Back to School! A Look at the Valley's Unique Approach to Outdoor Education

By Aimee White Beazley | August 28, 2018 | Lifestyle

More than 50 years of outdoor education programs in the Roaring Fork Valley have become a national model.

outdoor_ed_sized.jpgMiddle schoolers at Aspen Country Day School hike to the Thomas Lakes at the base of Mount Sopris before summiting the 12,965-foot peak the following morning. Skills such as snow science, wilderness survival, camp etiquette, nature writing and ecology science are part of each trip’s curriculum.

The 9-year-old boy, wearing alpine touring skis and skins, put his head down and continued uphill through fresh snow. More than two hours later he was the last to arrive at the backcountry cabin. Standing on the deck was his entire fourth-grade class on its winter Outdoor Education trip with Aspen Country Day School, welcoming him to the finish line, cheering him for his perseverance and effort.

“Outdoor Education provides life skills, from basic survival skills to skills they can take home and use every day for the rest of their lives,” says Collette Newell, director of Outdoor Education at ACDS.

Outdoor education has been a part of the Aspen school experience for more than 50 years since it began in 1968 with what is now the annual Aspen Middle School eighth-grade backcountry trek from Aspen to Marble. Since then, the ODE program has expanded—in varied forms—to most schools in the Roaring Fork Valley, and has become a sought-after model for public school programs throughout the United States.


“We are fortunate to have staff, parents and community members who are highly committed to the program and who recognize the tremendous value for students,” says Craig Rogers, principal of Aspen Middle School. “In order to implement [ODE] with fidelity, everybody needs to be on board, and the Aspen community makes that happen.”

At Aspen Country Day School, the program takes an even larger role in the private school’s curriculum, and is more formalized with a full-time staff member, Newell, coordinating dozens of multi-night outdoor trips, twice a year, beginning in kindergarten. At ACDS, Outdoor Education, Newell says, holds equal weight with academics and the arts, and teachers accompanying children on their trips incorporate everything from science to math and literature into each outing.

“These kids face their challenges and fears,” says Newell. “They are creating a resilience within themselves that they can rely on. This year it might be in the backcountry, and someday it might be in the business world. But the real-life lessons, they live on.”