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Student Retreat: Why It Matters

Just before returning to school for the year, our faculty took our Upper School students on a four-day retreat to a state park. We did this, not because we thought it’d be especially relaxing—nearly every parent commented that we were “brave”—but because we believe it to be an invaluable part of holistic education. Taking students, especially teenage students, out of their comfortable routines and placing them in the wilderness—albeit a heavily manicured wilderness with air conditioning, an industrial kitchen, and working sinks and toilets—helps both their personal development and that of the school community in a number of ways.

A retreat to nature is a retreat from noise

It doesn’t take an especially insightful cultural critic to see that we live in a noisy society. Everything competes for our attention, the noise growing louder the more we try to ignore it. This is doubly true for teenagers: at whom culture is marketed and for whom social technologies are designed. The result, more often than not, is that our young people are lost in the noise.

Social media is a zero sum game of impression and image. As young people scroll through their Instagram feeds and catch up with friends’ snap stories, they’re bombarded with the interesting, exciting, and glamorous lives their peers project. Social media only receives the best; only says, “Look at my life, isn’t it interesting and exciting?” So despite the fact that everyone is awkward and insecure, each person traverses life assuming—with the evidence of social media to enhance his claims—that everyone else has it figured out. Teenage insecurity is only exacerbated by the bombardment of perfected images on social media.

As such, a retreat to nature, where the phones are put down and real, vulnerable engagement with peers is encouraged, allows for a distancing from noise and false impressions.

A retreat to nature levels the social playing field

It seems that something in human nature wants to create stratified societies. For whatever reason, we feel more comfortable interacting with others when we can place them into a category for interpretation and understanding. These categories quickly become rigid, locking students in to particular social circles for the duration of their school experience. This is only exacerbated by the shallow impressions they gather of others through social media and surface-level interactions and can, in turn, create a school wherein entire groups of students never know one another or interact.

This, like the social media noise, is all but obliterated by a retreat to nature. Just as all are equal in the eyes of God, so are all equal when eating spoonfuls of mystery baby food (What can I say? I make them play strange games). The team nature of prepping meals, sleeping in an unfamiliar place, and generally being thrown off from routine does much to push students out of the boxes they’ve built for each other. It’s hard to uphold a shallow image in the wilderness. It’s hard to remain aloof and mysterious when a loving teacher makes you play a game wherein you have to run about holding a dead fish. It’s hard to be cool when you’re screaming in fear at the counselor hiding in the woods saying, “Boo!” during a night game.

The retreat, then, both in its setting and its schedule, encourages students to set aside preconceived assumptions about one another and simply engage as people.

A retreat to nature is a reminder of humanity

People fall easily into the trap of defining themselves based on what they do. Teenage students are entrenched in this more than many adults. If you ask a teenager who they are, they will almost invariably respond with a list of hobbies and activities in which they participate: “I am an artist;” “I am an athlete;” “I am an honor roll student;” “I am a musician.” These labels are limiting and appeal to stereotype over holistic humanity. The athlete who sings is an outlier, if High School Musical is to be believed. The structure of teenage society demands that students stay in their lanes despite the fact that mere humanity knows no such boundary.

A retreat to nature offers a remedy to this issue. Students are plunged into new activities that don’t fall within any of their spheres of experience—this is why creating weird camp games is so important. They are given minimal opportunity to retreat into their boxes, and are instead encouraged to encounter one another as mere human beings. Their leisure time is true leisure time; not filled up with endless activity and busyness. Students eat meals together and must choose to either converse or be bored. They find common ground with those who were just acquaintances. They seek new understandings of those about whom they assumed to have already known everything. They sit around the campfire and discuss the things that really matter to them when the posturing of everyday life is a distant memory. For a few miraculous moments under the stars, our students get to simply be.

Part of teaching a student holistically means teaching them to rest, to make good friends, and to love one another. Retreats accomplish this in a world too often made of vanity and smoke.

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