Visitors to a small school in the scenic New Hampshire town of Northfield may be surprised to find students climbing walls, skiing hills, biking trails or paddling the nearby waters that make the region so attractive to residents and tourists alike.
For these children, overcoming a fear of heights on a ropes course may mean a little more than it would for most people.
At Spaulding Youth Center, a day and residential school that caters to students from five to 21 who are dealing with autism and other emotional, behavioral, intellectual and developmental challenges, educators learned early on that using the natural world around them and the students’ innate curiosity and need for physical activity provides an avenue for growth outside what they can learn in a classroom.
Their Experiential Challenges Outdoors (EChO) program takes the children on outdoor adventures as a way to both challenge and educate.
“We are an academic special,” said Jason Sterner, M.Ed, the program’s coordinator, “like art or media. We see each of the 10 classes for a full day every three weeks, year round. Then, we also do after school programs for residential students.”
From an initial classroom discussion of the day’s adventure, the team leads the children outside to their own on-campus activities including a ropes course, biking trail, which the students help to maintain, and a climbing wall.
Other days, when the weather is warm, a van will take the children to one of the local lakes or rivers for canoeing, kayaking, paddle boarding or swimming. The students also take overnight camping trips.
The program is designed to challenge the students to step outside their comfort zones and to give them life skills that will stay with them as they become adults and must deal with a world that is not always adapted to their needs.
Using video for students who are visual learners, along with white boards, adaptive equipment, photo boards for non-verbal students, and a team of staff members who collaborate to create activities suited for the variety of students at the school, the EChO program has grown over the years to become a key component of their education.
“The goal is to allow them the opportunity to learn through challenge,” said Sterner. “They learn new skills, build self-esteem, learn to be part of a group and to work with each other and the environment.”
For Sterner, who has been with the program for 18 years, the opportunity to see how the students grow in the face of what some may see as impossible odds is constant validation.
The staff will present an activity, knowing that, for some students, it may take more than one day to buy in and try something new. But, when they do, the feeling of success is gratifying.
The one thing he has yet to learn, said Sterner, is not to underestimate the students.
“We need to always challenge our assumptions about what these kids can do,” he said. “Even after 18 years, you can still be surprised.”
By Catherine Robertson Souter