An Outdoor Education Anniversary

For 40 years, the Texas Outdoor Education Association has gathered in the Frio River Canyon to enhance its mission.

A cursory survey of last year’s Texas Outdoor Education Association (TOEA) annual workshop schedule is disorienting. Besides the outdoors, the offerings seem to have little in common, oscillating from environmental laboratory activities to camp crafts to outdoor sports and recreation.

Sessions included:

—I’ve Got Worms, Do You?
—Paddle Sports for Lessons and Life
—Water Quality Measurements Using an Oxygen Sensor
—Native American Flutes
—Let’s Bocce!
—The Changing Earth: Sediments and Sedimentary Rocks Record This Story
—Tin Can Cooking
—Pollinators of Texas

What joins these topics together? The knowledge that outdoor education is comprehensive education.

A study conducted by the American Institutes for Research found that students who experienced a single outdoor education experience demonstrated significant improvements in self-esteem, cooperation, conflict resolution, leadership, relationship with peers, problem solving, motivation to learn, and behavior in class compared to peers who did not share the experience. The students who attended the course also increased their science scores by 27% and maintained this increase in knowledge for six to ten weeks following the program.

TOEA’s history is inextricably linked with the H. E. Butt Foundation. Echo Valley was the site of Its inaugural annual conference in 1979.

The folks at TOEA have known about this unifying power of outdoor curriculum for decades. The organization exists to promote bringing the outdoors into the classroom and fostering mutual improvement and connection between educators who do so. This year marks the fortieth anniversary of its founding.

TOEA’s history is inextricably linked with the H. E. Butt Foundation. Echo Valley was the site of its inaugural annual conference in 1979. At the time, the conference was a natural fit for the Foundation. As John Worden, a former administrator for the Foundation, puts it, “In some sense, outdoor education was the initial and central vision for the H. E. Butt Foundation camp property. The 1954 acquisition of the property fulfilled a vision Howard Butt, Sr., had to provide an experience in nature for children.”

In harmony with that vision, the conference has reconvened in the Canyon nearly every September since the initial 1979 meeting. Erik Silvius, who is both senior director of Outdoor School and TOEA’s current executive secretary, says that even after four decades of conferences in the same location, “the annual workshop has the very hard-to-define ‘Canyon experience’ effect on its members.”

But there is a reciprocity to the relationship, too. Over the decades of gathering, TOEA has enhanced the Foundation’s own development of outdoor programs. “TOEA’s decades-long presence in the Canyon has provided for really impactful relationships with outdoor education professionals from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to universities around the country,” says Silvius.

Worden says the very existence of the Foundation’s Outdoor School is a result of the relationship with TOEA. After many years of school groups in the Canyon being “on their own to create intentional educational experiences beyond mere recreation,” the Foundation decided to develop programming specific to the Canyon, crafting lessons and activities based in the Canyon’s own streams, trails, adventure recreation, flora, and fauna. Worden had heard Silvius present at TOEA on several occasions, and he knew Silvius would be the right man for the job.

In Worden’s estimation, Silvius contributed “distinguished leadership” to the endeavor, along with an abundance of education, experience, and a passion for outdoor education.

TOEA’s fortieth anniversary is more than a mere numerical milestone. It marks 40 years of a mutually beneficial relationship founded upon a love of the outdoors and an unflinching commitment to students.

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