“Let’s go to the creek!”
Wide eyes and an expectant smile stared up at my dad. Growing up with a state park behind our house, I felt the creek had a mystical quality. We would explore for what felt like days, sliding down the hill, peering in the fox den, but mostly just crashing through the forest and scaring everything in a ½ mile radius. Once down at the creek, we’d clamber across the rocks that worked as a makeshift bridge, ending up various levels of soaked. We’d make it to the other side, “the wild,” and explore until I was too tired to walk and my dad would drag or carry me home on his shoulders, grinning ear to ear or dead asleep.
“Alright, lady, let’s do it.”
My relaxed grin and outstretched hand did little to calm the fears of the high school student I was guiding. Terrified of water, she was not happy about canoeing on String Lake, a shallow lake in the heart of the Tetons. I sat on the bow, feet planted on the dirt, legs gripping the hot aluminum to steady the canoe best as I could. Still hesitating, she grabbed my hand and gingerly put one foot in the air. “You got it, way to go!” She froze. I had broken her focus.
Squeezing my hand harder, she stepped down into the metal boat. One foot followed the other, and she immediately tucked into a tiny ball in the middle of the canoe. Our group cheered and slapped their paddles on the water. She sat frozen in the middle of the canoe, still clutching my left hand while I pushed us off the bank with my right. Slowly, her head peeked up from between her knees, her grip on my hand relaxed and even let go to point out a fish swimming under us. A week later, she was stomping through the water with her friends during our stream research.
Moments of stretching past comfort zones, building confidence and a new comfort zone, are dramatic to support and facilitate. They aren’t always so evident. Sometimes they look like observing a beetle instead of running away, asking a question in front of the whole group, or sitting alone in the wilderness for a few minutes. Spending so much of our life inside today, we are missing opportunities and experiences in the natural world to grow and develop. Many of us see more nature on Instagram than in person. We recognize scenes from Planet Earth, yet don’t know what kind of trees grow at the park.
The idea that our collective relationship with nature is fading is supported by a study that cites only 5 minutes of outdoor exercise as being enough to significantly lift your mood. Kids as young as eight spend over 50 hours a week on a device. In a poll of over 600 American teenagers, only 10% reported daily time outdoors. These jarring statistics all point to a loss of connection with nature, a further separation of our human environment and the natural environment from where we came.
Even if an extensive wilderness trip is not an option right now, outdoor education can be practiced by closely observing a dandelion pushing up between the sidewalk cracks, comparing differences between river rocks, or following the high tide line down the beach. Remember the feeling of running outside after school to play until the street lights came on? Of the forts built, squirrels chased, and knees scraped? Let’s make sure our kids get to experience some of that.
Kaitlyn is an outdoor educator who loves getting kids into the wild, whatever that means for them. She is most excited about helping students develop their relationship with and understanding of the natural world through place-based, experiential education. She has lived and worked in central New York, Wyoming, and currently calls Traverse City, MI home.