Outdoor Education FAQs

In addition to being fun, these experiences teach resilience, grit and self-determination and increase emotional intelligence, prosocial development and, most importantly, systems for social support.

About the Program

Why does every student from 5th-12th grade go on trips?
Creating opportunities for experiential learning through outdoor education is an integral part of the Key experience. In addition to being really fun, the experiences teach resilience, grit and self-determination and increase emotional intelligence, prosocial development and, most importantly, systems for social support.

The overnight trips specifically are central to the mission of the School and the student experience. The benefits of this type of education are quite numerous; a quick literature search will reveal copious amounts of research that support these programs. Here are a just a few of the outcomes:

  • Closer, more authentic relationships with other students and faculty. 
  • A greater ability to take risks and make mistakes in a supportive and safe environment. 
  • Enhanced mental health benefits associated with connections to the natural world.
  • Stronger links between classroom theory and practical application.
  • Increased focus on and ownership of class goals rather than individual goals.
  • Increased organizational and executive functioning.
  • Greatly enhanced small team collaboration skills.
  • Enhanced intentional grit and resilience.

How are the trips linked to the rest of the Key School curriculum?
The Outdoor Education curriculum is scaffolded and spirals like any other school program. There are direct links to every academic discipline as well as connections to major school initiatives like Life Skills, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, & Belonging (DEIB), and leadership development. 

How were the procedures and practices developed for Outdoor Education trips? 
The Outdoor Education program is grounded in standards and practices from the greater outdoor industry. Key’s partners and conferences include: Wilderness Risk Management Conference; Independent Schools Experiential Education Network; Association of Experiential Education; Leave No Trace; National Outdoor Leadership School; Global Education Benchmark Group; and other local partner schools and organizations.

What is the Peer Leadership Program?
Peer Leadership is a branch of the Outdoor Education program that develops both the technical and interpersonal skills of leadership in an experiential and outdoor setting. The program formally begins for rising ninth grade students when they participate in a week-long backcountry trip focused on those technical and leadership skills. 

Students involved in the Peer Leadership program:

  • Assist the faculty leaders on the backcountry trips for Middle School students. Each backcountry group has a faculty leader and a student peer leader. 
  • Take on enhanced leadership roles within their own grade on the grade level outdoor trips.
  • Assume other leadership roles on day trips and around campus; even roles without any direct connection to the Outdoor Education program since their developing leadership skills are in high demand. 

There is no pre-requisite for being a peer leader, simply a desire to learn and work with other students. The Outdoor Education team runs a weekly Peer Leadership activity for Upper School students.

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General Information

What if this is my student’s first Outdoor Education trip?
Much like any new endeavor, our team of educators help to prepare every student for these experiences, especially students who are new to Key and haven’t been on prior trips. There are class meetings and skill sessions leading up to any trip as well as planning elements that are student-led and student-generated prior to the trip.

What if my student doesn’t like the outdoors and doesn’t want to go on the trip?
The goal of the Outdoor Education Program isn't to graduate a class of students who love to backpack and canoe, although many of our students are well equipped to participate in these kinds of lifelong activities. The development of grit and resilience and being nudged into moving outside their comfort zones are much more important.  For some students who may not enjoy camping or hiking, these outdoor experiences will help push their boundaries. For students who may struggle in the classroom, the trips can be a way to show their abilities to thrive in a different environment. 

The Outdoor Education Program is a vital component of Key’s curriculum and commitment to experiential learning. As such students are required to take part in the trips. Just as a student may not be drawn to math, for example, the School still requires students, whether future mathematicians or not, to take math courses as part of their overall education. 

Even students who are not particularly fond of camping come to see the value of the trips as they progress through their years at Key. Upper School students and alumni/ae/x regularly talk about their outdoor experiences being one of the most important opportunities for growth at Key.

What is the difference between a backcountry trip and a frontcountry trip?
Backcountry trips: 

  • Students only have the material they carry on their backs. 
  • Shorter in duration; usually only one or two nights. 
  • The class splits into small groups of 8-10 students with two group leaders. Sometimes one of these leaders is an Upper School Peer Leader. 
  • True wilderness experiences.

Frontcountry trips: 

  • Trips occur at typical family-type campgrounds like a Kampgrounds of America site (KOA) or a State Park campground.
  • Typically involves tent camping with access to vehicles and a base camp with a large kitchen and more modern conveniences like bathrooms and picnic tables.
  • Occasionally students stay in dorms or cabins. These have modern bathroom facilities and group kitchens or dining halls for meals.
  • The class is together as a big group for meals and split up for activities. 
  • Are conducted in a manner similar to the way a summer camp is run.

