In 1965, Horace Mann established the John Dorr Nature Laboratory in Washington, Connecticut with a gift of 83 acres. The Laboratory now encompasses 320 acres of fields, streams, and ponds in which students can explore nature and engage in outdoor pursuits. Dorr’s resident faculty instructs students in environmental science, conservation, and outdoor living. Student visits begin in the second grade, with overnight programs beginning in the third grade. A 2009 $8 million capital project resulted in the creation of a new access road, the purchase of additional land, the construction of a new bunkhouse and faculty residence, and the building of a new lodge and multi-purpose barn/classroom. The project also upgraded mechanicals and utilities. The new facilities insure greater sustainability and provide more space for programming. To learn more about our LEED certified campus, click here. This Dorr setting becomes a medium for students' self-discovery through which they can examine their relationships with others and study the natural environment in new and growth-enhancing ways. As a result, the programs emphasize the cooperative aspects of living and learning as opposed to competition and individualization.
The John Dorr Nature Laboratory operates with the premise that it is vital to life on Earth to increase awareness, understanding, and appreciation of the world around us. The Dorr educational philosophy also incorporates the idea that self-esteem is a critical determinant of an individual’s growth. Our ultimate goal is to provide an environment where students can be honest about their feelings, careful in their thinking, and responsible for their actions through their interactions with the natural world and with each other. The Dorr experience demonstrates that community cannot be imposed but must grow out of experience; that it is a result of working together and relying on one another.
The activities embedded in the Dorr curriculum facilitate growth and understanding in the students. The programs are designed to encourage their development into capable, self-determining individuals. Experience-based teaching enhances the learning environment because growth in mind, body, and spirit requires active participating combined with active thinking. In order to attain these goals and to help students accept the experience as relevant and meaningful, we must create a safe, caring, supportive atmosphere, one that allows for differences and encourages acceptance. When we bring a positive, energizing, and caring force to relationships, we give each other the highest and most important gift we can offer.
For more than 50 years, Dorr faculty members have collaborated with classroom teachers to carefully design and modify each grade’s curricula. The result is a rich experience that introduces students to a different aspect of the great outdoors and compliments classroom lessons.
In addition, the students are presented with opportunities to experiment and take calculated risks in order to learn, grow and build self-esteem. Dorr teachers are often questioning students: What are your resources? What do you need to solve this problem? How will you frame this experience? What is the lens through which you want to view this? How do you want to participate in this challenge-by-choice activity?
Students must work together to prepare meals, clean the lodge and complete many activities. In doing so, students come together to form a caring and respectful community filled with camaraderie, which is then carried back to the classroom. Students learn that their mutual success hinges on their mutual concern, cooperation and respect.
Below is a summary of the activities for each grade level:
- Four-year-old classes welcome Dorr staff as they teach about camping. The program culminates with a “camping trip” in the Head of School’s backyard, complete with a campfire.
- Kindergarten classes welcome Dorr staff in the classroom as they lead activities at the Apple Fest and Earth Day Celebrations.
- First grade classes welcome Dorr staff in the classrooms as they teach about insects and life within a rotting log.
- Second grade students visit Dorr for an extended day where they fish and swamp.
- Third grade students sleep overnight at Dorr where they learn about Native Americans.
- Fourth grade students spend 3-days/2-nights studying stream ecology.
- Fifth grade students spend 3-days/2-nights in the fall focusing on how they are ending their journey at the Lower Division and preparing for their journey into the Middle Division. They take rock-climbing lessons and use telescopes to study the night sky.
- Sixth grade students attend by homeroom in August for 3-days/2-nights of orientation. They learn about the Middle Division through presentations by Middle Division administrators and Upper Division student mentors. The activities focus on team building.
- Seventh grade students attend by science class for 2-days/1-night for field studies on streams and geology. They must accumulate data and write lab reports.
- Eighth grade students spend 8-days/7-nights for a mini-Outward Bound type program. They participate in team-building and self-exploration activities, including a Night Compass Initiative and a backpacking trip. A highlight of this week is climbing the Cooperative Adventure Tower (CAT).
- Ninth-Twelfth Grades new students and student mentors come over Labor Day weekend for a 3-days/2-nights orientation. Mentors and school administrators give presentations to help these newest members of the community learn about the social and academic life at Horace Mann. The activities are designed to be fun and cooperative -- one of the highlights is traversing the High Ropes Course in small groups.
- Ninth-Twelfth Grades: Individual teachers, club advisors and athletic coaches sometimes choose to bring their own students to Dorr to accomplish a particular goal. Examples include writing poetry, drawing or studying nature as well as team-building activities.