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Friday Feature: Riverside Club for Adventure & Imagination

Colleen Hroncich

Peter Searby probably didn’t seem like someone who would become a teacher. “I didn’t enjoy school as a boy,” he admits. “I’ve always been a bit on the creative side and somebody who’s a very active learner and wants to get outdoors.” Even as a teacher, he often felt stifled. “I found that most of the time the classrooms were very passive learning and more of an information transfer rather than kind of a true fellowship of creativity and trying to find your gifts,” he adds.

He tried to bring his creativity and love of the outdoors into the classroom. “I started doing adventure trips with boys. Canoe or kayaking trips down the river and we’d camp out on islands,” he recalls. But school leaders said it was too risky and would be an insurance liability. To Peter, it seemed there was more to it than concerns about risk. “I kept trying to force into the system certain experiences that often didn’t fit in the schedule or in the curriculum,” he recalls. “Over the years, I’ve noticed that schools are dominated by the ideas of curriculum and content and testing and just trying to get kids to college. So they sort of neglect some really important experiences you could have as a kid. Not all schools. I know I’m speaking in general here, but at least in my experience that was what happened a lot.”

Riverside Club students helping a teacher carry a canoe

Around 10 years ago, Peter decided he’d had enough and was going to start his own organization that focuses on the things he loves—and the Riverside Club for Adventure and Imagination was born. While there are some offerings for girls and families, the main programs are for boys. Riverside incorporates creative arts, outdoor education, and building things. It’s rooted in the Catholic faith, but there are participants from many different faith communities.

“Faith, a sense of fellowship along the journey, creative arts, outdoor education—I wanted to start something focused on all of these things. I wasn’t sure what it would be at first, but I started meeting with homeschool families. And I realized they are a lot of unschoolers out there trying to find every means possible to inspire their kids,” says Peter. “I told them what I wanted to do, which was sort of to give an adventurous and imaginative experience to their sons. And they said, ‘Well, that’s what we’re looking for.’ And it’s been lacking in the market. There aren’t many people, as far as I can tell, doing this sort of thing in this way.”

The heart of Riverside is the tutorial. Boys ages 8–13—called apprentices—gather once a week for a variety of creative learning activities guided by tutors. Tutorials are held four days a week this year with around 30 boys attending each day. Peter keeps the number low so each tutor only guides a maximum of 10–12 apprentices.

Peter and the other tutors collaborate at the beginning of each year to create a curriculum based on a theme. The apprentices all work on similar projects but tiered based on age. “This year’s theme is survival, so everything has to do with survival in some way,” explains Peter. “We do live radio shows and film. The boys write stories. We have music—they sing songs and memorize ballads. We do something where they have to write stories for our role‐​playing game, and then they play it. So it’s a really cool way of learning writing, because if your writing isn’t fun, then the story and the game isn’t fun.”

Riverside apprentices also create something called a legend box, which the tutors use to help them understand storytelling and first‐​person writing. Going along with the survival theme, this year’s legend box focus is surviving an alien attack on the world. “The idea is like a time capsule,” Peter says. “So you open up the box and the end goal is that you have a first‐​person journal of this character in another world who’s writing a diary. You have items that he carried on himself, like maps and drawings. So the idea is that you get the inklings of another world through a time capsule that this character kept.” At the end of it, the apprentices have the box and all the items, and they display of all their boxes. Peter says it’s a fun way to teach the kids about storytelling and lets them experience the creativity of building a fictional world.

To get the kids started, the tutors create their own legend boxes as a model with journal entries, drawings, and games. And they make sure the kids see where they (the tutors) could do better. Peter says, “That helps them see that the creative process is messy, and you fail a lot along the way. And they get used to the idea that the expectation is not perfection right away. You have to keep trying, keep messing up.”

Riverside Club students gathered around a fire pit

Peter recently released a book called Casting Fire: A Guide to the Adventure and Imagination of Boyhood. “After 10 years [of Riverside], I have a very good understanding of what we do and why. So the book is a vision of education for boys and just a way to teach more creatively and adventurously. But it’s not a curriculum,” he says. While he doesn’t want to franchise his ideas, he does want to help others create similar opportunities for boys. He’s planning to write another book to give more concrete advice on how to bring a Riverside‐​type program to other areas.

For anyone looking to start something like Riverside, Peter has some good advice. “I’d say it’s all about finding the person or the leader who has a vision,” he says. “These type of teachers, sometimes they’re in a school, but they don’t quite fit in. They’re always trying to do something super creative. They often have a more personal relationship with their students. There’s a bit more soul craft, I guess you could say, in this sort of education. It’s about inspiring minds and hearts and developing a real fellowship together. So you have to find the right people. I think a lot of people make a mistake that it’s about curriculum. But for me, it’s all about finding that person who has the gift to inspire other people.”

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