After almost 50 years, students in the county are still going on night walks, attempting to kiss banana slugs and learning about nature for a week as part of the San Mateo Outdoor Education program.
Outdoor Education began in the summer of 1965 when Gus Xerogeanes, then a natural sciences teacher for the San Bruno Park Elementary School District, took a group of sixth-graders on a weeklong summer school adventure to the YMCA Camp at Jones Gulch near La Honda.
“It’s nice to have kids experience away from home,” said Xerogeanes, a San Bruno resident. “The outdoors and the science part. … Some kids never got a chance to leave San Bruno. It’s a good experience for teachers also to be with the kids in a different situation.”
Since it went countywide in 1968, more than 200,000 children have attended Outdoor Education at Camp Jones Gulch. During the weeklong trip, students learn about the natural world, explore the forest and beach ecosystems and work together as a community. Students live in cabins, participate in drama performances, sing, garden, engage in composting competitions and go on a discovery hike.
“I loved Outdoor Ed when I went,” said Patrick Flynn, board president of the San Bruno Park Elementary School District. “It really gives our kids a well-rounded education; it’s part of growing up. For some of the kids, it’s their first time away from home.”
A districtwide program for San Bruno schools was started in the spring of 1966 with 60 students each week due to limited space at the site. In the fall of 1966, more districts began participating in the program, which San Bruno continued to run. A pilot Outdoor Education program was approved in 1968 and began with 650 students. High school students acted as counselors, now known as cabin leaders, and teachers from the schools accompanied their students to the site. Now, the program receives applications for the naturalist internship at the camp from across the country, according to research on the program by Kristina E. Chiosso posted on the San Mateo County Office of Education website.
The fact that Outdoor Ed has been around for almost 50 years goes to show Gus’ vision was innovative, Mark Nolan, director of outdoor and environmental education for the San Mateo County Office of Education.
“Parents and communities support it,” he said. “In a technological world where we’re tied to computers and iPads, seeing the world in a natural way is more important than ever. It continues to be more important than ever to get kids to experience nature.”
The experience of going to Outdoor Ed has lasting effects on the students and some even come back as cabin leaders once they get into high school to mentor the new group of camp-goers, said Alicia McHale, a teacher at Allen Elementary School in San Bruno.
“I have had the privilege of attending Outdoor Ed with my fifth-grade class for 15 years and it is always an awesome week in nature,” McHale wrote in an email. “For so many of my students, this is the first time they are away from their homes. Once at camp, the students go for a hike after getting off the bus and begin to meet other students from San Mateo County. It is during this time at Outdoor Ed that I truly see my student bloom in ways I did not witness in the classroom.”
The program is available to districts September to June. For more information go to ymcasf.org/campjonesgulch/what_we_offer/for_groups/outdoor_education.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 105