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HIGH SCHOOLERS NEED NATURE, TOO! Why It's Hard to Connect

About the Author

Rachel Needham is recent high school graduate living in Charlottesville, Virginia. She loves backpacking, rock climbing, kayaking, skiing, and writing about all of them. She spent two weeks in the backcountry of the Sierras with an Outward Bound crew in 2011, and in 2012 she and a friend took a month-long road trip across the country. She is a certified Wilderness First Responder and hopes to become a wilderness EMT. She is excited to share her enthusiasm and love of nature with children, peers, and adults both locally and nationally.

Last year, as Rachel Needham finished her senior year of high school, she wrote this fine piece about why she needs nature, the barriers to that experience, and why we all need a reality — or nature — check. 

As a high school senior preparing to apply for college, I am drowning in advice from teachers, parents, friends parents, parents’ friends, my boss, and even a random old man in a library (interesting story, maybe for another time).

I’m glad for the advice, because even though I’ve got my all my big-girl teeth and I have a driver’s license, I’m really still just a kid. But of all the advice I’ve gotten, no one has ever told me, “hey, academics are important, but go somewhere that also inspires you to play outside.”

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I want to play outside. After all, I really am just a kid. And even though adults have all their big teeth and many have driver’s licenses, they’re all just kids, too. And all of us, big and small, need to be somewhere that inspires us to be outside.

To some extent, high school kids are forgotten.We’re not kids, and we’re not adults.

When I was a sophomore, I worked in a restaurant with a lot of college students. “Do you go to UVa?” They’d ask. “No, I’m actually in high school.” The reaction was always the same. The face would droop with uneasiness, and then they’d ask, “So you’re a senior?” Nope, not even a junior.

From that point on, they wouldn’t talk to me the same way. “Can you get me some napkins” turned into, “Rachel, could you please go into the storage closet and on the left at the bottom of the shelf you’ll see some packs of napkins, it would be great if you would bring me some.”

No one knows what to do with high schoolers. We get in trouble. We drink, we smoke, we do drugs, and some of us do all three while driving — or at least that’s the perception. Unless you yourself are the parent of a teenager, or a cop (and even then), I imagine you’d really rather just ignore us. I don’t blame you.

But regardless of how we are perceived, we high schoolers need to be outside just as much as our little brothers and sisters.

Our nature deficiency is not always caused by an addiction to the internet, or video games, or TV.

A lot of it is school-related. When I’m stressed about my homework load, my dad will say, “Just go outside for thirty minutes. You’ll feel better.” I know he’s right, but the idea of “not doing something,” even for thirty minutes, absolutely fries my brain. “I don’t have time to go outside.” I’ll say.

I’ve talked to a lot of friends about the fact that we struggle to get enough exercise, to take a break, or to go outside and just get some sun.  There are two problems with this struggle (besides the fact that it’s a struggle in the first place).

Problem number one is that we all feel as though exercise or going outside for thirty minutes is the equivalent of doing nothing. After all, it’s not like we get credit for doing it. If we really need to take a break, we might as well at least pretend we’re still doing homework and hop on Facebook, or stream a TV show online. And if it just so happens that thirty minutes go by? Oops.

Problem number two is that we really don’t have any time. Those of us who try to maintain good grades often have longer days than our parents. We’re all coffee addicts, insomniacs, and worker bees. A lot of us have resumes that are so impressive I almost want to laugh. And the amount of homework given to us nightly is sometimes outrageous.

We take ourselves way too seriously. High school kids do not have recess, we have after-school sports. And while sports are great, sports are just as mentally challenging as school is. Drills and two-hour practices are commitments of the body and the mind – that’s probably why they build character.

Sometimes, we youngsters need to get a grip on reality. We need to go outside and be human. Not students, not athletes, not children, not adults, not employees, not popular, not unpopular, not nerdy, not artsy…you get the picture.

Labels like these don’t allow us to be in the here and now. They make us want to be better students, better athletes, better children, better adults, better workers, more popular. But work will be ready for you tomorrow, school will be there too, and practice is still happening from four to six thirty. We need to be aware right this minute. To notice when we’re stressed and simply to go outside, listen to the clouds, feel the sun (or the rain), and come back to ourselves.

Kids are important because they are our future. So are teenagers. When we speak of them, we are speaking just as much of ourselves. Remember that you, too, are a child, and a teenager, and the future. Let’s try harder to go out and be human —and let that thirty minutes have its day in the sun.

