Outdoor Education

students rock climbingKey's commitment to providing a supportive environment for experiential learning extends far beyond the classroom. Opportunities for outdoor education are integral to the Key experience from First School through grade twelve.

All students, beginning in Middle School, participate in overnight trips that range from two to six days and include camping, hiking, mountain biking, backpacking, canoeing, kayaking, sailing, rock climbing, whitewater rafting, and environmental exploration. While the focus of exploration is on the Chesapeake Bay and Shenandoah National Park locales, groups also travel to Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia, and other parts of Maryland and Virginia.

The principles underlying Key's outdoor education program emphasize the development of community, the significance of leadership and teamwork, the discovery of both confidence and compassion, the value of respect for self and others, the need for stewardship of the environment, and the relevance of the natural world to learning in the classroom and beyond.


Middle School Experiences

Fifth grade students walk to neighboring Quiet Waters Park early in the fall, and again in the spring, to spend a day focusing on community-building activities while also making connections to their curricular work.

students interacting with wildlife

Sixth grade students camp for three days at NorthBay on Maryland's Eastern Shore where they focus on individual challenges, team-building and Chesapeake Bay studies. They also camp for two days in Harpers Ferry to connect with aspects of their Civil War studies and hike some beautiful trails in the area.

Seventh graders experience the rigors of a two-day backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail, as well as a four-day camping experience at Point Lookout State Park, which involves an introduction to canoeing and an in-depth look at ecosystems of the area in support of their science curriculum.

Eighth graders spend three days in the fall backpacking in the Shenandoah National Park and summiting the locally famous Old Rag Mountain. They also sail to Wye Island in the spring, where they spend six days camping, canoeing around the Island, and exploring its environments. The Outdoor Education Program also joins with the Physical Education Department in the winter to offer eighth graders a series of outdoor challenges and initiatives that promote individual and community growth through group problem-solving.

Optional Trips: Key also offers Middle School students three optional trips during the year, including a day-hike on the Appalachian Trail in Maryland, a mountain biking trip at Patapsco State Park, and an inter-divisional (Middle School and Upper School) High Ropes Course Day at Camp Letts.

Upper School Experiences

In the Upper School, outdoor experiences grow in terms of scope, duration and interdisciplinary curricular connection.

The ninth grade Island Odyssey trip provides an opportunity to spend three days on Tangier, Smith and Fox Islands, studying ancient civilizations, physics, music, and art as well as the current environment of the Bay and its cultural implications.

In the fall, tenth graders travel to Carderock near Great Falls, Maryland, for a three-day rock climbing trip that focuses on developing trust and communication within the class. In the spring, tenth grade students work together during a four-day canoeing and camping excursion, Rollin' on the River, where the study of history and chemistry become integral as they assess the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the region.

Eleventh grade students take several extended trips to explore the ecological interactions in and around the Chesapeake Bay, concluding their year with a five-day trip to Assateague Island where they investigate the area's diverse habitats.

whitewater rafting at Youghiogheny River

The progression of trips in the outdoor program culminates with a twelfth grade whitewater rafting experience on the Youghiogheny River in Pennsylvania, offering the seniors an opportunity to discuss and plan their potential leadership initiatives for the year, and a spring two-day trip to Wye Island to celebrate the many accomplishments and successes throughout the years in the Outdoor Education Program.

Optional trips: Additionally, all Upper School students have the opportunity to participate in an array of optional weekend trips throughout the fall, winter and early spring. Approximately fifteen percent of the Upper School student body are also trained as Outdoor Peer Leaders, and in that capacity help co-lead our Middle School backpacking experiences.

Summer Opportunities

students relaxing in hammocks in woods

Recent summer opportunities, available to Middle and Upper School students depending on the nature of the trip, have included:

  • Allagash Challenge, a 98-mile, fourteen-day wilderness canoe trip in northern Maine
  • John Smith Chesapeake Water Trail Experience, a six-day backcountry canoe trip on the Patuxent River
  • Peer Leadership Workshop, a five-day backpacking trip in Shenandoah National Park that focuses on outdoor leadership
  • West Coast Adventure, a fourteen-day backpacking and paddling exploration of the Oregon Cascades and northern California redwoods regions
  • SusqueBayChallenge, a 633-mile canoe trip from the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem in New York, down the Susquehanna River to the southern waters of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia.

The opportunity to learn in these outdoor settings is a concept that has been embedded in the life of the School since its inception and has a profound impact on the students' academic work as well as the growth and well-being of the School community.

Activities Statement & Trip Activities List

The Outdoor Education Department arranges more than twenty-five trips each year for approximately 400 students and 30% of the Key School faculty and staff. The focus of these trips is building community and making real world connections to the students’ curricular work. While most activities are concentrated in the Chesapeake Bay and Shenandoah mountain regions of Virginia, Key School groups also travel elsewhere in the United States and abroad. Transportation for Key School trips is provided by the School or by independent contractors hired by Key.

The Key School Outdoor Education Department has successfully managed these School sponsored trips for more than forty years with the following established protocols and procedures in place:

  • At least one staff member on all Key School outdoor trips is trained and certified in CPR and as a Wilderness First Responder to assist in medical emergencies;
  • A set of written protocols guides the decision-making process as related to planning and executing each trip. These guidelines are included in the Outdoor Education Department Manual;
  • Members of Key’s Outdoor Education Department work closely with both the School Nurse and School Counselor to share pertinent information related to the physical and emotional well-being of each student, always respecting the individual’s privacy;
  • A strong relationship with nationally recognized outdoor organizations, including the Association for Experiential Education (AEE) and the Independent School Experiential Education Network (ISEEN), allows Key’s staff to draw on collective expertise and experience concerning prevailing practices in the field of adventure education at a national level;
  • Key School contracts with vetted regional outfitters for the more technical outdoor activities (such as rafting and rock climbing), and many of these companies ask parents and students to sign required documentation which may include a waiver of liability, including for negligence.
Inherent risks accompany the activities of Key’s Outdoor Education Program. These risks are integral to the activities, such as rock climbing, and if removed significantly diminish the character and value of the experience for the student. Risks include those ordinarily associated with moderately vigorous outdoor activities, and include, but are not limited to, accidents related to physical activity, failure of gear and equipment, and weather-related events.

The Key School wants all parents to understand both the goals of the program and the potential risks associated with their child’s participation in School-sponsored trips. While all parents sign a release of liability covering School-related activities including those of the Outdoor Education program as part of the enrollment contract, at times additional signatures may be required for certain School-sponsored trips. The Key School program relies on the leadership of faculty and staff who have significant experience in managing the risks of outdoor adventure education activities. Given the dynamic nature of the environments explored and activities undertaken, there are times when staff members need to make judgment calls in the field. While our staff is carefully selected and well-trained, they are not infallible. It takes a collaborative effort, requiring open communication between the School and parents, to successfully manage the risks, inherent and otherwise, of our outdoor program. Faculty and staff value the exchange of information with regard to any concerns or questions parents may have with regard to their child’s participation in Outdoor Education activities. View a listing of physical activities by trip.

Should you have questions, please contact Paul Bayne, Outdoor Education Director, pbayne@keyschool.org.