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Outside the box: Perham eighth graders learn teamwork and survival skills in the great outdoors

Eighth-grade students from Prairie Wind Middle School attended the Laurentian Environmental Learning Center located in Britt, Minnesota. 104 students completed the Journey Program where they participated in orienteering during a trek in the woods of the Superior National Forest. They used survival training to create shelters, build fires, and needed to work as a team to accomplish challenges and tasks. (submitted photo).1 / 3
Students took a class on how to use a compass and map before the trek through Superior National Forest. (submitted photo).2 / 3
104 students from Prairie Wind Middle School completed the Journey Program at the Laurentian Environmental Learning Center located in Britt, Minnesota, where they participated in orienteering during a trek in the woods of the Superior National Forest. (submitted photo).3 / 3

Plopped down in the Superior National Forest, map (the foldable kind) and compass (old-fashioned type) in hand and told to get from where you’re standing to the red dot on the map: Do you think you could do it? Eighth graders from Prairie Wind Middle School gave it a try recently while at Laurentian Environmental Center.

That was one of many activities during the four days they spent at the center where the focus was on thinking outside the box and team building.

Laurentian Environmental Center is an accredited, public residential educational facility that combines science, environmental education, leadership training, and outdoor skills recreation programs.

Prairie Wind Middle School Geography Teacher Deanna Kovash said she met naturalists from Laurentian at a regional environmental conference 17 years ago.

Before going to Laurentian, Kovash had students take part in a survival day at the middle school, where they would build snow heaps and fires, create some type of shelter, and do various other activities outside.

“When we heard about the Journey Program at Laurentian, we thought that getting the students away from home and taking them out of comfortable surroundings like school and having to rely on each other would be a valuable experience,” Kovash said.

The “Journey” is a program that focuses on skill development in leadership, team-building, interpersonal skills and problem-solving – using nature as the context for learning.

Eighth graders Luis Briseno and Sydney Anderson both said they didn’t know what to expect, and Luis admitted he was a little nervous when he first heard about the trip. But, once the group went on the tour of the facility, he said he was fine.

Sydney agreed, saying it was intimidating at first, but then once they settled in it was okay. It was “fun, but overwhelming” sometimes.

“My favorite part was survival night. We had to make our own fire and shelter,”  Luis said.

With a laugh, he explained how they had to solve riddles to get their supplies. “Our group didn’t do so well with that. But it was really fun because we all worked together and were able to survive the night.”

Kovash explained that the students are divided up into groups of 13, and they are aren’t typically with people they hang out with in school. Then on survival night they are divided into subgroups of six or seven students.

Luis couldn’t come up with a least favorite part of the adventure, he kept adding things he liked about the trip.

“The trek was tiring,” is about the only thing he could come up when asked what he didn’t like.

The trek was fodder for stories, as the group lit up when the topic was brought up.

“It’s just walking,” said Connor Kostynick, rolling his eyes and with exaggerated exasperation in his voice emphasising the word “just”. But it must not have been too bad, because instead of memories of the trek being met with groans of misery, all four kids burst into laughter. Eliana Paurys, along with Sydney, chimed in with, “through the sticks and the trees,” and the four started laughing again.

While the kids talked over one another, relaying one tale after another of their time on the trek, Kovash described its purpose.

“Each group starts at their cabin, and they are given a map with a dot on it...and they have to figure how to get there. They can choose to use their compass or not, but it’s all on the students; the adults in the group are just there to observe and for safety,” she said.

Kovash said not every group gets to their dot and that during the trek, the naturalist might stop every 30 minutes and have the group breakdown what’s happening and have the kids reflect on the over all goal.

“They usually start out and rate themselves at a 10,” said Kovash. “ They say they know exactly where they are going. Then 2 hours later, they rate themselves at a 3 because they are lost, they are hungry, they don’t know where they are going. But then, it’s fun when you see them work together and find their destination, and on it’s all on their own,” Kovash said.

Despite the exasperation in his storytelling, Connor said his favorite part of the four days was probably the trek.

“Survival night wasn’t the greatest night for my group. We couldn’t solve a few of the the riddles to get our supplies, and dinner was one that took us a while,” he said, with another smile.

He said for the most part his team worked together, but some did just sit by the fire even though they were told not to do that. That may be the one thing that did not elicit a smile from him.

Mrs. Kovash said that as a teacher that is the difficult part, because they want to march in and say ‘get to work,’ but they are told to stay back.

“The kids have to figure out how to work that out because that’s a problem in the real world when you have a team member that’s not doing their work. That’s something some kids reflect on in their journals,” she said.

Some of the team challenges took Connor by surprise, he said. “You had to think outside the box to complete the game. You couldn’t just play it, you had to do something else.”

The goal of the four days is to learn teamwork, and that was accomplished. All four chimed in at once when asked what they learned from their adventure.

“Compromise, working together,” said Eliana.

“Taking other people’s opinions into consideration,” added Luis.

From a teacher perspective, Kovash said she enjoys seeing kids stepping outside of their normal social circles in school.

“One of the questions we asked in their journals is who do you see differently, and it’s rewarding when we read the journals and kids write about someone in their group who they’ve had the opportunity to see in a different light or really appreciated when they helped out,” Kovash said.

Eliana added that it was fun to see students who were shy at school be more outgoing and expressing themselves.

“It was a good experience to grow closer to our classmates,” she said.

“We are fortunate to have great support from the administration and it takes a lot of sacrifice from the teachers in the building too,” said Kovash “We appreciate what they do and the support of the middle school staff.”

When asked if they would do it again, the room went silent, the four of them took a quick glance at each other, then the laughing started again. That may have been a yes.

The eighth-grade staff would like to thank the following parent chaperones:  Laura Paurus, Stacy Lung, Jason Reed, Chris Mensing, Jodee Ebeling, Eric Pazdernik, Matt Johnson, and Rochelle Becker. They would also like to thank the following businesses and organizations for donations that make this trip possible for all students: 549 Foundation (travel expenses), Perham Women of Focus, Arvig, Perham Lions, KLN Family Brands, Bremer Bank of Perham, Perham Rotary, Jennie-O-Turkey, and Kit Masters.

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