Spelunking teaches students to take care of each other

Barbara Hootman

During a recent spelunking field trip, Montessori students experienced a hidden world that many people never get to see.

Swannanoa Valley Montessori students toured Worley’s Cave in Bluff City, Tennessee, turning weeks of classroom study about caves and rock formations into hands-on experience in a real cave. The caving field trip gave the students the outdoor experience that the classroom could not. The field trip was part of the school’s TAASC (The American Adventure Service Corps) program. It offers outdoor adventures like caving, hiking, paddling and rock climbing year-round.

The caving field trip was much more than looking at rock formations under the earth.

“When children get an opportunity to go on an adventurous experience like the caving trip, they get to participate in something real,” Greg Gillett, TAASC director said. “They learn and understand that there are real consequences involved in what they are doing.”

Gillett said what the students learned in the classroom - to step up, be responsible and show leadership - made the experience successful.

Stefanie Wielkopolan, an assistant elementary teacher and one of the faculty members who traveled with the caving students, was surprised at how much the students used that they had learned in the classroom.

“I was surprised at how well everyone worked together and supported each other,” Wielkopolan, a first-time caver, said. “The students had been studying about caves for about a month, and what they learned in the classroom really showed.

“We spent about two hours in the cave, and the students stayed focused the whole time. Some of the older students had been on an earlier caving trip, and they helped the younger ones. Students of the same age were also quick to help each other. As a teacher, I was impressed with the students.”

“Students learn on an adventure outdoor trip that everyone can lead and no title is needed,” Gillett said. “It depends on who knows the right information at the right time and also who has the initiative to do something to make things happen. Students look for opportunities to share skills, leadership and help their group move forward. There is always backup available, but the power comes from the children feeling that they did something important by themselves.”

Mae Marcus, a second-grade student, said the caving trip was a lot of fun. It was also “a little scary and really wet inside the cave,” she said. “I got the cave clay all over me. I didn’t get cold because I had a lot of layers on. I was never really afraid, and I want to do it again. I saw cool things like rock formations coming out of the floor and some others coming down out of the top. I would go again with my friends.”

Fourth-grader Nyle McGillicuddy thought the caving trip saw many of the rock formations that he had learned about in the classroom.

“It is awesome being in a huge cave and getting to explore everything with your best friends,” he said. “There was a lot of mud slides. They are fun and not dangerous. I saw a couple of small bats, and a lot of rock formations. The column was the best where the rock from the floor and the rock from the ceiling meet. I was never scared because I had my friends with me. My grandfather and I are looking for caves to explore together. I want to go on another caving trip soon.”

Gillett sees the outdoor field trips as learning experiences in ways that cannot be achieved in the classroom.

“The lessons the children learn are around creating a physically and emotionally safe environment,” he said. “Physically the students must be safe and responsible and not get injured. They must communicate with each other, stay organized and support each other. They have to help each other do things like fix their clothing, pack their bag or show one another a way to get around an obstacle.

“These type skills can only be truly learned on an adventure expedition like the caving trip. Students learn technical skills for wilderness travel, safety protocols, and basic first aid skills. They learn what to do in an emergency and develop their judgment about what is risky and what is safe.

“Individually students get a chance to realize they can do more than they thought possible. They can do something that they thought was hard, and it increases their grit and determination. It also increases their interest in adventure and exploration.”

Each year, the Swannanoa Valley Montessori School students enjoy a fall camping field trip, and a late winter caving, hiking, paddling or rock climbing field trip.

For more about TAASC, contact Gillett at 299-9844 or