By: Sam Piha
When I managed afterschool programs in the SF Bay area, we learned that many of the kids we served had never been on the bay, seen the ocean, planted a seed and experienced it grow into a real plant, walked in a forest or camped outside overnight. Many had never been beyond their neighborhood, owned a swimsuit or knew how to swim. Was this an equity issue? Yes.
In response, we conducted nature outings, camping trips, and swimming lessons. We even purchased swimsuits for those that didn’t have them. Because one of our lead agencies was the YMCA, we had resources for this. But every afterschool program can contribute by incorporating nature into their program.
Recent studies focus not so much on what is lost when nature experience fades, but on what is gained through more exposure to natural settings, including nearby nature in urban places. - Richard Louv
In two previous blog posts, we reviewed the power of nature in afterschool programs. Richard Louv, author and Co-Founder of the Children & Nature Network, has written a lot about the intersection between access to nature and development. He was recently interviewed by the Greater Good Science Center. We share an excerpt and link to the full interview below.
Q: How will this trend impact pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors in kids?
RL: If nature experiences continue to fade from the current generation of young people, and the next, and the ones to follow, where will future stewards of the earth come from?
Past research has shown that adults who identify themselves as environmentalists or conservationists almost always had some transcendent experiences in the natural world. What happens if that personal experience virtually disappears?
Q: Are there particular kinds of experiences in nature that seem to have the most impact on kids?
RL: The quality of the nature experience depends on how direct the experience with nature is. Are kids getting their hands wet and their feet muddy? These types of activities can help kids learn to have confidence in themselves and power to make independent decisions.
One reason for this is the risk-taking inherent in outdoor play, which plays an important role in child development. Without independent play, the critical cognitive skill called executive function is at risk. Executive function is a complex process, but at its core is the ability to exert self-control, to control and direct emotion and behavior. Children develop executive function in large part through make-believe play. The function is aptly named: When you make up your own world, you’re the executive. A child’s executive function, as it turns out, is a better predictor of success in school than IQ.
See full interview here.
Richard also gave us permission to share some of his interview with youth development guru, Karen Pittman.
RL: Did you have experiences in nature that helped form who you are today? As a child or an adult?
KP: I grew up in a working class, urban neighborhood in a family that emphasized the value of sending children outdoors to play. We did not, however, do any organized outdoor activities beyond family picnics. So it wasn’t until I was in high school that I realized that you could walk the length of Washington D.C. through Rock Creek Park, or stand on the waterfront of the Potomac River. Learning this was liberating. To this day, I seek nature to calm, inspire, reflect, and marvel at the intricacy of life.
RL: How does a lack of access to nature factor into the challenges that youth face?
KP: The Chicago Consortium for School Research defines successful young adults as those who have an integrated identity, a sense of agency, and a range of competencies. Getting to these end states requires young people to have access to safe, supportive, relationship-rich opportunities to act and reflect while being challenged to learn and master new things.
Nature is an ideal setting for young people to learn new content, try new things, apply their skills in different ways and fail safely. Nature is a new environment for many young people – one that they haven’t explored. One of the challenges many young people face is that they don’t have comfortable opportunities to be in a group of young people in which they won’t be immediately judged for what they don’t know.
We learned, at High Scope Camp, the importance of challenging groups to learn and do things that none, or few, youth had done (e.g. folk dancing). These are “clean slate” learning opportunities in which some will shine, some will struggle, but it is not clear who will fall into which camp. Beyond exploration, nature also provides young people with ample opportunities to have a sense of agency, to achieve mastery and to flesh out and expand their sense of identity.
RL: Can you share any stories about the benefits of nature for opportunity youth?
KP: I believe that there are studies on the importance of programs like the Fresh Air Fund. But I’ll quickly share a High Scope story. The camp was billed as an educational camp for teenagers. Their jobs, for about 4 hours a day, were to participate in one or two short exploratory classes and longer workshop experience that culminated in a product or presentation. The setting for all of this learning, however, was several hundred acres that included trails, a small lake, and a working farm. In addition, all youth participated in overnight camping or canoeing trips. These were powerful experiences for all of the young people.
But for young people from more distressed communities or stressful situations, the main impact was that they had the experience of learning that nature can be a safe place. One that, unlike their communities, has challenges that you can predict and prepare for. Then, as noted, the second important learning for these young people is that they could become leaders in a broader learning setting in which academics is not the main measure of success.
See full interview here.
There are many resources and articles on development and nature as well as program ideas. Many can be found by doing a web search of “nature and children”. There are also resources listed in the full interviews cited above. We also urge readers to take a look at the Children & Nature website.
Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of ten books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," "The Nature Principle," and "Vitamin N." His newest book, "Our Wild Calling: How Connecting to Animals Can Transform Our Lives — and Save Theirs." In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal. He speaks frequently around the country and internationally.
Karen J. Pittman is president and CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment, a national nonprofit, nonpartisan “action tank” that combines thought leadership on youth development, youth policy, cross-system/cross-sector partnerships and developmental youth practice with on-the-ground training, technical assistance and support. Karen is a respected sociologist and leader in youth development. Prior to co-founding the Forum in 1998, she launched adolescent pregnancy prevention initiatives at the Children’s Defense Fund, started the Center for Youth Development and Policy Research, and served as senior vice president at the International Youth Foundation. Karen was involved in the founding of America’s Promise and directed the President’s Crime Prevention Council during the William Clinton administration.
Sam Piha is the founder and principal of Temescal Associates, a consulting group dedicated to building the capacity of leaders and organizations in education and youth development.