If you see Chris Costa on campus, she might coast by you on her sticker-covered bike, issuing a warm greeting with a broad smile. If you stop to chat, she’ll tell you she’s on her way to lead a group of Primary Circle students on an adventure. Where to? you might ask, knowing that the location of their excursions varies each time they venture out as part of the Lower School’s placebased science curriculum. Today she and her students are on a mission to extract sap from the many maple trees around campus. “It’s amazing what you can notice and learn when you pay attention to nature’s profound rhythms,” she says as she sets off to collect the buckets they will need for their endeavor. Later in the year, she’ll be working on Middle School canoe prep in anticipation of one of the division’s annual adventures. It’s a heavy lift — both literally and figuratively — requiring thousands of pounds of equipment in support of each grade’s excursion. But she’s not alone. She’s supported by enthusiastic eighth graders hauling canoes, tents, coolers, and paddles.
The Middle School canoe expedition program is scaffolded, meaning the duration, difficulty, and distance increase each year. First, each grade practices foundational skills on the school’s 14-acre lake; they learn technique and safety as their comfort and skills grow. The program starts with an overnight trip in sixth grade, an opportunity for classmates to bond over the unique experience of paddling and hiking together in an unfamiliar setting. For some students, this is second nature and for others, it may be a stretch outside their comfort zones. Costa and the team of Middle School faculty who accompany them are prepared to support all ranges of experience and delight in the exuberance of students trying something new. The program builds into a more remote overnight excursion for seventh graders and then a larger multi-day program for the eighth graders. During their adventures, they’re learning everything from ethical land stewardship (using Leave no Trace principles) to technical skills, to community building and the capacity to work together as a group. Almost predictably, at the end of each trip, the students return to Westtown tired, a little dirty, and a lot closer as a grade.
Costa might also talk to you about ropes, but not in the conventional sense that you’d expect from an outdoor educator. Sure, she has hiking and climbing experiences planned with the Upper School Outdoor Leadership program, a co-curricular at Westtown, but her ’ropes’ are metaphorical and the explanation is equal parts logic and magic. She believes that each time you have an interaction with the land, you create a little thread of connection between yourself and your environment. And when Westtown’s students have the opportunity to connect in an unfamiliar space — maybe to retrieve an errant paddle, or to encourage a weary classmate to keep going to the summit, or to learn about the way the ecosystem functions — there is an opportunity to create a new thread as well. Costa theorizes, “As you continue to have these experiences in nature, you are building more and more threads that grow into a bit of string.” The fifth grade might adventure onto a hike to Westtown’s Elephant Rock. On their way, they’ll take part in a naturalist walk, paying close attention to the flora and fauna they encounter on their journey. They’ll talk about the history of the land and then they might build a fire, similar to the way 13-year-old Brian Robeson did in Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, a text they have just finished reading in the classroom. The strengthening of the thread is almost imperceptible, except for the fact that at the dinner table maybe one student tells their family that they want to go on a hike over the weekend, another eagerly points out a tree in their backyard that’s similar to the one they passed on their walk, or another chooses playtime in the school’s arboretum for recess instead of selecting pajama day on their birthday (the birthday student is given the choice for the day and this is a frequent outcome).
As these experiences continue in Middle and Upper School, the string grows stronger, fortified by the many excursions exploring our campus and by the sense of accomplishment that comes from trying and learning something new. Over time, these strings thicken to become a rope. These experiences connect our students to nature, help them learn to be stewards of Earth, and utilize our rich outdoor learning spaces. This is at the heart of Costa’s work, and one of the main pillars of Environment, Illuminated, our Strategic Vision.
Students see benefits of a connection to the land outside of the classroom, too. Costa explains, “I had a student who was really challenged by anxiety and felt very overwhelmed with the general pace of life. They came to Outdoor Leadership one season ’just to try it.’ They said, ’I feel so much more relaxed when I’m here! I feel so much more connected to myself and other people when I’m outside. I feel like there is space held for me in a different way.’ Over time, that continued to be a regular opportunity for them to engage in that space and then they could transfer some of that learning into asking, How can I find space and balance for myself in other ways? How can I transfer this feeling into other areas of my life?” Costa has seen that opening and courage to try something new create the opportunity for “transformation through a connection with the greater universe, self, and others,” time and time again.
The process of self-reflection that occurs in nature allows for enormous growth. “This work — connecting with the land, exploring the outdoors, and spending intentional time in nature — is all a vehicle for self-discovery,” she concludes. “Who am I? How do I engage with people and how do I engage with this land? Am I taking care of myself? What is my responsibility?” These seem like heavy existential questions, and they could be, but the process of inquiry starts gently and can be explained through her work with our PreK and Kindergarten students. “We start with our senses. It seems basic, but they are always with us and tuning into our awareness can have profound effects. We ask students questions like, ‘What’s the furthest sound you can hear?,’ or ’What do you see and smell?’ And through those exercises, we strengthen their observation muscles — there’s a lot that otherwise gets missed. Because their senses are alive and stimulated, their curiosity is piqued and they’re totally engaged in the place, the learning, the discovery, and the sharing with each other. That is what it’s all about. By doing this critical, foundational work, we are developing stewards of a better world in a way that will undoubtedly extend beyond Westtown’s campus for a lifetime.”
Written by Anne Burns and featured in the 2022 Westonian Vol. 1