How many people stay in each tent?
Frontcountry tents hold four people. In the backcountry, custom-designed pyramid tarp-tents are used. These tents hold three to five people. Here are some examples.

How are tent groups and other groupings created? 
Younger students (5th and 6th graders) typically have very little input into the tent group selection process. Tent groupings are chosen by grade advisors, the Middle School Division Head and the school counselor.

As students get older, they have an increasing role in the process. Tent groups are created by a committee of students who are given a set of selection criteria as well as given guidance by a teacher. Those tent groups are then reviewed by Team Leaders and Grade Advisors as well as homeroom teachers. 

The intention is to create groups that may not naturally occur in school. This serves to promote prosocial behavior and challenge the students to work with, get to know and possibly even become friends with people they would not otherwise have the opportunity to get to know. 

The teams strive for an equitable system for all students. Anxiety and mental health are considered as well as any groupings of students who have a history of not getting along. A common strategy is to pair students with at least one person they know well and then other students they will get to know. By the time students reach 11th grade, they run the process with faculty doing some work in the background.

It is immensely helpful for families to support this process and encourage their students to embrace it and the sometimes necessary discomfort it may bring. Small team cooperation and collaboration is an essential life skill.

What is nighttime supervision like?
The nighttime routine is the same on every trip from 6th-12th grade:

  • A tent check conducted by teams of faculty walking through the camp area. Faculty will not enter a student tent or look inside unless it is an emergency and there are multiple students and faculty to assist. 
  • Random checks throughout the night. 
  • Pathways to bathrooms are marked at night
  • Students are briefed on what to do and how to find faculty members if they need anything during the night. 
  • Faculty tents are marked by glow lights at night.

How does Key support students who are homesick?
Homesickness is one of the common manifestations of anxiety on trips. It is a completely normal and healthy emotional reaction. If your student has experienced high levels of homesickness before, or has never been away from home, please let the Outdoor Education team or a homeroom teacher know so the situation can be actively managed. There are general guidelines for managing homesickness that the Outdoor Education team follows guided by the techniques of Behavioral First Response training.

Can I call my student while on the trip?
In general, the answer is no. In the majority of cases, contact with family members outside of the trip exacerbates most issues around anxiety. This will be handled on a case-by-case basis as there are exceptions.

May I call the trip team to check in?
No. The team in the field has their hands full with 24/7 risk management procedures, as well as meals, activities and socialization. Please contact the School for any information related to the trip. Important announcements about the trips will be made through Key’s regular communication channels. Assume that no news is good news.

What if there is inclement weather?
In general, trips are run in inclement weather unless the weather will degrade the inherent nature of the experience. Day-long and single overnight trips tend to be more sensitive to weather than a multi-day trip. For example, rock climbing cannot be conducted in the rain for a one-day climbing trip. On longer multi-day trips, there are a larger variety of activities and a more flexible schedule to accommodate times of poor weather. 

In the case of potentially hazardous weather conditions; the team in the field will use their training and judgment to place the students in the least risky situation possible. The Outdoor Education team has extensive knowledge of the sites and the resources available. The team has access to the VHF weather band, satellite communications and subscription weather service at all times to receive accurate weather information.

What happens when there are behavioral issues on trips?
Please discuss with your student the importance of being a respectful and kind member of the community. These trips can produce higher than usual levels of anxiety for some and the behavior responses that come with anxiety. The goal is to create a safe and supportive environment for every member of the community on each trip. The team will work through any behavioral issues on an individual basis to support the success of each student. If a behavioral issue elevates to the point of detracting from the experience for other students and especially if it creates social, emotional or physical risk for other participants, that student may have to leave the trip.

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Gear & Clothing

Do we need to buy all new outdoor equipment?
The short answer is no. While each trip has a gear and clothing checklist and there could be some very specialized items like backpacks, sleeping bags and sleeping pads on these lists, the Outdoor Education Department has many of these items to loan out for trips. They also have things like bowls, mugs, water bottles, flashlights, rope, etc. If in doubt, please ask. If you are buying something new, and are overwhelmed by all the choices on Amazon or at an outdoor store, ask a teacher from school for some guidance. 

Why is bringing cotton clothing discouraged?
Cotton is a poor insulator when wet from rain or perspiration and it takes a very long time to dry. Synthetic clothes work much better. Most athletic clothing is made with non-cotton materials. While it is permitted to have some cotton items, particularly on a frontcountry trip, please make sure your student has at least one full set of clothes, including socks, that are non-cotton, and at least one insulation layer like a hoodie or jacket that is not cotton. Non-cotton clothes can be found at stores like Target, Dicks, Old Navy, the Gap, etc. There are also retailers that specialize in outdoor-specific clothing like REI and LL.Bean. 

It is important that families adhere to the packing lists so students are prepared for the weather. 

