Students with ADHD have a hard time focusing in a standard classroom which leads to a difficult learning environment. It doesn’t have to be this way though. In Finland outdoor schools are familiar and effective, and now in the States they are experimenting with outdoor schools. Outside Online took a good look a SOAR to see what the future of outdoor education could be in America while examining the benefits of nature-based schooling for people with attention disorders.
Olmsted, looking back on his life, identified the problem as the stifling classroom, not troublesome boys. “A boy,” he wrote, “who would not in any weather & under all ordinary circumstances, rather take a walk of ten to twelve miles some time in the course of every day than stay quietly about a house all day, must be suffering from disease or a defective education.”
The Academy at SOAR—which became accredited three years ago—is determined to find a better way. The school has just 32 students, 26 of them boys, divided into four mixed-age houses. Each kid has an individualized curriculum, and the student-teacher ratio is five to one. Tuition is a steep $49,500 per year, on par with other boarding schools, although you won’t find a Hogwartsian dining hall or stacks of leather-bound books. The school still covers the required academics, as well as basic life skills like cooking, but finds that the kids pay more attention to a history lesson while standing in the middle of a battlefield or a geology lecture while camping on a monocline.
“We started from scratch,” says SOAR’s executive director John Willson, who began working there as a camp counselor in 1991. “We’re not reinventing the wheel—we threw out the wheel.” The school’s founders didn’t have any particular allegiance to adventure sports; they just found that climbing, backpacking, and canoeing were a magic fit for these kids, at these ages, when their neurons are exploding in a million directions. “When you’re on a rock ledge,” Willson says, “there’s a sweet spot of arousal and stress that opens you up for adaptive learning. You find new ways of solving problems.”