It’s often said that off-site retreats promote social bonding, and they do. Students form new friendships, particularly important in a class drawn from 45 different elementary schools. Yesterday, I drove out to Fort Flagler State Park to join the new sixth grade class for their retreat activities. I saw the students interact in ways that help develop additional skills that will serve them well in their classes and community life at UPrep.
The genius of a retreat lies in the unique combination of structured and unstructured activities. To a student, a school day is largely structured, with objectives, activities, and outcomes largely designed by teachers. Time outside of school is either structured like school (soccer practice or dance rehearsal) or completely unstructured (going to the park or the mall with friends).
A full retreat day consists of only a handful of time chunks: breakfast, group activities, lunch, choice time, dinner, and evening activities. This contrasts starkly with the many divisions of the shorter school day. At a retreat, the adult presence is always there but in a role much less directive than a classroom teacher. Retreat chaperones set the guardrails for student activities, and then students are left to themselves to move activities forward.
At the retreat, these semi-structured activities provided the ideal training ground for the development of interpersonal and reflective thinking skills. I saw students work together to solve collaborative challenge activities. They communicated, supported, questioned, thought creatively, celebrated successes, and grappled with failures. At other times, students together figured out how to erect tents, protect picnic tables from the rain, cook dinner, assign cleanup duties, and more.
During choice time, groups organized activities like pickup soccer on their own, with just a little support from nearby adults. Assigned groups worked together to design, practice, and deliver skits in the evening. Teachers led individual reflective activities, and students were always free to find an introspective spot in the forest or on the beach during choice times. Informal groups decided to comb the beach for jellyfish, crabs, and skipping stones. I have never before been asked so many questions about ocean life!
Students experimented with different friend groups, using the socially conducive spaces of walks through the forest, collaborative games, and choice time to get to know a good number of their new classmates. Compared to the rest of the school year, these groups were unusually fluid, loosely structured by campsite but encouraged to mix and reform over the course of the three days.
On Monday, students will return to the regular school schedule of classes, clubs, rehearsals, and sports. The relationships and skills developed during the retreat will carry over into math groups, science projects, and dance performances, among others. The memory of interactions at the state park will encourage them to approach school life with confidence, knowledge, and an open mind.