A fresh look at outdoor learning

A fresh look at outdoor learning

L ucas Newton, ’12, believes outdoor education is more important than ever, considering most students were stuck learning behind a computer during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Lucas Newton
Lucas Newton

He is the director of Kanuga’s Mountain Trail Outdoor School—a 1,400-acre outdoor classroom located in Hendersonville, North Carolina. Newton is in charge of their educational programs, budgeting, risk management and hiring and training of staff.

He has facilitated outdoor experiences for students/campers since 2003 and also serves as an adjunct instructor for the Wilderness Leadership and Experiential Education program at Brevard College. 

His students appreciate the hands-on experience they get from learning about nature and its vital role in the world. And it shows. 

Lucas Newton and his students discuss sourwood trees and how to identify them.
Lucas Newton and his students discuss sourwood trees and how to identify them.

“I've had a lot of personal experience facilitating backpacking, mountain biking and rock climbing,” Newton said. “But Dr. Will Hobbs’ class at Georgia College really taught me how to teach and connect with students in the outdoors and bring them to a place where they feel comfortable.”

His favorite class was Principles of Field Leadership taught by Hobbs. 

“My path led me to Georgia College to get my master's degree, and I’ve had so many great connections with kids and just being outdoors,” Newton said. “I'm just grateful that I've discovered something I’m not only am passionate about, but something that’s for the betterment of education and the world.”
– Lucas Newton

“That class really opened my eyes to what experiential education can be,” he said. “Dr. Hobbs put the onus on students to come up with the curriculum and design the class, making it not so focused on the teacher as the bearer of all knowledge.”

Newton was teaching even before receiving his master’s degree from Georgia College. But he didn’t realize he could be more effective in educating others about the outdoors until he experienced Hobbs’ class.

“Dr. Hobbs really emphasized the student-first learning aspect of it,” Newton said. “That was an eye-opening experience that taught me you can learn from your students, as well, because he would give us the opportunity to plan our trips.”

“I see him as a professor—the first one to be like, ‘I don't know all the answers,’” Newton said.

The class went on a wilderness trip to Oconee National Forest near Monticello, Georgia. Then, for their second trip, Hobbs informed them they could go anywhere they wanted to, including flying to Utah. The students chose the Big South Fork recreation area in Kentucky, where they did lessons for seven days. To this day, Newton wishes he could take this course again because of the experiences he now applies to his work.  

Lucas Newton instructs students about how to use a small type of wood (kindling) to start a fire.
Lucas Newton instructs students about how to use a small type of wood (kindling) to start a fire.

Newton starts his days welcoming approximately 100 students to Mountain Trail Outdoor School. He oversees staff to make sure they’re able to facilitate this experience for the students. At the school, they conduct two, three-hour classes during the day. The classes include forest ecology, canoeing, geology and more.

“The students really take these classes seriously,” Newton said. “It's that special kind of connection to nature and others because they don't get a lot of that in school.”

He developed a nature explorers’ program for home-schooled children ages four to 12 years on Tuesday afternoons. Newton told the students to disassemble a beaver dam one day, but also led a discussion about the flood damage a beaver dam can cause.

“Just seeing these kids in the outdoors and some of the things that they say and do just cracks me up,” he said. “The kids were in the creek just ripping apart this beaver dam. This little girl, Priscilla, said, ‘this is the best day ever.’”

“This really just made my heart happy,” Newton said.

“Seeing kids being able to play outdoors has really been missing as far as social and emotional learning goes,” Newton said. “For the past year-and-a-half I just feel bad for kids having to learn behind computer screens at such a young age for extensive periods of time.”

The value he sees in outdoor learning stems from experiences like leading a two-week backpacking trip and canoeing class in the Adirondacks of New York. His group summited Mount Marcy—the highest mountain peak in the state. 

Lucas Newton, third from right, and his students reach the pinnacle of Mount Marcy in New York.
Lucas Newton, third from right, and his students reach the pinnacle of Mount Marcy in New York.

Newton’s group of students had diverse backgrounds. Some students were from Brooklyn, New York. There was a child actor who hated the outdoors but went on the trip so he could appreciate his more comfortable life in the city. Another student, a ski instructor, was so charmed by the outdoors that he tried to catch fish with his bare hands.

“I'm getting chills up my spine just thinking about this experience,” he said. “We had a big, challenging summit day. We had big packs on us while we were climbing over rocky boulders. We couldn't see anything due to heavy fog, and the kids were struggling. But, when we reached the top, the clouds broke for us for an ephemeral amount of time. So, we could see a 360-degree view of all the mountains. The wind was ripping through us and the clouds were coming up at us.”

The students bonded over this moment, and it’s still one of the most powerful experiences Newton’s had. 

Lucas Newton feels exhilarated after his summit to the top of Mount Marcy.
Lucas Newton feels exhilarated after his summit to the top of Mount Marcy.

“I really believe this type of tactile, experiential learning is what inspires me in this world,” he said. “As a learner, I didn't do well with sitting in class with books or behind a computer screen, but then I discovered this type of hands-on learning. You can still learn science concepts by getting outdoors. Its practical knowledge.”

He also enjoys mentoring staff. Newton attributes this joy to the people who mentored him along the way, like Hobbs.

“’I've had mentors throughout my outdoor education career,” Newton said. “And now that I’ve become a director, I couldn’t have gotten here without the guidance from Dr. Hobbs and the professors/supervisors I’ve worked with.”

“My path led me to Georgia College to get my master's degree, and I’ve had so many great connections with kids and just being outdoors,” Newton said. “I'm just grateful that I've discovered something I’m not only am passionate about, but something that’s for the betterment of education and the world.”

For more information about Mountain Trail Outdoor School go to mtos.kanuga.org.