Whitewater Rafting: The Case for Experiental Learning

I know there are schools whose entire themes and philosophy is built on the concept of outdoor adventure and experiential learning. They work year-long curriculum around the idea of students engaging in nature. I wish we could do more of that, but really, our main attempt is our annual Whitewater Rafting trip on the Deerfield River, which took place yesterday.

We began doing this trip eight years ago now (wow!) when another event (Nature’s Classroom) ended for us, and I wanted to find some way for our students to come together as a group at the end of the year, push them in unknown directions, and have a lot of fun that would spill out into the months ahead. So we went rafting.

It’s a 10-mile rafting trip with one area of Class III rapids (the Zoar Gap) and lots of places for cooperative games and activities, and even swimming (it’s too cold for me, even with the wet suits). The kids on the rafts have to work together to get through the various rapids, and they have to listen and communicate. These are critical learning skills.

There’s plenty to talk about on the river, from nature (we saw flocks of geese, the leaves in the midst of Autumn change, beaver dams and even an Osprey flew over us in search of lunch) and history. The river flows by the legendary Hoosic Tunnel, which was once one of the longest man-made tunnels in the country, and is considered haunted (the kids love that).

What I love to see are the informal friendships that begin to form on the rafts and the giddy excitement when we all come together for lunch, and the confidence even the most timid student seems to have when we finally get off the river. There are plenty of nervous students, but this kind of structured event allows them to confront those fears and deal with them with support of others.

Today, we’ll probably do some writing about the rafting trip, and there will be pictures floating in over the next few weeks as cameras gets developed, but we teachers know (from talking to former students) that the memories of rafting on the river for a day is a memory they will cherish for a long time to come. I know the group of kids on my raft came together as tight team, naming themselves the “River Ninjas” and inventing a chant for rowing and then remixing some popular songs to celebrate our raft. At one point, their singing voices were echoing off the banks of the river and all I could do was smile.

Peace (like a river),

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