Outdoor Programs Help Kids With Learning Disabilities

Cottage School1

In the evening, after returning from a canoe trip in Georgia, a boy sat alone on the stage in a school gymnasium and wept.

Chad Savage, an environmental science teacher at The Cottage School in Roswell, Ga., saw the student and wondered why he was crying. Earlier that day, during a gathering of the school’s outdoor club, the boy and his classmates had laughed for hours as they paddled around a lake.

Savage approached him and quietly asked, “What’s wrong?”

Between his sobs, the boy replied, “I never thought I would have friends.” From the first day he attended The Cottage School, the boy had struggled with serious emotional problems and hardly interacted with classmates.

“When he first got to the school, he could barely hold a conversation, and the other kids rarely talked to him,” said Savage.

But the day at the lake sparked significant change, said Savage. “The other kids got to spend some time with him, and it made a big difference,” he said. “They were like, ‘Hey you’re a pretty good paddler,’ and he began to open up. Since then, he’s made great strides.” Most of all, he’s made friends.

According to Savage, research shows that kids respond to nature and recreation in highly emotional ways, and outdoor experiences can curb symptoms in troubled kids, build their confidence and increase their attention span.

The healing power of the outdoors

Environmental Science teacher Chad Savage

Environmental Science teacher Chad Savage

Having witnessed the therapeutic power of outdoor recreation, Savage is working to give more students at the school opportunities to explore the outdoors.

Established in 1985, The Cottage School serves about 150 kids with differences that prevent them from succeeding in traditional middle schools and high schools. “It’s for kids who learn differently,” said Savage, explaining that many of the school’s students have severe dyslexia, anxiety disorders and social and emotional problems. Also, about 40 percent of the kids are on the autism spectrum.

While public schools aren’t equipped to help these students, The Cottage School provides them individualized attention and special learning tools. Through his environmental science class, Savage hopes that nature, conservation and outdoor recreation can serve as additional tools to overcome obstacles to learning.

Getting the kids active and outdoors

Before he began his teaching career, Savage worked as a guide for NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) and Outward Bound. Drawing on that knowledge and experience, he established outdoor recreation classes and an outdoor club at The Cottage School. “The whole idea was to get the kids outdoors more,” said Savage.

With grant money from a national archery program, he acquired three targets and 12 bows, and started an archery team. In addition to archery, Savage also teaches climbing and ropes courses at the school.

To outfit the outdoor club, he contacted Outward Bound in North Carolina, which donated 14 backpacks and sleeping bags as well as large tarps and Nalgene bottles.GoWyld2

While he has launched the club and recreation courses, Savage has also tailored his environmental science classes to get kids outside more often. “Before I got to the school, it was just a normal high school environmental science class,” said Savage, explaining that instruction centered on Power Point presentations. “We still do some of that, but we realized most people don’t decide to protect the environment because they read about an animal going extinct. Typically, there’s an emotional connection. For me, it was trout fishing and backpacking with my dad.”

With grant money from local businesses, the school built a table and benches to serve as an outdoor classroom. “Probably twice a week, the kids ask if we can go to the forest for class,” said Savage. “So we’ll go outdoors with an iPad and flip through notes and have a discussion.”

Taking the next step

A couple of years ago, Savage shared some of his NOLS experiences with students, and a few of the kids began to talk about doing a wilderness course. Later on, one day before class, some students noticed several NOLS catalogs on Savage’s desk. “A couple of the kids picked them up, and they were really hyped about going,” he said.

Feeding off their interest, Savage talked with Outward Bound and NOLS to see if a few of his students could participate in their hiking and climbing programs. “A wilderness experience would deeply connect them to the environment, and it would build their confidence to go on a trip on their own and without their teacher or classmates,” said Savage.

Outward Bound backpacking program in North Carolina

Outward Bound backpacking program in North Carolina

While NOLS and Outward Bound don’t have specific classes for youth with learning differences, Savage said he is hand-selecting students who could handle a wilderness program. For example, some students don’t have serious emotional problems, but they process information slowly. “They need a little more time to think things through before they start moving,” he said. “If they have to read an instruction manual on how to use a map and compass, it would be difficult. But they’re pretty good if they can see and touch things a few times.”

By selling T-shirts through booster.com, Savage hopes to raise $2,000 to $3,000 to help send a few kids to either a two-week Outward Bound course (about $1,500 per person) or a month-long NOLS course ($3,000 to $4,000 per person). After the kids return from their trips, they will participate in service projects to support The Cottage School’s outdoor program, and also share their wilderness experiences with other students.

If someone is not suited for NOLS or Outward Bound, Savage would like to steer that student to SOAR, which offers accredited summer camps in North Carolina, Wyoming, California and Florida for youth with learning disabilities and attention-deficit disorders.

Eventually, Savage wants to establish a non-profit organization that would focus on providing outdoor experiences to a broader population of kids with learning differences. To support his goal, Savage established the website GoWyld.org where his students are publishing content related to their studies in environmental science. Also, Savage is inviting people to submit photos, articles and ideas for labs to help the students learn more about nature and conservation.

If you are interested in helping students at The Cottage School, you can click here to learn more about GoWyld.org and click here to help send a student to an outdoor program.


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