Why are students encouraged to use bins for storage for trips?
When students are in the tents on frontcountry trips, there is no room for all their gear inside the tents. To ease packing and organizing and to create a watertight, animal-resistant method of packing, using a Rubbermaid 18-gallon bin is highly recommended. These have been used on Key trips for over thirty years. Students can get a bin in 6th grade and use it all the way through senior year. As a bonus, the bin can be used to store some of the specific outdoor items at home. 

For an even more deluxe version of the bin, the Rubbermaid Brute 20-gallon bin is recommended. While more expensive, these are just a little bigger and are strong enough to sit on. The clear bins used to store holiday decorations or clothes are not recommended as they can crack too easily for use on outdoor trips.

Why can’t students bring electronics on Outdoor Education trips?
One of the main purposes of these trips is to promote prosocial behavior without the distraction of devices; therefore no internet-connected electronics are allowed on any trip as these devices disconnect students from the group. This includes cell phones, tablets, smart watches, etc. In the past, anxious families have slipped a device into their students' belongings; please do not do this as it can sabotage many aspects of the trip. 

If a student has a need to contact someone outside of the trip they can always use one of the many communication tools carried by the trip team. The trip team is required to carry cell phones and they also use these to take pictures. Students can ask for pictures of specific things and these pictures will be placed in galleries that students have access to. As several trip locations have limited cell service, the trip team has a variety of satellite-connected devices to maintain reliable communication for logistics and emergency operations.

Regular and single-use cameras are allowed.

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Food & Nutrition

What kind of food do the students eat?
Frontcountry trips present room for food storage and coolers so relatively “normal” foods are possible. Examples:

  • Breakfast - pancakes, sausage, oatmeal, yogurt, cereals, fruit
  • Lunch - ham and cheese sandwiches, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fruit, chips, carrots, hummus
  • Dinner - pasta with meatballs, salads, tacos, BBQ, burgers, and hot dogs.

Backcountry trips present the challenge of carrying all of the group's food; therefore food must be light enough to carry, must not spoil, and must be nutritious. Examples:

  • Breakfast - quick cook oats with toppings like raisins, M&M’s, chia seeds, flax seeds, nuts (on trips when there are no nut allergies), granola, powdered milk, salt, brown sugar, and dried fruits.
  • Lunch - “Curry Bagels” (named after Lee Curry, Outdoor Education founder at Key, not the spice) which are bagels with toppings ranging from hummus, peanut butter and jelly, cheese slices, pepperoni, dried apricots, cream cheese, and sliced red and yellow peppers.
  • Dinner - A base item like rice, ramen, pasta noodles, or potato flakes, to which are added toppings. Super ramen is a popular meal, which is rice ramen with topping choices like dried vegetables, real bacon bits, shredded cheese, hot sauce, textured vegetable product (soy), spices, vegetable soup broth, and crispy fried onions. 

How is leftover food managed? 
The Outdoor Education team conducts education with students around the idea of not wasting any food. One of the mantras is “take all you want, but eat all you take.” At the end of meals, if there are leftovers, the perishable foods are stored in coolers and reheated at a subsequent meal. Non-perishables are also reused. There is diligence around food handling to prevent both spoilage and contamination. For foods that are perishable and cannot be cooked (cut fruit or non-cooked vegetables), food-handling gloves are used.

How do students clean their dishes? 
On frontcountry trips, students clean their dishes by first eating everything on their plate or bowl. They are then encouraged to scrape the plate or bowl with a spoon, lick the bowl, or use other methods to get it as clean as possible. One favorite is to save a piece of bread during pasta night to swipe up the last bits of sauce. Students wash their own dishes and then a designated cleaning group washes the cooking pots and utensils. A three-bin dishwashing system is used:

  1. A hot soapy water wash
  2. A warm rinse
  3. A sanitizing dip in cold water

On backcountry trips,  the meals are much more simple and are made directly in the students' bowls. The students clean them out and a bit of boiling water is used to sanitize them. Leftover foods are packed out.

How are food allergies and other food restrictions handled?
The trip team works with the health office to make sure there are appropriate foods based on restricted diets, food allergies, religious needs, and other family dietary choices. The kitchen setup proactively manages the risk of contamination of surfaces, serving dishes and utensils. 

How do “picky” eaters manage?
Not everyone is comfortable with eating new and varied foods. The team strives  to provide a variety of common foods and will work with selective eaters. Before each trip, students will know the basic outline of the meals. If a family needs more specific information about the menu for a particular trip, they should contact the Outdoor Education Department. One aspect of these trips is to help students broaden their horizons as eaters. This will facilitate their ability to travel and adapt as they grow older and help them make good nutritional choices.

