Wilderness Schools

Because there are several different types of wilderness schools, it’s important to know the different kinds and what their aims and purposes are. This article sorts out the different types of wilderness schools and when they’re appropriate choices.

What Are the Types of Wilderness Schools?

There are at least four types of schools that can be referred to as wilderness schools. Here’s a breakdown:

• First, there’s a particular school called “Wilderness School” in Australia, which is probably not what you’re considering, if you live in the United States. Closer to home is the Vermont Wilderness School near Brattleboro, Vermont that offers training for different categories of people (school children aged 7–15, young adult women aged 12–16, and adults) in which they learn about nature, including activities such as:

  • animal tracking
  • harvesting wild edibles
  • building friction fires
  • creating shelters

Similar schools, which may or may not have wilderness school in their names offer weekly meetings, camping trips, or an extended learning experience that focuses on ways we can interact with nature.

• Second, there are wilderness schools that focus on outdoor skills combined with leadership skills. Such programs include the National Outdoor Leadership School and Outward Bound Wilderness Program. These may focus both on survival skills and skill in outdoor athletic pursuits.

• Third, The Wilderness School in Connecticut, supported by the Connecticut State Department of Children and Families (DCF), has the goal of preventing problems for adolescents, intervening in problem situations involving adolescents, and providing transitions for adolescents who have been in difficult situations. The goal of prevention is what set this wilderness school apart.

• Fourth, in this typology of wilderness schools is a group of programs that use the wilderness setting to provide therapeutic services to young people. They are referred to on the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP) website as “Wilderness Programs,” and of the 23 schools listed as being accredited and having membership in NATSAP, nine are in Utah.

Some of these wilderness school that provide a therapeutic program focus on training in the outdoors, while others combine wilderness education with an academic program. Because the programs involve challenging outdoor activities, they do not accept very young children: many of the programs have a 13- or 14-year-old age minimum, while a few accept children as young as 10. Several have an age cut off in the teens, but others accept young adults into their 20’s, with one accepting enrollees as old as 28, though it is customary to separate adult and teen groups. There are both coeducational, boys only, and girls only options.

These wilderness schools vary in the types of problems they are prepared to address. Wilderness Treatment Center in Marion, Montana, for example, only works with boys who have been diagnosed as “chemically dependent,” but a number of them list a range of issues that may include mood disorders such as depression, low self-esteem and poor school performance, truancy, substance abuse, self-defeating behaviors, bowing to peer pressure, and refusal to accept responsibility for oneself.