The nature of outdoor ed at Urban

In a school named after its metropolitan location, Urban students look beyond the greenery of the Panhandle and explore the vast array of natural spaces that California has to offer.

Among many Urban traditions, the school’s outdoor education program facilitates both grade-wide and school-wide integration. The trips foster new connections, improve mental health and provide a foundation for environmental learning.

“I actually learned a tremendous amount about California through going on trips,” said Richard Lautze, former outdoor trip coordinator, math and California studies teacher, who began working at Urban in 1981. “My job was to manage the equipment for all school trips, find the place we could go for the trip, and then once a month or so take students on outings very similar to what we do today,” said Lautze. “[Then] we planned a week where we could do service. The outdoor trip program was always related to service.”

During Project Month, a time for students to break off and focus on a single activity, (previously built into the Urban schedule in place of service learning,) Lautze and former teacher Alan Ridley led a group called the Urban Rangers. “We worked in parks in the city to kind of get our outdoor chops together, and then we backpacked from the Urban School Gumption Theater to Point Reyes,” said Lautze. During this project, the school established an ongoing partnership with the Point Reyes National Seashore, which is still active today via the 10th-grade trip. “[We] really cemented our relationship because we worked all over the park. We camped there for a week and just worked on one project, it was really pretty incredible,” Lautze said.

As Outdoor Trip Coordinator, Lautze emphasized accessibility for all students. “We didn’t want to create an exclusive club, we wanted it to be trips that anybody could do…You don’t need any experience, all you need is courage,” Lautze said. “I love trying to give this program to people who don’t have the access so that the school can support them coming…Then, they get bit by the outdoor bug, [and] they’re right in there.” Urban makes it a priority to provide financial support for all outdoor trips, and students on financial aid receive the same percentage that is deducted from their tuition.

Despite Urban’s proximity to many parks and natural spaces around Northern California, not every family wants to take outdoor trips. Through Backcountry Blues, Urban can provide students with those new experiences. “I had [a] student who graduated several years ago, whose family did not camp at all, and he went on probably six trips,” said Jennifer Epstein, who runs the outdoor education leadership group Backcountry Blues. “I think it’s also cool for students who have had opportunities to be able to demonstrate some leadership in different ways that aren’t necessarily valued in the building.”

Backcountry Blues members echo Epstein’s positivity. “When you get a group of people together on a trip, it really doesn’t matter who they are or what their background is, everybody bonds. I think that’s kind of a core thing at Urban, this interconnectedness between the grades. Everybody accepts each other,” said Niko Asai ‘23, who planned a snow camping trip this winter. “Even if it’s crappy [and] you’re really cold, or it’s super hot, you’re all sharing this thing together, which makes it really special.”

Andrew Ridley ‘23, another member of the Backcountry Blues, believes the circumstances of the trip help bring people together. “You connect with the other people you’re on the trip with. I talk to people I never usually talk to. You get to know someone a lot more out in the wild,” said Ridley.

Outings planned by the Backcountry Blues are open to all grades, with an average of 14 students per trip. The small group setting allows for the mixing of grades in a space that isn’t a classroom or sports field. “What makes me so happy is when I come back to school, and I see folks who [were] on trips, chatting with each other and friends,” said Epstein. “Even if they don’t become good friends, there’s a familiarity…because you’ve shared this experience with them. That’s really beautiful.”

For some students, venturing into the outdoors prompts nerve-wracking feelings. “It feels scary. There are unknowns, but I think that is where such amazing growth can happen,” Epstein said.

Growth outdoors can be defined both physically and mentally. Students may improve their rock climbing or tent-building skills, while also feeling an improvement in their own mental well-being. In ninth-grade health class, students learn how to get high naturally through activities that stimulate their brains. “One of my objectives in that class is for folks to pay attention to what makes them feel good naturally, and I think being outdoors is something that pretty universally makes people feel good,” said Epstein.

According to researchers at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, spending time in nature could help to lower the risk of depression and positively affect mental health. One study tested two groups of participants, one group walking in a wooded grassland and the other on a city sidewalk. Researchers found that activity in regions of the brain that typically signal negative emotions significantly decreased in those walking in nature versus those walking in the urban environment. “Taking advantage of [nature,] even though San Francisco is amazing, can kind of get us out of our city routine, or just our daily lives,” said Asai. “Exposing yourself to experiences like that is really healthy, and refreshing too, especially if you’re busy.”

With the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, spending time outside is more vital than ever. Epstein believes the pandemic made people realize how easy and important it is to get outdoors. Now that Urban is back to school, student sign-ups for trips have increased significantly, according to Epstein. Grade-level trips have also received more appreciation. Despite the fact that traditionally juniors don’t go on a trip, this year the 11th grade is going to Pie Ranch. “There was feedback to do more grade-level trips because they’re just really fun and special,” said Epstein.

Richard Lautze believes that trips are also beneficial to students’ academic success. “These trips help people put all of the other learning that they do in context,” said Lautze. Trips that emphasize learning about the climate crisis exemplify this, according to him. “Our ability to live on the earth is being challenged by our practices,” Lautze said. “When we go on those trips, we have time to really think about how we’re connected to the earth.”

As a veteran of 30 years of leading Urban outdoor trips, Lautze encourages every student to try at least one. “Anytime that you have an opportunity to miss school to go on an outdoor trip, you should do it,” said Lautze. “You find yourself not in relation to books, and writing and all the paper and all that stuff that we do all the time. It’s just you with your socks dirty, and your pants dirty. It’s lovely just to be you.”