Outdoor Education as a Lifestyle

“Don’t ever give up trying to get kids outside!” is what 90 year old Phyllis Clausen uttered as we brought closure to our discussion on May 3rd. These words have stuck with me and in some ways have been haunting me. With a work load that seems to continually increase, avenues for income steadily decreasing, and thousands of constituents expecting programs and asking for more, I find myself becoming overwhelmed at times. However, when I was in seventh grade I bought a brick to go in the ground around the flagpole at my school; I was given the option to have a quote put on the brick so I needed to decide between two slogans that I held dear to me, “Never give up,” or “Rise to the occasion,” so being the optimistic young man that I was I went with the latter. Through a series of conversations, experiences, and observations over the past year I have found added inspiration and motivation to an already optimistic outlook for continuing to rise to the occasion for outdoor educational programming, and I intend for the Ecology Institute to be my launch pad.

Students searching for aquatic macro-invertebrates along the East Fork of the Hood River on a recent field trip.

The spring season is such an exciting time of year for any outdoor enthusiast. The return of warmer temperatures, the precipitation that renews life, the extended hours of sunlight, along with the transition of my clothing and gear desired for outings are all reminders that the majority of my time over the next few months will be spent outside. I used to think that the large percentage of folks living in rural areas spent their time during the spring, summer, and fall seasons the same way as me – outside. Over the past few years I have gathered information through informal questioning of students that we work with and to my dismay I have learned that only about half of the students in our programs experience the natural world on a regular basis, or at all. I believe that the development of new technologies, the demanding schedules of parents, and the lack of knowledge about the importance of a connection to the Earth are all contributing factors. Although when I think about my childhood it wasn’t all that different. We had new technologies with Atari, Nintendo, and Macintosh becoming very popular with some attractive games, my parents both worked full-time jobs, and we didn’t know that a connection to the natural world could help with our overall health. So why are the majority of kids being raised in the past two decades spending less time outside than previous generations? Have we placed too many responsibilities on them? Are we projecting onto them our own busy schedules that don’t allow time for outdoor play? Do we look for places that are more accessible because of our own desires? Is there not enough trust that they’ll be safe interacting with natural systems? Truth is, I could do the research and find out why students spend less time outside but I’d rather spend that time ensuring that we’re getting kids out and exploring local ecosystems.

Looking ahead at the coming years I have a number of questions: Will we have the capacity to continue delivering our programs? Will we get to expand our programs? Will we continue to serve 1,000 students annually? Will we expand our programs to serve more students? How many students will we introduce to a new passion for the environment? Which of the students in our programs will obtain a career in natural resources management? These are all unknowns at the moment. In order for me to find the answers for these questions one thing is certain, we must rise to the occasion to continue delivering these high quality educational opportunities. Over the past year we have been working on an organizational strategic plan that looks ahead at the next five years. It includes new organizational structure, revising our mission and vision, as well as adopting a different financial plan. We have identified a number of goals, ways to achieve them, and have begun achieving one of the goals by increasing student participation in our programs by 20% over the past year. Through this process my energy and enthusiasm for outdoor education has gone from a passion of mine, and an awesome way to earn a bit of money, to a driving force behind much of what I do.

Drew Eastman leads students through discovery and exploration in the foothills of Mt. Adams.

Many years ago I adopted the lifestyle of being an environmental educator. I worked seasonally, lived in my truck (yes, it was down by the river), slept in my sleeping bag nightly, and carried my toothbrush in a mesh sack. I couldn’t imagine sleeping in a bed, working a full-time job, or having a bathroom to keep my toothbrush. Now that I have all those amenities I have remained true to the reason that I do this important work. In my opinion the importance of outdoor education is largely being overlooked. In the mid-to-late 90′s outdoor education became mainstream. Now there is more concern with meeting benchmarks, preparing students to work in a world full of technology, and making sure we are at least at the state average for standardized tests. Reading and language arts achievement levels have dropped in the current generation so now that is the mainstream, however, we’re still facing global environmental issues that are not being addressed in a similar fashion. Environmental and ecological literacy are still just concepts and ideas. Can we not collaborate and have the students do environmental readings, perhaps even outside? Would it be too much for students to go explore the natural world, develop a sense of wonder, read about their findings, and then share that with others? That’s exactly what our summer Gorge Explorers program offers. The participants in that program are even finding higher academic achievement in reading and language arts, as well as math and science, after going through our program. While I still spend the majority of my time outside, and my lifestyle seems similar in many ways, the motivation has changed from somewhat selfish reasons to a much more selfless purpose. The challenge to the equation is being selfless while remaining sustainable.

I’ve made a commitment to myself that regardless of the overwhelming responsibilities and challenges that continue to surface I will remain an outdoor educator. Being able to provide innovative experiential education programs comes with a lifestyle that is incredibly rewarding. A few weeks ago a student on a field trip asked me, “Do you have any kids?” and I replied, “Nope.” Without hesitation the student responded with a smile, “Well you’re really good with kids.” Being left speechless and full of gratitude I was also left with another overwhelming feeling . . . outdoor education is my life. After Phyllis made that comment on May 3rd I remembered my two childhood slogans and how relevant they are in these times of adaptation for our outdoor education programs. I don’t know what the future holds for this generation or the next in terms of outdoor education programs that they’ll receive. As I mentioned, I do have hope. I hope that one day I’ll have kids that receive outdoor education programs. I hope that the Ecology Institute will continue to serve 1,000 students annually. I hope that we’ll get to expand our offerings of place-based and experiential education. I hope that we can create an ecologically literate citizenry, especially in the Columbia Gorge. One of the few things that I know with certainty, Phyllis, is that I will never give up trying to get kids outside, in fact I will rise to the occasion.


Drew Eastman

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