Kayaking, hiking, camping and making s'mores sound like summer-exclusive activities done with family, but for Beechwood School students in Menlo Park, getting outdoors is part of the school curriculum.
The nonprofit private school's outdoor-education program gives its kinder-prep to eighth-grade students opportunities to escape their usual surroundings and explore new places during unique trips. The school serves more than 100 low-income families from Menlo Park and East Palo Alto.
"The idea is to take kids who might not otherwise have the opportunity to do these kinds of things outdoors and expose them and their parents, who come along on the trips, to (nature)," said Melinda Christopherson, development director/finance manager for the California Family Foundation, which funds Beechwood. The trips also demonstrate how "inexpensive and rewarding" nature trips can be, she added.
The outdoor program is funded through private donations and grants, including a $5,000 grant from the Palo Alto Weekly's Holiday Fund this year.
The educational expeditions vary: kinder-prep students go on a day hike, and second-graders camp overnight at the school. Fifth-grade students go to Yosemite, and seventh-graders kayak to Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay.
Before their fourth-grade camping trip to Big Basin, students reviewed a list of equipment and decided what to pack.
"The idea is they figure out what to bring based on the list and try to do it without their parents' help," fourth-grade teacher John Laurance said. "They do a practice run with the tent. We put them in groups and bring the tents out onto the lawn, and the kids really work on their own to get through the challenge of putting together the tent."
The students also learned about the animals they'd see at Big Basin, what the park looks like and how to respect the environment, Laurance said.
Students Bryce Ammons, Isaiash Coria and Johno Price participated in a group hike and a solo hike, played tag, made s'mores and took part in a talent show, among other activities.
"When we first got there we unpacked and set up our tents, and we went on a hike," Bryce said. "We saw lots of banana slugs and lots of plants you can eat."
They also saw plants they needed to stay away from, Isaiash added, like poison oak.
The trip introduced the students to a variety of challenges, including hiking by themselves.
The objective of the less-than-a-quarter-mile hike was to "observe and listen," Laurance said, adding that the students were separated by about 30 seconds.
"It allowed us to have time by ourselves, and maybe if we're quiet, more animals can come and we could hear other animals instead of being with our friends and being loud," Isaiash added.
Jordan Clark's and Lala Niu's kayaking trip to Angel Island was a rewarding -- and challenging -- experience for the two students, they said. They had never been in a kayak or camped outside before.
"It let me get away from my family and explore something on my own, especially the camping part because I didn't know how to camp," Lala said. "My friends had to help me roll up my sleeping bag and figure everything out, but we got through it together, so it really built a sense of community for me."
The seventh-graders had to prep and cook breakfast, lunch and dinner and cleaned up after every meal.
"Me and most of my friends were in the breakfast crew, so we had to wake up earlier than everybody," Jordan said. "I was so tired. I was smelling the food and I wanted to eat it."
The night before, the students had gone on a hike by the moonlight, Lala said. They ascended Mount Livermore, the highest point on Angel Island, where they gazed at stars and enjoyed the 360-degree view of the Bay Area.
"I liked when we got to the top because -- it's weird -- my class is usually loud and it was so quiet, and you could see everything, and you could even hear the crickets," Lala said.
For seventh-grade teacher Megan Tang, the trip was also a way to bond with her students.
"We do our Angel Island trip in either September or October, so it's actually the first outdoor-ed trip that occurs in the school year. ... So for me it's an opportunity to get to know my students," Tang said. "When you're together for 24 hours straight, and you're sleeping in the same big room and cooking meals together, you learn a little about each other and they learn about me."
For their eighth-grade adventure -- a four-day excursion -- Lala, Jordan and their fellow classmates get to decide where to go. Laurance said that past destinations have included San Diego, Seattle and Lake Tahoe.
"We want to go to Denver," Lala said, smiling.
"Sky's the limit when they're planning," Christopherson said. "Let's go to Denver, Colorado, but let's figure out how to get 22 people to Denver, how much does it cost and how much can we raise."
The students will need to research the activities and whittle the list down to a "more reasonable and feasible trip" before they make a budget and raise funds, Christopherson said.
"I've gone on a couple of trips with them," Christopherson said, "and to watch them get out there and to see them realize they can do tough things is rewarding for both them and us."
Donations to the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund can be made at the Holiday Fund page here.