Great Basin Outdoor School hosts camps to teach students in a whole new way
June 14, 2017
Great Basin Outdoor School will celebrate 20 years as a nonprofit in 2018 with a mission of working "to ignite children's passion for learning and foster cooperation, respect and responsibility through hands-on discovery in the outdoor classroom."
Through single- and multi-day camps held on the shore of Lake Tahoe, some of the children they teach get their first experiences in nature while simultaneously fulfilling curriculum requirements.
"A lot of these students have never been outside of their comfort zone — the block or city they live in," said Great Basin Outdoor School Program Director Kayla Alm.
"Forty-five percent of our students haven't seen Lake Tahoe, including Reno students. These kids are having first time experiences out here: seeing their first shooting star, some don't know that insects live in the lake; they are just experiencing so much that they can't get in a classroom."
Most of the children who experience the overnight camp are in fifth and sixth grade, ages 6 to 12, though the program has also hosted third-graders and even high school students.
"When the students learn something about themselves and they can bring it back to nature, that's most rewarding for me," Alm said.
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"Especially students with behavioral issues, I'll get comments about good behavior outside; nature changes their attitude about their personal life, and gives them an escape."
Lifetime educator and president of the Board of Directors, Sue Jacox, helped start the Great Basin Outdoor School after finding out about outdoor schools in other states.
"I thought it was the best thing ever," she said. "The kids are outdoors, having fun and making friends. There's a way to learn about science, writing and math while they're learning about the physical things. I loved what I had seen in other California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado schools, and thought, 'Why does Nevada not have this?'"
When the program started it was held on Davis Creek in the mid-90s. By 2001, the school had expanded to Camp Galilee at Lake Tahoe, where they continue to host single and multi-day trips in the fall, winter and spring. They've newly added fall, winter, and summer break day camps for kids. They have also expanded the program to Zephyr Cove, Spooner Lake, Galena Creek, and more natural zones around Lake Tahoe and in Nevada.
"We're teaching the kids about where we are, the environmental issues and how to do your part," Jacox said.
"We don't just stay at the camps, we go for hikes, and do outdoor activities like snowshoeing and winter ecology in the winter season. We'll go out on a sport fishing boat at Zephyr Cove to teach the kids to measure water clarity and examine the zooplankton under a microscope."
The feedback from the children has been overwhelmingly positive, many of them excitedly anticipate going back year after year and have their "favorite naturalists," who lead their sessions.
The only people who love the camp more than the children are their parents. Terri Damato is the parent of a fifth-grader at Incline Elementary. She works at the school and has attended the camps with her daughter's class as a chaperone.
"I thought it was incredible," Damato said. "I grew up in Phoenix, Ariz., and never had a field trip like this. Being outdoors you see such a change in the children — being outside and embracing nature changes them for the better."
Damato said the Great Basin staff is incredible in the way they work with the children.
"They are so knowledgeable, they have everyone in order, they know where everyone is; it is structured, but not strict," she said. "They teach the children to be respectful to the staff and to nature — I cannot say enough good things about it, it was incredible."
One issue Damato raised as a parent is the idea of children not having much experience away from home. She says the Great Basin staff is highly conscious of how the children are feeling, especially with homesickness or becoming overwhelmed.
Damato recalled an instance where a student wasn't feeling well, he had a headache likely from being dehydrated, and was just overall exhausted and overwhelmed.
"Kayla is amazing with the kids," Damato said. "I'm so impressed with her for rolling with the punches, taking each situation in stride, and not getting frazzled."
She said that when Alm noticed the student wasn't feeling well she took him and Damato aside for a little quiet time. The three of them had their dinner together away from the crowd to give him some space to relax and let him calm down.
"He was great after that," Damato said. "Kayla even started talking to him about the effects of introducing foreign species to the lake during dinner, so he was getting his own separate time away from the group, but he was still learning a lesson and I just thought, 'That's a very unique and not normal situation.'"
Alm said her goal with the children on nature expeditions is to create a space for them to have new experiences that will allow them to better appreciate nature.
Apart from hosting typical class lessons in the beautiful outdoors, the Great Basin Outdoor School also teaches children lessons in building confidence, making smart decisions, being good to one another, and to the land.
"From start to finish, the kids were getting a lesson and they didn't even know they were getting a lesson; it's just such a wonderful learning environment," Damato said.
Hiking a 2-mile trek is something many of the students have never done before, and after accomplishing the task they are filled with a sense of pride and confidence. After meals (which, Damato said are delicious and prepared by an on-site chef), the staff at Camp Galilee weigh scraps from the students' plates before tossing them out.
The children began encouraging one another to start with smaller serving sizes, working together to create less waste, and learning the lesson to start with only as much food as you think you can eat, knowing there will be more for seconds.
Students meet curriculum standards in science, math and language arts, as well as participating in nature writing, physical activity, clearing trash and brush for defensible fire space, and all kinds of lessons applicable in nature regardless of age.
The board, educator, and parent consensus is that children learn better when they are learning through hands-on experiences, and getting to have school on the shores of Lake Tahoe makes for a magical and highly educational experience that will last a lifetime.
Cassandra Walker is a features and entertainment reporter for the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at email@example.com, 530-550-2654 or @snow1cass.
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