Building Connection Beyond the Classroom

Debra Finger
The bags are packed, buses are loaded, and children are (mostly) ready to hit the road. This isn’t the beginning of summer vacation, it’s the start of the overnight experiences for Shipley’s fourth, fifth, and sixth grade students and their teachers. Even Upper School Student Government leaders, deans, and administrators participate in their own overnight trip. Early in the school year, teaching colleagues, deans, and students head to various off-site locations for team bonding, learning, and, of course, fun. But what from the outside might look like a fun sleepover experience and time away from school is much more: it is where relationships are forged, communities are built, and a sense of community and well-being are created.

The fourth and fifth grade trips are experiential and purposeful, true embodiments of Shipley’s definition of educational excellence. On these trips, students are accompanied by science teacher Dan Del Duca, who uses the outdoor locations as extensions of the classroom. At the College Settlement Outdoor School in Horsham, fourth graders dedicate one whole day to environmental science. Fifth graders learn about watersheds and successions, doing bay and swamp studies in the Chesapeake, at Echo Hill Outdoor School in Maryland. “Curricularly, it’s hands-on, but more than that. You get a context about how environmental conditions affect your life and how you can be part of making a difference, making a change,” explains Lower School science teacher Dan Del Duca.

While there is a clear educational component to these two trips, spending time in the outdoors and participating in team-building adventure courses is an experience that builds both the individual and collective well-being of our students and colleagues. Mr. Del Duca says, “Being outside in the woods is an experience that helps with mindfulness. We went on a tree walk and observed sounds, spaces, and animals. There is something very special about being outdoors. It’s a place where you can really learn about yourself and the trappings of daily life can fall away.”

Our students work together as a team, recognizing each other’s strengths, learning things about themselves and their classmates, and bringing this new knowledge, understanding, and sense of belonging back to the classroom. When students feel this sense of belonging and community, they are free to learn. Similarly, the sixth grade overnight trip serves both curricular and well-being purposes. The trip was conceived as a way to help incoming sixth grade students build community and bond as they enter Middle School. The sixth grade year is a transition year with many students entering the Shipley community from other schools and returning students moving up the road from the Lower Campus.

Understanding the impact of social and emotional factors on academic performance, teachers were looking for a way to help students develop resilience and an understanding of their classmates, build some leadership skills, and have fun while doing so. Enter the Pocono Environmental Education Center (PEEC). Students participated in team-building activities, played purposeful games led by the PEEC staff, and traversed a low ropes confidence course, where they could take small but safe risks. Students also completed a bat, beaver, and water study, which culminated in a town meeting where students practiced sharing and listening to diverse viewpoints in a healthy debate about building a dam.

Sixth grade teachers have seen a difference upon returning from the trip. “Friendships are stronger, and we see a big change with our new students,” says Sixth Grade Dean Sarah Stehman. “They have strong friendships that are not just with new students (as they are when they first come to Shipley); they have strong friendships with our returning students, too.”

In the Upper School, Student Government leaders, committee heads, and the adults who advise them have a comparable experience when they go to The Shawnee Inn in East Stroudsburg, PA. The goals of this trip are twofold: First, to train students in leadership skills that these young adults will need as members of Student Government (like public speaking and event planning). Second, to build a sense of community and trust among this group since this is the first time they will be working together. Students are involved in various activities connected to developing as leaders and growing as empathic people, establishing connections, and building a sense of belonging.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to get to know the group, start planning our priorities for the year, and offer training on how to be leaders,” explains Dean of Students Anna Dejdar ’04. “We are able to come back to these lessons and sessions throughout the year, and I have seen a true togetherness form.” For all three divisions, these trips pack a lot more than just clothing and a chance to be with friends in nature. They are, indeed, a short walk to our mission and motto and reflect Shipley’s unique approach to educational excellence and achievement by helping students develop the skills and character traits to support their well-being—as individuals and as a group.


The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.