Where the wild things teach: The Peak School in Frisco imparts life skills through outdoor learning
The weather is cooling down, the summer is coming to a close and the school year is about to begin. For most, that means back-to-school shopping, catching up on summer reading and trying to squeeze in the last bit of summer adventure they can. But for students at The Peak School in Frisco, the adventure still awaits.
Students at The Peak School, an independent college preparatory middle and high school, are gearing up to head out on their annual outdoor education orientation trips, taking students canoeing, mountain biking and climbing around Colorado and Utah. While the trips are meant to serve as a relaxing and fun way to dive back into the school year, they’re also meant to teach students useful skills they can carry with them back to the classroom.
“One of the main pillars for Peak education is character, and we know that through outdoor education and bringing small groups out into the wilderness is a great way for them to connect with not only their peers, but adults as well,” said Travis Aldrich, head of the school. “We put students in a position where they have to challenge themselves in a safe way, and we believe that’s a really positive experience for young adults.”
The entire school, about 65 students from grades 6-12, will embark on one of three different trips from Aug. 27-29 before the beginning of the school year on Aug. 30. Students are divided into mixed-aged groups of about 20, and groups rotate every year so that every student has a chance to try all the trips.
Trips include a canoeing adventure down the Colorado River in Utah, a mountain biking and hiking trip to Penitente Canyon in the San Luis Valley and a challenge course in Glenwood Springs. While their days will be filled with outdoor activities, students are also responsible for making their own food, putting up their own tents and more. Despite the work, students appreciate the opportunity to fend for themselves.
“One of our principles of the school is that the student is the worker, and the teacher is the coach,” said Maggie Hoehn, a junior at The Peak School who took on the challenge course last year. “The teachers supervise and show us what to do. We’re doing it all, but we have the coaching we need. It’s the same thing in our classes. They help us learn, but it’s not just having teachers talk at us.”
For students it’s also an opportunity for them to reconnect with old friends, make new ones, explore new ecosystems and even learn life lessons.
“The big goal is we want to be able to build community, teamwork, and foster young leaders,” said Ben Butler, math teacher and head of the outdoor education program. “By creating different trips and having each student experience those, we’re opening them up to new experiences that can push them to be leaders. … It’s an opportunity to refine their teamwork and communication skills in a non-academic setting. It’s learning by doing.”
Leadership comes naturally to older students who have gone on trips before and are expected to act as mentors for younger kids who are struggling with tasks or social issues. That connection carries over to the school, creating an environment of comfort for students, sometimes six years apart, to engage with each other in the halls.
For teachers, it brings a chance to get to know students outside of the classroom as well.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Butler. “You see different personalities come out. Being in a classroom, some students have a hard time getting outside of themselves. But in these trips we get to see different sides of them. We want to encourage that. Students often come back from this more open to participation and act as leaders in the classroom. It’s an important piece to this trip.”
This is only the second year that The Peak School has done multiple trips. Historically the entire school would go on a single trip before the school year, though the program was changed last year to give students more diverse experiences throughout their time at the school.
It’s also possible that the program will continue to expand over the next few years, as the school looks to give students even more outdoor education opportunities.
“I think it’s one of those things where because of our size we’re sometimes limited,” said Aldrich. “But we have the ability to send our whole school to get these kinds of experiences. It’s one of those times our size can be used as a strength.”
In the meantime, the students are perfectly happy with the offerings.
“It’s great because you get to go to new places, see new things, learn new skills and be outside rather than being stuck in a classroom,” said Hoehn. “We live in such a great place, we might as well take advantage of that.”
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