Learn more:

Join C&NN’s Natural Leaders

The Child in Nature: A Film by Miranda Andersen, 13, about Nature-Deficit Disorder

Peace in Nature: Aylee Tudek, 16, Shares Her Sense of Wonder

A Path in the Woods: How a Young Refugee Found a Future in Nature

10 Comments

  1. Excellent article, and why we (SOLE) are consistently pursuing avenues to provide affordable and accessible experiential education opportunities for our local area schools. An example of this work includes a multi-day expedition SOLE facilitated over spring break for Coeur D’alene School District students. Participants were exposed to curriculum centered on outdoor leadership, winter ecology, snow science, environmental awareness and stewardship, outdoor living and travel skills, human and natural history and free-play. They commented how it was not only a fun experience, but perhaps the most significant learning experience of their school career. As educator, it is moments like these which reinforce my belief that it is imperative to listen to our students needs – especially that which supports their own personal development, as well as, emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.

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  2. Really well-written article. Thank you, Rachel. Getting to know you a little bit inspires me to work harder to provide outdoor opportunities for teens here in South Florida, with the canoes of Wildlife Research Team.
    Any college you attend will be lucky to have you. Best of luck in whatever endeavor you choose.
    Your friend in Nature,
    Donna Kazo

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  3. As a teacher at a girls boarding school, we are always talking around the real issue of getting girls outside. Thanks for this first hand account that gets to the heart of the matter.

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  4. Love the article and agree, nature connection is crucial for young people to really get in touch with themselves and the reality of the world. Thanks for writing. I coordinate a youth program on the central coast for the Ventana Wilderness Alliance called Youth in Wilderness. We offer environmental education backpacking trips for high school students and stewardship trips for university students.

    Also, for those nature hungry young people entering college, check out the extraordinary field programs offered by the Sierra Institute, http://extension.ucdavis.edu/unit/sierra_institute/. Spend 9 weeks backpacking for academic credit! Truly life changing.

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  5. Rachel, you are so right…We do forget the high school student. You are much closer to the furure of the enviroment and preserving nature as we know it. I enjoyed your article and will be sharing it with others here at Lourdes University……THANK YOU Marge

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  6. You are so right Rachel. As an outdoor educator it seems next to impossible to engage our local high schools in attending a program. There is so much that can be done outside the four walls of a classroom that is curriculum based. I think all teachers should read your article and start taking students outside. My colleague and I would like to change nature deficit disorder to nature distraction disorder.

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  7. Thank you, Rachel, for your beautiful and on-the-spot writing. I think your advice would equally apply to adults. We also need to remember that we can take 30 minutes out of our “busy” lives to reconnect with the outdoors, and with each other.

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  8. Glad you’re realizing this now. I was an over-achiever type in high school, had to play sports so I would have an excuse/obligation to go outside, but didn’t let myself just go out and be nearly enough. I often wasn’t home during daylight hours on weekdays anyway- too many extracurricular activities. The big nature restoration at the academically excellent college I attended was just a perk when I chose the place, but it ended up really making the experience for me. Yes, it was an excellent academic and professional development resource, as I went into ecology research and education, but more importantly, it kept me sane and grounded. It took some big struggles through my teens and early twenties before I realized that I truly need outdoor downtime to have a worthwhile and, yes, productive life; I can’t afford to let work exclude it from my schedule. If I had had this realization, and academically-sanctioned encouragement and opportunities to act upon it, in high school, I think I could have been a much more light-hearted and broadly-educated kid then I was, which would have helped me grow in all the ways that matter. When working outdoors with teenagers since, I’ve seen them happily learn all kids of important things, academic and otherwise, in a way that would be difficult or impossible to recreate inside, no matter how much technology is there. I think you’re right that we worry about allowing this kind of learning more for little kids, and there’s no good reason to stop there. So, I think you’re making a great point. Good for you.

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  9. Illene Pevec

    Hi Rachael,
    Even though I now have a grey hair I still remember how utterly exhausted I was in high school working very hard until late at night pretty much every night to get into the university I wanted to attend. I was lucky that I lived in Colorado where I could also unwind on the ski slopes in the winter or hike and camp in the summer to restore my sanity. I have been studying for the pat 7 years how contact with nature in school gardens affects young people in high school. If your high school has a garden or your town a youth gardening program for weekends or after school you may wish to try that as an activity your senior year to give your mind and body the outside time that will help you relax and let the stress dissipate. Every high school student I have interviewed (more than 80) across the US has said that gardening does this for them: peace.

    Reply

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