5 Southern Schools That Are at the Forefront of Outdoor Education

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It’s early February and 12 sixth graders step into the rumbling maw of a 550 million year old beast known as Worley’s Cave.

The cavern, located in Bluff City, Tennessee, will give these kids their first taste of caving. They will crawl on their stomachs through limestone passages, slide on embankments of red mud and sleep under a sky of stalactites. But the goal is not to train the next generation of speleologists.

“These overnight trips are all about building character, building confidence, getting kids comfortable with discomfort, and exposing them to unique experiences that force collaboration on a different level than you can reach in the classroom,” says Will Yeiser, co-founder of French Broad River Academy (FBRA), a private school that serves 72 middle school students in Asheville, North Carolina.

Outdoor Academy high school kids climb Cedar Rock. Photo courtesy of the Outdoor Academy

Located on the shores of its namesake, FBRA offers students an educational experience that is both academically rigorous and focused on the outdoors. Students can study the science of water quality and then go rafting. Or, they can study friction and then spend a day snowboarding. Or, they can read Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and then, well, go explore a cave.

“Four out of five days the students are in a traditional classroom,” Yeiser explains. “But on the fifth day, they’re out on the water or in the mountains making a real connection to their learning.”

Yeiser believes that to truly teach children, you have to let them venture far beyond the classroom. And he is not alone. Across the East Coast, educators are challenging the convention that students learn best in desks and behind screens. Here’s a look at more Blue Ridge schools that lead students into nature.

Little River Outdoor School
Floyd, Virginia.

At Little River Outdoor School in Virginia, there is no “nice” weather. “We spend all day every day outside,” says head teacher Isabelle Porter. “There is as much to learn in the rain as in the sun.”

As an approved outdoor elementary school, Little River is a place where young children learn not only to read, write and count, but also to tie knots, start a fire with flint and build shelters. It is a place where students learn to be one with the world around them.

If Little River sounds different from a typical elementary school, that’s because it is. Although traditional subjects like math and reading are still taught, students learn one-on-one with instructors so they can progress at their own pace. The program is also entirely driven by curiosity; teachers model lessons based on what students want to learn.

“We’re not trying to emulate a traditional school in any way,” Porter says. “Children are intelligent and curious people who naturally want to learn. Their academic environment should encourage these passions.

Learning happens outdoors at The Outdoor Academy. Photo courtesy of the Outdoor Academy

The outdoor academy
Pisgah Forest, North Carolina

Most students take exams to demonstrate their mastery. But at The Outdoor Academy, a semester high school for 10th and 11th graders, students end their experience with two days of solitude in the woods of western North Carolina. The school’s principal, Glenn DeLaney, calls it the “solo”.

“We ask them to pause and reflect on their experience,” says DeLaney. “We want students to reflect on what mattered to them this semester, the leadership lessons they learned, and the passions they can pursue academically.”

For most students, there is a lot to consider. After all, they’ve spent the past four months following a rigorous, multidisciplinary program inextricably linked to the mountains around them.

During their semester at The Outdoor Academy, students study American history through the lens of public land management, investigate biodiversity in the woods of the Pisgah National Forest, and study “place” as it relates to relates to literature. Each cohort will also paddle, climb and hike, even guiding an entire backcountry trip.

These experiences help students grow into confident, self-aware young adults, DeLaney says. “Our mission is not about what happens here,” he explains. “It’s about what happens after.”

Blue Ridge School
St. George, Virginia.

By day, Cory Woods teaches environmental science. But after class, he teaches a different subject: the science of singletrack.

Woods is a mountain bike instructor at Blue Ridge School, a private boarding school for high school students. Here, a few miles from Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, students complete a project-based curriculum designed to prepare graduates for college. But staff believe that while young adults need rigorous academics, they also need time in the mountains.

This is why teaching at Blue Ridge School is centered around outdoor education. Each afternoon, students choose from a long list of activities: hunting, fishing, skiing, canoeing, climbing and, of course, mountain biking.

While some may discredit the educational value of riding gnarly singletrack, Woods believes the adventure allows high schoolers to develop their executive functioning skills (think planning, self-monitoring, time management) and become leaders.

“Being outdoors is a key part of becoming a well-rounded adult,” says Woods. “They learn by being engaged with the outdoors.”

ivy academy
Soddy Daisy, Tenn.

At Ivy Academy, students read, write and grow in a 640 million acre classroom. Every knoll and valley of public land in the United States is fair game for learning. “We take every opportunity we can to take our lessons outside,” says Emily Wiedemann, the school’s environmental education engagement specialist.

Case in point: This spring, the seniors will venture nearly 3,000 miles from their public charter school in Tennessee to Grand Teton National Park for a field study. Meanwhile, the youngest will venture to other wild places like Frozen Head State Park and Rock Island State Park.

But students also learn closer to home. Through the Ivy Academy’s partnership with Tennessee State Parks, park rangers regularly teach courses in outdoor-centric topics, such as wilderness first aid, as well as core subjects such as as geometry and environmental sciences.

The goal of these hands-on experiences is to help children foster a “greater appreciation for natural resources,” says Wiedemann. “We want to prepare our students to be a positive influence on society and the natural world.”

Cover photo: Students from Blue Ridge School hike up Mount Rogers in Virginia. Photo by Josh Palubicki

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