Middle School Outdoor Shelter Adventure

Tucked against the trunk of a substantial redwood tree, naturally camouflaged and constructed from tree branches, bits of bark, leaves, tree needles — the same forest ‘litter’ that covers the surrounding area — a small hobbit-sized shelter is visible. This snug enclosure is just large enough for one, or maybe two, of the middle school students who constructed it, and is one of several forest shelters built by Mount Madonna School (MMS) sixth, seventh and eighth graders. Last Friday evening, when most of their classmates were headed home, a dozen students and three teachers prepared for an overnight ‘sleepout’ in the forest shelters. 
 
‘Creating shelters provided a chance for the students to get to know MMS’s forests better, to learn survival skills and to get dirty and creative all at the same time,’ said middle school teacher Ashley England. ‘We decided to offer the sleepover as a way for the students to celebrate their hard work, test out the durability of their creations, and to challenge themselves by stepping outside their comfort zones (and warm beds).’
 
‘As part of our Outdoor Adventure Program, we have been developing a tradition of building survival shelters in our ample wilderness not far from the classrooms,’ shared teacher Bob Caplan. ‘This activity spans four to six weeks and offers a broad range of opportunities for education and enjoyment. The students are instructed to use only natural materials that are already lying on the forest floor (branches, logs, leaves, etc.) and not to use anything still living and growing. 
 
‘We discuss the geometry of a stable structure; those students who have done this before share their experience and expertise with new classmates and with the younger ones. Students’ work ethic becomes obvious as the shelters take shape (or not!) and hopefully withstand the test of a gentle shake as the faculty tests for stability. Flora and fauna become an inherent part of the experience as we learn which materials work best.’   
 
The shelter ‘sleepout’ was a ‘daunting challenge,’ said England, and one for which many students vocalized their excitement in planning. However, with the approaching rain and clouds, the number of participants in the optional activity dwindled until a core group of 12 adventurers remained. The participants were: Alice, Lillian and Sophia, 8th; Ksenia and Sarah, 7th; and Aria, Claire, Kahlan, Nadia, Riley M., Sara and Savannah, 6th. Caplan, England and teacher Jen Block chaperoned, and parents Jessica Cambell and Sandy Moller provided morning assistance and breakfast.
 
‘I learned that I can try something new and not be afraid to do something different,’ said sixth grader Nadia Rassech. ‘I love the idea of sleeping in something that I made out of nature. After  spent the night in my shelter, it felt really rewarding, because I had done what I didn’t think I could do!’ 
 
‘While we only had a small group, the numbers in no way diminished the fun we had together,’ commented England. ‘It was fun to snuggle down indoors to watch Brother Bear while sipping hot chocolate, and then gather around the fire pit to share stories and marshmallows roasted beyond recognition. For some, the challenge was spending the night away from home. For others, it was the elements. While not all ended up staying outside all night as the weather got cooler and wet, there were a few who slept the entire night in a shelter.’
 
“The middle school shelter sleepover was super fun!’ commented seventh grader Ksenia Medvedeva. ‘We had pizza and salad for dinner, watched a movie, and sat around a blazing fire while staring at the bright array of stars in the sky! I think our small group did an awesome job of holding out throughout the cold, rainy night. I slept outside in a shelter, and surprisingly, was warm and got much more sleep than I expected to get. Thank you to the chaperones for this wonderful experience!”
 
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Contact: Leigh Ann Clifton, Marketing & Communications, [email protected]
 
Photos courtesy of Ashley England, Liz Chandler, Sandy Moller, Tiffany Wayne and Anna Medvedeva