Family life

Toronto school cancels camping trip: Safety concerns?

Typical outdoor activities result in the cancellation of a Toronto school's camping trip. One mom wonders if we've gone too far.

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Gillian enjoys some outdoor fun. Photo: Jennifer Pinarski

When I was in grade five, our class went to a rustic sleepaway camp north of Haliburton, Ontario. For three days we tipped canoes, swam in lake water so cold it took our breath away and played capture-the-flag in the dark. Most of us had never been away from our parents before, nor had many of us used an outhouse or slept without a nightlight. I was horribly homesick, but I forged friendships I still treasure and developed skills that I still use today.

That was 22 years ago. And times, they have changed.

Read more: Top 10 camping spots in Canada>

This past Friday, the Toronto Star reported that a grade eight class at Amesbury Middle School cancelled a field trip to Camp Walden due to safety concerns. The usual activities at the Bancroft-area camp—such as archery, canoeing, swimming and campfires—were deemed unsafe for the students to participate in. Proof of insurance, accident safety routine documentation and swim tests couldn’t be obtained in time for their June 10 departure date, leaving staff with what they thought was their only option: to cancel a trip the students had been looking forward to and which took nearly a year to plan.

“For the teachers and students who had gone there previously, everybody loved it—they do a bang-up job and make the children really have something to look forward to,” Amesbury Middle School teacher Lenny Chiro tells the Star.

“Amesbury was one of the first schools to come to Walden,” camp co-owner Sol Birenbaum says. “That was seven years ago, and we were so proud they trusted us to send their kids to us.” Birenbaum also told the Star that the camp’s safety requirements exceed those of the school boards.

Instead, the grade five class will be going to Niagara Falls for the day.

Reaction to the story was swift, with everyone pointing fingers at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). But after reading the Star’s story, I can’t make head nor tail of who exactly is to blame. Is it the TDSB for saddling the trip with extra paperwork? Is it the parents for wanting to protect their kids from camp activities? Or is it the school staff for taking an all-or-nothing approach by immediately cancelling the trip instead of modifying the activities so kids could at least spend some time in nature? One thing is for certain: the students are missing out on a life-changing opportunity.

A friend and teacher in Manitoba wrote, in my opinion, the best response when I posted the article on Facebook. “I understand both sides and it saddens me. As a parent and former summer camp director, I think that there are few experiences as valuable to students as camp and outdoor ed. As an educator who becomes the one responsible for the student’s safety during these activities, the professional consequences of something going wrong are too significant for me to assume… and the court of public opinion needs someone to blame in every accident.”

If only all trip organizers were as determined as Kevin Callan to get kids into the wilderness. “Cutbacks, rising costs and the ever-looming threat of litigation are all reasons that school boards are hesitant to green light wilderness trips,” writes the outdoor enthusiast and Happy Campers columnist in Canoeroots. He describes the hoops he had to jump through to get permission to take a group of at-risk high school students on a backpacking trip. “The trip almost didn’t go ahead—the handwringing and misplaced fear left me frustrated.” Luckily for the students, Callan’s persistence paid off.

“It’s well documented that outdoor programs encourage mental and physical health,” he says. “Outdoor adventure experiences increase self-confidence as students are encouraged to navigate new challenges, manage new risks and practice self-care. Risk exists in the wilderness and on the playground. It’s on the road, on the water and even in your home. It’s inescapable. Better to learn to manage risk and grow from that valuable experience, rather than try to hide from it.”

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Photo: Jennifer Pinarski

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think the TDSB and school staff are completely faultless, but I think unless we parents bravely lead the way by celebrating outdoor play—and the risks that come with it—bureaucracy and anxiety will kill any hope that our kids will get the chance to have the same kinds of memories and life skills we gained from our youth. Yes, it’s easy to blame the TDSB for going overboard, but remember that when school is out for summer there are two glorious months that kids can be outside. Away from the red tape and rules of school, I challenge you and your kids to climb trees, go canoeing and do things that frighten you just a teeny bit.

Read more: 50 essential summer activities>

There is absolutely nothing to lose from taking these risks and so much to gain. To put it bluntly, our kids will be so much happier and healthier if we grown-ups would just get out of the way and let kids play.

Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences about giving up her big city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband, while staying home to raise their two young children. Read more Run-at-home mom posts or follow her @JenPinarski.