The place that changed my life

My personal connection to place began at Outdoor School, the magical experience that students from the Portland area have participated in for the last 50 years.  The program is highlighted on this week’s episode of Oregon Field Guide, which can be viewed here:

Check it out! (HINT- the Outdoor School segment startsat about 12 and a half minutes in)

It is remarkably easy for me to pinpoint the moments that I fell in love with nature and began my path to becoming an educator.  I was with my 6th grade class, lying on the forest floor observing the canopy; I was standing in, what seemed at the time, a huge hole touching the different colors and layers of the soil;  I was eating heaping bowls of chili as the rain poured down outside. These moments led to similar experiences where as a high school student I was hiking the fern covered slopes of the foothills of Mt. Hood, indulging in the licorice-y root of my particular favorite species; I was leading students as we increment bored into the history of a tree; I was screaming at the top of my lungs for my cabin group to “PULL!” on the tug of war rope.  All of these moments, plus thousands more from my three years of working as a staff member after graduating from college, took place at the MESD Outdoor School program.  I can confidently say my time at Outdoor School has been the most defining experience of my life. Outdoor School not only taught me natural history and a commitment to education, but it also uncovered what my passions were, what I wanted to do with my life, and how to connect with a place.

The MESD Outdoor School Program has been around for nearly 50 years, serving students primarily in the Portland, OR area.  The Outdoor School model is not unique, most states participate in some form of residential environmental education for local school children, and yet there are aspects of the MESD Outdoor School that have particularly lasting value.  Students from all over Multnomah County come together to spend (typically) a week outdoors just beyond the city.  Four classes meet on site and students are introduced to their peers from across town, many of whom they would probably never meet.  Those classes are integrated once at Outdoor School and students identify as cabins or field study groups, rather than classes or cliques.  All students go to Outdoor School regardless of the ability to pay for it because of the close relationship between Outdoor School, the MESD, local government, and school districts.

High school students get the opportunity to return to Outdoor School as leaders.  They attend training and are challenged and trusted with the responsibility of working with 6th grade students both on field study and in the cabin area, as leaders and mentors.  Every moment of Outdoor School is intentional and structured to foster a connection to place and build community.  Every session is unique and comfortably the same, wreaked in the tradition, the days are long and the week flies by.  Students have a shared experience that is commemorated with a wood cookie, beads, and tree planted in their honor.  I can only begin to imagine what my life would have been like without Outdoor School, but I certainly don’t want to.

To find out more and help support Outdoor School visit the Friends of Outdoor School website at:


One thought on “The place that changed my life”

  1. What a great story! It makes me realize had I been exposed to such a school, my life may have taken a very different turn. I have always loved being in nature, but had no exposure of how to be an “earth ambassador” for others in their formative years.

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