Skip to ContentBack to top

Experiential Learning: Living Parallel Lives in the Great Outdoors

October 11, 2022
Pat Daly, Principal
SMCS Outdoor Education and experiential learning

Experiential learning is a powerful platform!

A little over a month into my new role at SMCS, I participated in my first immersive learning experience.

And it did not come within the hallowed yellow brick hallways at 1515 Bathurst Street, but off campus — more than 200 kilometres away.

I was fortunate to visit with our Grade 7, 9, and 10 students as they began the school year at either Camp Wanakita or Camp Arowhon — all part of the Outdoor and Experiential Education programming at SMCS.

This annual tradition, now 20+ years old, takes place within the first two weeks of each new school year for these grade levels.

This year, that represented groups of: 65, 125, and 157 students, 67 student camp leaders (combined), and 25 total SMCS staff.

Rooted in the values of respect and integrity, the ALIVE Outdoors camp is an opportunity for students to develop self-awareness, foster connections and challenge themselves to learn and grow. The excursion also expands a boy’s development and application of their leadership skills in authentic ways throughout their time at St. Michael’s.

For some of our students, this is their first time away from home, their first-time camping, or their first experience without a digital connection to home or elsewhere.

From traveling together on the bus, sharing cabins, and rotating through activities, students live and work in teams they would not necessarily form on their own, thus building new connections and friendships that they will bring back to the classroom to start the school year.

SMCS Outdoor Education ALIVE Outdoors

I learned quickly this excursion is thoughtfully planned, intentional in design, and chock-full from start to finish.

While each day is packed with various activities, the schedule also allows for and requires students to engage in meaningful self-reflection of their experiences during the day and the challenges they may have been presented with.

In a world filled with plenty of ‘noise’, having time to quietly gather one’s thoughts is a rare gift. An opportunity for introspection is a powerful teacher unto itself.

The hope is that students take the time to see the opportunity that exists within every challenge and become more confident in their own abilities.

It was a learning moment that I also looked forward to and cherished each day.

Just as I have been immersed in a new experience at SMCS, so too these young students, camping with their classmates, engaging in activities that pushed them out of their comfort zone, collaborating with ‘virtual’ strangers, trusting in staff and student camp leaders to guide and lead them during these action-packed hours.

The preparation and delivery of the Outdoor Education programming is designed so that students can develop relationships with their peers and mentors at the outset of the year to engender a sense of belonging as well as provide authentic leadership development opportunities both for those participating in the camp and for camp student leaders.

During the camp experience, I witnessed students interacting with select senior students who have had formal leadership training earlier in their high school experience at SMCS. These older students continue to hone the skills learned as cabin leaders or in other assigned roles.

Observing the conversations, collaboration, and camaraderie take shape among students was truly humbling.

I found myself not only marveling at watching these interactions develop, blossom, and strengthen among these young boys, but was also mindful that I, too, am living this very experience along parallel lines as a new principal.

SMCS Outdoor Education

The rich tapestry of the SMCS community fabric must be worn — truly experienced — to be fittingly conveyed. Another lesson I have quickly learned.

Little did these boys know that the threads of this fabric were being sewn at a campsite in Haliburton, Ontario, and will continue to be woven through their school journey here, together.

One of these strands is leadership, pulled through from classroom to camp and off-campus.

To support the outdoor education experience, ongoing leadership development seminars are offered throughout the school year. These seminars support students’ development of their leadership styles and abilities. Students participating in these seminars may also mentor younger students during future outdoor experiences or community building opportunities at the school.

Immersed in ‘foreign’ surroundings with a sea of new faces, it quickly becomes a fascinating study to see the many aspects of being a leader on display among students — faith, empathy, demonstrated compassion for others, holding themselves and each other accountable for their behavior — are all encouraged and emulated.

And then there the many challenges that students encounter in the outdoors as part of the camp adventure. The specifically designed activities, team-building tasks, and full immersion into problem-solving, creativity, quick thinking, and other skillsets — opens the window to ongoing personal development and a growth mindset.

Pat Daly, SMCS Principal

I observed with great interest as students learned to communicate with each other, addressing challenges, and relationship-building. Watching these interactions evolve is one of the many great joys of being an educator.

One of the many impactful statistics about SMCS that caught my eye is the number of schools our new students come from. In 2021-22, that number was 104.

Students from 104 different schools whether in the GTA or beyond arrived at our front doors on the first Tuesday in September eager to learn. Then, in their first hours as SMCS students — most of whom are strangers to each other — these boys are asked to pack their bags, board buses, and head out on an adventure.

Young men from different parts of the Greater Toronto Area — coming from varied cultural, ethnic, and faith backgrounds, armed with unique learning styles, hobbies, talents, and differing levels of exposure to camp — assembled for a foundational immersive experience.

Gathered to be taught goodness, discipline, and knowledge in the great outdoors, on the bus ride back, within the busy school hallways, and ultimately, everywhere, every day.

Powerful platform, indeed.