“Cellphones in here!” guide Arran Jackson says as he holds a bag out in front of him. Nine Grade 10 students begrudgingly power off their phones before handing them over and dropping them inside. Arran seals up the bag and packs it away.
No social media, no texting, no calling mom and dad.
These nine students will spend the next five days living amid the waterfalls, trails and shores of Strathcona Provincial Park on Vancouver Island. They’ll be pitching tents, building fires and learning essential outdoor skills. Everything they need – food, water, shelter – is in the large backpacks they carry. They don’t need a phone on a trip like this.
“When we can do a five-day outdoor trip and build in a prolonged period of time away from technology, we’re seeing that it’s really valuable for students,” says Ritch Primrose, Director of Health and Wellness at St. Michaels University School. “What they find is that just being away from their phone is a struggle, and not having it with them puts them out of their comfort zone. They realize they’ve become dependent on their devices.”
“We also see that technology creates a constant dependency on their parents to come and rescue them. We need to let go and let them figure things out themselves,” adds Denise Lamarche, Director of Academics. “Taking them to the outdoors as a group of kids and letting them navigate tasks that are sometimes challenging or uncomfortable removes those dependencies.”
Phone-free is the norm for outdoor education at SMUS, whether you’re in Junior, Middle or Senior School.
“No phones means kids can focus on who they are and where they are because they’re immersed in an experience and a place. They have more awareness and more clarity because they’re not half-occupied,” says Zyoji Jackson, who spearheads the outdoor education program at the Middle School for students in Grades 6 through 8.
Above and beyond the safety risks of – say – having your head buried in your phone while you’re kayaking on unfamiliar waters, schools have to be conscious about giving students time when they’re disconnected.
Learning, whether it’s done in a classroom, on a sports field, or in the wilderness, is most effective when students are engaged and attentive.
“It allows you to be totally present. You’re not worried about your friends at home or your emails or posting to social media – you’re in the moment and learning with the people around you,” says Pete McLeod, Director of Outdoor Education.
These outdoor education trips also act as a detox of sorts; technology is addictive.
“We know that excessive exposure to screens heightens anxiety and heightens depression in students. We also know that spending time in nature helps reduce anxiety and helps reduce depression,” Ritch says.
“In the lives of kids, they’re multitasking all the time and certainly technology is a big part of that because they’re always connected. And for a lot of kids that contributes to anxiety,” Pete says. It’s out-of-the-ordinary for kids to have time when the only thing they have to think about is what’s happening in front of them.
After spending five days in Strathcona away from technology, Arran pulls the bag of cellphones back out to return them to their owners. There’s certainly a sense of anticipation for this moment, but the students aren’t overly eager to get back to social media. They were able to concentrate on their fun outdoor education trip with no digital distractions, and many of them commented on how little they missed their phones.
Outdoor education is an important part of the SMUS academic program. Throughout the year, students from K-12 get outdoor experiences woven into their education. Outdoor education not only provides students with “hard skills” like survival skills or learning how to kayak, but also “soft skills” like teamwork, critical thinking, creativity and tenacity.
Junior and Middle School students are spending time this fall taking part in fun day-long outdoor activities like ropes courses, canoeing and nature walks. Senior School students are on week-long outdoor education trips including rock climbing, white water rafting and sailing.