Changing Reality

November 1, 2014, Department, by Keri Schwab, Ph.D., and Daniel Dustin, Ph.D.

The University of Utah’s Rio Mesa Center, located along the Dolores River in southeastern Utah, provides an outlet for environmental and recreational education in partnership with programs like SLCSE.In Salt Lake City, Utah, Larry Madden, principal of the Salt Lake Center for Science Education (SLCSE), a grades 6-12 Title I charter school with a multicultural student population, took a leap of faith. With the support of his superintendent, and inspired by his own daughter’s disdain for gym class (while loving hiking), he hired Cavett Eaton, a park and recreation professional, to reinvent the school’s physical education program.

Upon his hiring, and while securing his Alternative Route to Licensure as a Utah public school teacher, Eaton wasted little time in creating a healthy lifestyle and outdoor adventure curriculum as a stand-in for the traditional physical education program. While still meeting the Common Core state standards, he cut back the time and attention given to traditional sport-skill instruction and focused instead on the development of lifelong recreational pursuits characterized by team- and character-building. In five years, Eaton has created a working bike shop, secured a small fleet of kayaks, installed indoor high- and low-rope climbing elements, and purchased a used van for field trips. SLCSE students — capped at a maximum of 400 because of building size — have learned new and lifelong recreational activities that will serve them well beyond their years in the public school system.

A visitor to the school would likely be surprised and impressed with the way Eaton has reconfigured the space Madden allotted him. Much of it is taken up by a bicycle repair shop, where students learn how to maintain bikes as well as fix them when they break down. There are close to 100 bicycles in the shop that are used on a regular basis. A stationary bike powers a blender that makes healthy fruit smoothies, while also being affixed to the school’s bee hive for honey making. The boys’ locker room is full of kayaks and canoes, and the girls’ locker room is full of tents and sleeping bags. The gymnasium includes a ropes course and a climbing wall is well under construction. The school’s courtyard provides a safe haven for students to try out their newly acquired camping skills in preparation for multiday trips to Rio Mesa, a recently developed outdoor education center near Moab, five hours away from the hubbub of Salt Lake City. There is no shortage of parents who want to come along on the day or overnight field trips. Other SLCSE teachers, interested in Eaton’s program, are always willing to work with him to make crosscurricular connections, such as incorporating physics, geometry or biology lessons into an adventure outing. Equipment, which can be an expensive component of outdoor recreation programs, is often donated by companies looking to offload last year’s models or from local nonprofit agencies or community members. 

Although Eaton’s adventure-based physical education curriculum is only a few years old, Principal Madden believes the benefits are manifold:

1. There is a powerful cultural impact in taking students away from the brick and mortar of a public school building and putting them in an unfamiliar environment (nature) where they have to work together as a team to overcome new challenges. The outing has a leveling effect. The students return to the classroom more willing to help and rely on one another to solve problems in the same way they learned to help and rely on one another in meeting challenges in the out-of-doors.

2. Developing lifelong recreational interests in the context of physical education just makes good sense. Why emphasize skill-building in traditional sports and games when the vast majority of students will only become spectators of those events upon graduation from high school? Why not focus instead on developing recreation skills and interests that can lead to a lifetime of health promotion through physically active lifestyles?

3. The promise of a recreation-centered curriculum as opposed to a traditional physical education-centered curriculum rests in the intrinsically rewarding nature of recreation pursuits. Physical fitness becomes a byproduct of doing what students find joy in doing rather than being something they have to do. This was the lesson Madden’s daughter taught him. She was not interested in physical fitness. She was interested in hiking.

4. The resurgence in recent years of an emphasis on math and science in the public schools at the expense of other so-called ancillary subject matters (music, dance, art, physical education) is short-sighted. Properly thought out, these subject matters can complement what teachers hope to achieve in math and science as well as contributing greatly to the education of the whole child in preparation for a lifetime of active, healthy living.

5. To replicate the kind of impact Eaton has enjoyed requires school administrators who are:

a) Devoted to the long-term health and well-being of the community they serve; 

b) Willing to hire classroom teachers who embrace a healthy lifestyle focus and are eager to work collaboratively across the curriculum to cultivate the skills and abilities necessary for their students to live active, enjoyable and sustainable lifestyles after graduation; 

c) Committed to do their best to ensure the safety of adventure-based programming while simultaneously understanding life’s inherent risks; and

d) Dedicated enough to the promise of a healthy lifestyle to do whatever is necessary to overcome any institutional or bureaucratic barriers to change (Eaton and Madden are rarely told they cannot do something for risk or liability reasons, and to date no one has been injured during any of the activities.).  

Principal Madden understands all the reasons why others might balk at what he has set out to accomplish at SLCSE. He understands the convenience and comfort of the status quo. He understands how school size and class size might complicate matters. Indeed, he, too, might have been reluctant to take his leap of faith had not one of his students challenged his thinking. In response to Madden’s pronouncement that of all of SLCSE’s students would one day graduate, one of his charges replied starkly, “That’s just not reality.” Jolted by the reaction, Madden quickly adopted a new motto for SLCSE: “Changing Reality.” Welcoming Cavett Eaton into the fold has been a major step in that direction.

Keri Schwab, Ph. D., is an Assistant Professor in the Recreation, Parks and Tourism Administration Department at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Daniel Dustin, Ph. D., is a Professor in the Department of Parks, Rereation and Tourism at the University of Utah.