dave Kelly says, "I believe that a Summit Adventure course is a natural component in the homeschooling experience. On a personal note, our commitment to homeschooling and the great creativity that affords our family, has been a natural outgrowth of our years in this experience-based program. Learning by doing is a central value in our family's homeschool 'style.'"

God Uses the Wilderness to Teach Lessons. Throughout the Bible, God uses the literal wilderness in the lives of those He loves. Moses, Elijah, and Jesus all put in serious time out in the wilderness. The things they learned and the fellowship they experienced with God Almighty couldn't have happened in the lush regions of Egypt or the comforts of ancient Jerusalem. In the wilderness they met God Himself. He called them out there; in the wilderness, He prepared and equipped them for the special ministry He had planned for each of them. To quote Tim Hansel, thirty years ago, "The wilderness is not the only environment for [learning] - it is simply one of the best. It is still the finest place to train servant leaders because it is a non-neutral learning environment which demands change, fosters community, trust, and interdependence. The wilderness encourages wholeness, reminds us of what is true and real and affords us an opportunity like no other to encounter God as He is without distraction. A new adventure explodes into being every time a person listens to God and faithfully obeys Him."

According to Mr. Kelly again, "That's why the physical, spiritual, and emotional challenges are just tools that Summit uses in order to bring about the ultimate goal . . . that a student would deepen his or her relationship with Christ by the end of the adventure."

We Check It Out

Wow! That all sounded pretty good! So I arranged for my 14-year-old son, Frank, to go on a two-week adventure and report on what it was really like.

Before he even left, we discovered that, unlike my old college days when two pairs of jeans, a parka, a backpack, and a tent were all we thought we needed to hike the Appalachian Trail, Summit had an extensive list of required supplies. Since we haven't done any camping for 25 years (because our oldest son Ted has medical needs that can't be left unattended), we had none of this on hand. The total tab came to over $1,100 at our local outdoors store. On the plus side, Frank now has all the high-quality socks, hiking shoes, water-wicking shirts, and rain gear he'll likely need for the next 20 years (assuming he's not going to grow any more!)

Air fare from Missouri wasn't cheap, either - you guys who live close to an outdoors mecca definitely have an advantage here!

We messed up the flight schedule, but in spite of Frank's late arrival, a Summit helper made the drive to the airport just to ferry him to camp.

Frank's main memories of his two weeks at Summit are as follows:

  • No toilet paper or other toiletries allowed, thanks to the "Leave No Trace" policy of the national park in question. Exception: if you feel inclined to pack it out after use in a ziploc baggie. (Nobody chose to do this!)

  • Heavy exercise. It pays to get in shape before you go!

  • Learning not to sleep with your head downhill - instead headache on arising!

  • The public-school kids on the trip trying to increase Frank's vocabulary, if you know what I mean. (This diminished over time, as the counselors discouraged it.)

  • Gorgeous scenery

  • Swimming in mountain lakes

  • Rock climbing and hiking

  • Rappelling

  • A lot of emphasis on building character through these activities

  • Every morning, devotions, prayers, and Bible study with discussion questions, narration, and journaling

  • Making friends with a fellow computer geek who happened to also have been homeschooled

  • Going down is scarier than going up!

  • Everyone pitching in to do all the work of cooking, dish washing, distributing supplies, and so forth

  • The counselors were good role models: staunch Bible believers and very skilled at outdoor life

  • The solo adventure. Spending a whole day alone on the side of a mountain overlooking a valley out of touch with all the others.

  • Bring extra money to pay for any equipment lost or broken. Water bottles were the most common lost items.

  • Delicious meal back at the base before the shuttle ride.

Frank says it was extremely educational, built up great work habits, provided great exercise, and was highly inspirational.

Keep in mind that Frank attended the "generic" adventure. Summit Adventure also offers courses for dads and their kids, moms and daughters, adults, students with disabilities, families, an annual Homeschool Discovery Course in March, and courses for a wide variety of groups, including Focus on the Family, National Center for Fathering, California universities, and local churches. Obviously, the composition of the group you go with will affect your likelihood of encountering any unseemly behavior. But even with wild-'n-wooly public schoolers, having Christian counselors makes a lot of difference.

For example, my daughter Magda attended Texas A&M's Sea Camp last summer. Just like Frank at Summit, she had roommates who used bad language, had worldly habits, and pressured her to do likewise. However, the Sea Camp counselors used bad language, too, so Magda had to handle it on her own. (Which my little Valkyrie did just fine!)

There's an important point here. When your children leave home, you lose some control of their environment. If the people running the camp or educational experience share your beliefs and practices, they will try to preserve an uplifting environment. But as long as there are no "entrance requirements" for who may attend, your kids are bound to encounter some of the same things you've been protecting them from at home. Conversely, if you choose your venue carefully, the rough edges can be minimized. For example, just by virtue of Summit Adventure's ministry, Frank could expect uplifting behavior from his counselors and zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol (not that either were an issue with his group). You could further trim down the rough edges by selecting a fathers-and-sons or mothers-and-daughters outing, or the annual Homeschool Discovery Course.

In any case, be sure to consider the student's age and maturity level - especially his or her sensitivity to peer pressure - before assuming none of this will be encountered in a supervised environment.

A Father-and-Son Story

Bret and Dan Dalton graciously agreed to share their story of what it was like to attend a Summit Adventure Father-and-Son expedition. The regular text is by father Bret: the text in italics is from son Dan.

"We (our group of five father and son teams, plus three Summit instructors) set out for the mountains - the high Sierra in northern California - rather than from the mountain. And it was for five days rather than three. Even still, the LORD was all over this trip.

"These five, much anticipated days passed so quickly. It hardly seemed that we had left the comfort of our routine "back in the valley." Nonetheless, the experiences and memories will last a lifetime. We both agree on that. Absolutely."

For me, Dan, the rappelling was the most memorable event. Quite memorable. I had been rock climbing indoors, but this was a totally different experience. I was not scared. I was terrified! When I got to the edge and looked down, the people were more than 200 feet down there, and I was thinking, "I have to get down there with just a rope?" I had to keep relying on the systems, the ropes, and the instructors.

"As his dad, I, Bret, am moved that Dan has just said this. It is obvious that our daily sessions in the mountains are already at work in his life. I know Dan well enough to realize that rappelling would be terrifying for him. I was prepared for him to stop at any moment and say, "That's it, I'm not going any further."

"Each day the group focused on part of The Word and on trusting in the Lord. We discussed the need to place our complete trust in Him and the fact that He never has and He never will He fail us. Our instructors effortlessly related these important spiritual realities to the rigors and challenges of each day. What valuable lessons!

"This was Christian home schooling at one of the highest possible points - a summit of sorts. For me, Bret, the opportunity to experience The King of kings and His creation in so many new ways with my son was worth far more than the cost of taking time off and getting to Bass Lake and spending the money and carrying a huge pack and, and, and . . . "

For me, Dan, it was great to gain more self-confidence by forcing myself to do things I never thought I would. I really want to go back for the 21-day course next summer.

"Once again, Dan and I are in agreement that Summit Adventures has had an immediate impact in our lives. Without doubt, we have a better understanding of how Jesus is our Rock and the foundation of our hope."

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