Bounders: Far More than Forest Games

Bounders: Far More than Forest Games
Carroll School


Over 50 years old, Bounders remains much the same in spirit, but it has advanced to meet the needs of Carroll students today.

Nestled among a sturdy stand of pine and oak trees on the Lincoln campus, in a shaded area of woodland, a group of eighth grade students carve homemade baseball bats from harvested logs. Earlier that morning, a team of seventh graders, fitted with harnesses, belayed each other on the high ropes course. A sixth grade class also made an appearance, cooking popcorn in a dutch oven, over a campfire they had prepared themselves.

To the untrained eye, these scenes appear simple enough: Groups of kids playing in the woods. But to any Carroll student who has passed through the school’s four-and-a-half acres of forest—affectionately known as Bounders Woods—the experience is far more meaningful, at times, even revelatory.

“Bounders was transformational for me, personally and professionally,” says Will Close ’11, who, after graduating from MassArt, returned to Carroll to help direct the program for Middle Schoolers with 10-year Bounders veteran Dave Johnson. Will recalls discovering, in its very woods, a passion and talent for working with his hands. “It’s the only outdoor education program of its kind for students with dyslexia, and it is exhilarating—an honor—to help shape it for Carroll students today.”

“I know what it means to have a teacher who’s there for you, who makes school a good experience, who is the one opening the door to something that will become your life’s passion. For me, that was my Bounders teacher, and I’m excited to be that person for a student today.”—Will Close ’11

Founded in the early 1970s, shortly after the school opened, on traditional Outward Bound principles—self-reliance, independence, exploration, and community-building—Bounders Woods, and the programming it makes possible, has always been tightly woven into the fabric of a Carroll education. Time spent in nature—intentionally away from the classroom—being active, trying new activities, exploring, struggling, problem solving, working together, and finding success is central to the school’s mission: giving every child what they most need.

And it’s why Bounders is designed to meet kids where they are. That might mean allowing them to choose between two different activities, depending on their interests and level of risk tolerance. “We coach kids on how to be responsible and mature, how to take a break when they need it, but also how to push their comfort zones,” explains Dave.

Over the last five decades, Bounders Woods has evolved from a basic outdoor education space into an increasingly sophisticated experiential learning environment, complete with a high and low ropes course, a campfire, yurt, greenhouse for wintertime activities, bird study zone, maple sugar evaporator, and climbing tower. Its approach has evolved, too.

Over a decade ago, Scott Fairley, the program’s previous director, began introducing the art of woodcrafting with hand tools, referred to as sloyd. Dave and Will continue to emphasize manual skill-building, including sawing, splitting wood, and firemaking, as well as bushcraft, an awareness of and reliance on nature. It’s a concept that underscores the focus of Bounders today—teaching students how to work in and with nature, how to slow down and experience a deeper connection to it.

These mindful, real-life experiences in nature—working with tools that require skill and focus, adapting to the rain and cold, building a shelter, or listening for the call of one of dozens of migratory birds that pass through the woods—are impactful for Carroll students. 

“It’s fun to watch as the kids start to take responsibility and push themselves, whether they’re making a spoon from a tree branch or climbing higher on the ropes course,” Will says. “They get to a place where they feel like they belong and want to help others.” 

Structured as a Multis, like art and music, Bounders allows students to rotate through several five-week sessions during the course of the school year. While the original Bounders Woods is based on the Lincoln campus, Dave and Will occasionally travel to the Upper School to provide similar programming for students there. And Nate Gregory, their counterpart at the Lower School, oversees a smaller-scale version of Bounders on the Waltham campus, laying the foundation for what students will encounter in the Middle School. 

“I have the kids try an activity I call ‘sit spots.’ I tell them to find their own space, away from everyone. For some kids, the edge of their comfort is the field. When they come back, I ask, ‘What did you notice?’ Bounders gives them this unique environment in which to grow their confidence—to explore, wander, stretch their curiosities, and to create a common bond over the space.”—Nate Gregory

“Many students arrive at Carroll having never felt an abundance of success in school,” Dave reflects. “Bounders hands them a simple tool to craft something with wood, or gives them confidence as they scale the climbing tower. These little nuggets of independence make all the difference; they create ripples of positive experiences that build waves of success.”

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