Can students bring their own snacks/meals? 
Families are asked not to pack any food, especially as a surprise or treat. When food is in tents, backpacks or bins, it will attract animals that could chew through gear. The trip team will work with families to make sure there is appropriate food for every student.

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Health & Safety

How are medications handled?
Each trip team, in conjunction with Key’s Health Office, creates a schedule for the administration of medicine to each student. All medications must go through the Health Office with written consent. Do not send any medications with your child. 

What is the medical training of Outdoor Education faculty/staff?
A large portion of the faculty/staff are First Aid/CPR certified because they are coaches or work in the After School Program. In addition, each trip will have at least one, if not more, Wilderness First Responders (WFR). A WFR takes an 80-hour course in emergency medicine that must be recertified every three years.

How are ticks, mosquitos and poison ivy handled?
Noxious plants and animals are a reality on outdoor trips. A multilayered approach is used to mitigate the problems they can cause. Groups of students are tasked with making signs and giving announcements during trips about things like bug protection so they understand they have an active role to play in the process. Faculty also make daily announcements on the trips about what hazards to be aware of, how to prevent them, and what to do in the case of exposure. Read more specific information related to ticks

What if a student gets sick or has an injury during a trip?
Key’s WFRs will employ their extensive training to manage illness and injury in the field. There may be times when a family member or another designated emergency contact will need to pick up a student in the field if the student cannot effectively participate in the trip or be cared for on the trip.

What if a student needs urgent or emergency care?
If a student needs immediate medical attention beyond the capacity for the trip team to address it in the field, the student will be transported to the nearest and most appropriate care facility and the family will be immediately notified.

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Personal Hygiene

How do students stay clean?
Students are taught the difference between clean and hygienic. A high degree of hygiene must be maintained on the trips but sometimes students will get dirty. Good hygienic practices are important to maintain both personal health and the health of the group. This is fairly simple when running water is available. Heavy use of hand sanitizer is also a feature of trips. See more  ideas in the “Tricks and Tips.”

What are the bathrooms like? 
On most frontcountry trips, there are porta-potties and oftentimes regular bathroom facilities. 

On the backcountry trips there are either porta-potties or outhouses that the group will pass by or camp near each day. In addition, students are taught hygienic and Leave No Trace appropriate methods for “using the bathroom” outdoors when there are no facilities available.

Can students take a shower?
Some of the frontcountry trips have shower facilities. If showers are not available, a sunshower is used. Students rinse off wearing a bathing suit and using biodegradable soap. 

The backcountry trips have no option for showering; however, those trips are typically quite short, being two nights in length at the very most. 

How is menstrual health and hygiene handled on outdoor trips?
Before the start of the trip itself, students engage in conversations with female staff and peer leaders to discuss the ways in which menstrual health and hygiene needs are handled. Staff members all carry tampons and pads that are accessible to group members if needed. On the trip itself available bathroom facilities are identified and students are educated about management practices regarding waste.

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Tips & Tricks

Baby Wipes
Baby wipes can be a nice way to refresh and feel clean at the end of a day. Students should only bring one or two per day and be prepared to pack out the dirty ones. There are small packs that contain 10-20, which is plenty. Do not bring a full size pack; they are heavy and can be wasteful.

Pocket Mirror
A little mirror is very handy. They can be used for anything from finding food in students’ teeth to looking for bugbites or ticks on students’ backs or in their hair.

Mess Kit
A mess kit can consist of a plastic spoon and a tupperware with a lid. Tupperware can also protect sandwiches during a hike or activity.

Luxury Items 
Pack light, but a foldable chair, a favorite hat, etc. are welcome additions. 

  • On the frontcountry trips, a chair to sit in can be a nice luxury. There are many variations of the classic camp chair to be found online..
  • A sunshower is an amazing luxury. The Outdoor Education Department supplies several of these on trips. Students may bring their own to have access to warm shower water at any time. 

Label Everything
There is so much happening that students often misplace items on the trips. Write a name on everything to make sure things find their way back to the owner.

A journal can be valuable in so many ways on a trip. This is a great way for a student to record their experiences and to maintain a record through the years of all the trips that they are on. They are great for artwork, writing letters, expressing anxiety in a productive way, long bus rides, rainy days in the tent, the list goes on.

Like the journal, a good book is wonderful for the less structured times on each trip. Due to the “no electronics” policy, a good paper book is preferred. Used paperbacks are the best for camping.

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Special Needs

Please reach out with any questions that have not been covered elsewhere. The Outdoor Education Department does everything it can within our training and resources to tailor the trip to each student. Some examples include: planning the timing of meals and activities during times of religious fasting, finding tenting solutions for students who do not identify along traditional gender lines, modifying activities for students with physical differences, and creating positive support for students with anxiety disorders.

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