Why Urban Kids Need to Spend Time in Nature! - #outdoors

original blog posted by Adventurous Moms here at Adventurous Moms

I did not go tent camping as a kid. I grew up in the inner-city, and the closest my family ever came to communing with the outdoors was a trip to some sort of family camp when my sister and I were very little. I have hazy memories of the experience, but based on the one photograph I could dig up, we stayed in a canvas tent built on a wooden platform. There were no sleeping bags involved – we slept on cots made up like beds. Food was not cooked over a campfire, but served in a mess hall. It was very similar to the one summer I went to girl scout camp – I didn’t learn much in the way of how to set up a tent, navigate through the woods, or explore my natural surroundings.

Fast forward thirty years later, thanks to Kendra, I am an avid camper and hiker. I have gained so much from my outdoor experiences, (such as a sense of peace, increased self-esteem, physical and mental strength, and an appreciation for the beauty of nature) I wanted to expose my urban students to similar experiences. Upon the suggestion of my friend Meg, a fellow urban educator, I started an Outdoor Adventure Club at my school.

This past weekend we took 28 members of the Outdoor Adventure Club on their first overnight camping trip! We partnered with the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Youth Opportunity Program which provided us with the resources, food, and gear that made the weekend possible.

We arrived at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Noble View Outdoor Center in Russell, MA on Saturday morning after a two-hour drive on a yellow school bus. For the next hour, the kids participated in ice-breakers and trust building exercises run by the AMC staff. A lot of the kids had never met before (we have a school of 3,500 students!), so it was a great opportunity to learn each other’s names.

It was very interesting to watch the kids participate in these activities – they were not easy for them. Granted, some of the issues came down to language barriers (we had four Burmese refugee students, and several newly immigrated Cambodian students, with us on the trip), but it quickly became clear to me that the kids didn’t have a lot of experience working as a team to solve a problem. Which brings me to point #1


Stumped and Fall

Urban kids can benefit greatly from the teamwork and problem-solving skills learned through outdoor activities.

Some kids develop these skills through sports, but many of my students do not have the time or the money to participate in organized sports – they are too busy working jobs to help support their families. Though difficult, these activities helped transform my students in a very short period of time. They began to work together, using their collective knowledge to find solutions.

During lunch, we talked to the students about our expectations for them, and their responsibilities. One thing we stressed was that Noble View was a Leave No Trace site, meaning we had to pack out all of our trash and be respectful of the other users of the center. It was a great moment to teach the kids a few of the basic principles of Leave No Trace principles.

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare

  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

  3. Dispose of Waste Properly

  4. Leave What You Find

  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts

  6. Respect Wildlife

  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

Which brings me to point #2:

Urban kids can apply the Leave No Trace principles used in outdoor adventures to everyday life. They are more than just a set of guidelines for nature enthusiasts – they are excellent tenets for being respectful and conscientious in any environment.

After lunch, the AMC staff taught the students how to set up their tents. The Youth Opportunities Program provided the kids with their tents, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, hiking boots,wool socks, fleece jackets, rain gear, daypacks and water bottles. This kind of equipment is often a barrier between urban kids and outdoor adventures. The kids had a great time picking out their tent sites and setting them up.

Once our gear was in order, the kids split into three groups and went on a scavenger hunt. Again, I was somewhat surprised by the difficulty such a task posed. Very few of them felt comfortable reading the maps they had been given, nor did they know how to tackle the problem set before them. Instead of discussing what they needed to find, and making a plan, the students began wandering around the grounds. With some help and guidance, they learned how to communicate with each other, read the map, and create a game plan. Which brings me to point #3:

Urban kids can benefit from the navigational skills learned by using a map to follow a trail and reach a destination. These same skills can be applied to urban travel as well.

After dinner, the AMC staff took the kids on a night hike. Without the aid of flashlights, they were forced to use their other senses as they walked through the woods. There were periodic stops during which they learned about how bats find their prey, how owls hear, and how the human eye works differently during night hours. New words, including nocturnal, diurnal, crepuscular, and triboluminescence, were added to their vocabularies. In just an hour, they learned a great deal of science.

Upon returning from their hike, the kids were rewarded with s’mores and hot chocolate. Many of them had never made s’mores before, so it was a lot of fun teaching them how to pick out a good stick to use, how to roast the marshmallow, and how to put it together with the chocolate and graham cracker. In the meantime, I gave an impromptu photo lesson to a small group of interested campers who had brought their own cameras. The “super moon” was out this weekend, so we had a great opportunity to take some fantastic pictures.Which brings me to point #4:

Urban kids can benefit from the experiential learning available in nature, including science, math, astronomy, photography, and history.

Sunday was a shorter day. After eating breakfast and packing up camp, we led the kids on hikes through a small portion of the 34 miles of trails strewn around Noble View. We taught them more map reading and navigational skills, including how to interpret trail blazes. At one point, as we walked along a stream, I had the kids close their eyes and just listen to the surrounding sounds.

Sweat trickled down the faces of the kids as we climbed up steep terrain, hopped across streams, and squeezed through narrow trails. One kid remarked how she was tired because she was usually, “a lazy bum.” Which brings me to point # 5:

Urban kids can benefit from physical activity of hiking and other outdoor activities. As the obesity rate among children skyrockets in this country, spending time exploring nature can help urban kids stay physically fit.

Though the hike proved difficult for many of the kids, there were smiles all around when we finished. As we enjoyed lunch, the kids talked about the trip and what they had learned. One theme that echoed among all of the students was that they were surprised by how strong and capable they were. They were incredibly proud of themselves for learning how to set up tents, conquer their fears of nature (spiders, ticks, and the dark!), and physically push themselves on the hikes. One of our immigrant students expressed his delight in learning new communications skills. Which brings me to point # 6:


Thirty Five

Urban kids can benefit from the self-esteem and self-efficacy developed through participation in outdoor activities.

After lunch we had a few hours of unstructured time before the bus arrived to pick us up. During their downtime, the kids played!!! One group sat in a circle and played word games; another group found a tennis ball and using a stick as an improvised bat, made up a game similar to baseball; others read books – for fun! Because we had banned mobile phones, iPods, and all other electronic devices, the kids couldn’t bury themselves in technology. Which brings me to my last point:

Urban kids can benefit from unplugging from technology, and the unstructured play found in the outdoors. Such play develops creativity and social skills.

Needless to say, we had a great time and everyone learned a lot – about nature, each other, and themselves. It was amazing to watch the kids, who began the weekend afraid of bugs and lacking communication skills, end the weekend with a sense of calm and newly developed teamwork skills. If just one weekend can have such a transformative effect, imagine what regular nature excursions could do for urban kids!