My wife and I were recently hiking up a canyon in Glacier National Park and joined a small group of students on a research trip with their botany teacher. It started to rain and we all got soaked, but the feeling of connection we had with these students and the joy coming from each of them as we continued to walk and talk in the rain became part of a peak experience.
We were each alive with vibrant energy, rain and all.
Days later, we were hiking on Mt. Washburn in Yellowstone National Park and met a group of multi-racial teenagers who were part of the Overland Summer Program.
They were from cities all over the U.S. and, with the Overland leaders, were filled with an excitement and energy that I rarely see in teens in their daily lives in school. It was the first wilderness experience for each of them.
These are not isolated experiences. Every time we explore these parks we are personally renewed and infused with a feeling of being alive that often gets lost in our routinized lives. We always meet or observe kids of all ages who I know are experiencing life-altering experiences.
Each time the experience reminds me of how little the connection between kids and the wilderness is part of the school experience and I’m reinforced in my belief that this should be a priority in schools.
Synchronistically, just after we returned, my wife found this article about a program that uses nature photography to help at-risk teens.
The focus is on using the wilderness experience to help at-risk kids. But the fact is that most of our teens are in some way at risk and can benefit equally from these programs.
To cap off these reminders of the importance of the wilderness for kids, I recently saw Richard Linklater’s film “Boyhood.” Among the memorable moments in the film are a few set in the wilderness in which the boy, Mason, becomes unusually open and intimate with his father in one scene, and with friends in another.
In the final scene, he joins his roommate and two young women in skipping a freshman mixer at the university and instead going to Big Bend Ranch State Park, a beautiful wilderness area in Texas. Mason and his new young female friend have an intimate conversation against this backdrop as the film ends. Linklater clearly has a sense of the importance of place and of the wilderness in the process of growing up.
I spend a lot of time with adolescents who are alive with ideas and energy, but are wrestling with feeling trapped in their lives, including their lives at school. Mason struggles with that in “Boyhood.”
Most kids need that opportunity to escape from this feeling of being trapped and the wilderness is often a very successful path. This should be woven into the schooling experience, whether through an exploration of a local beach or wilderness park, or through planned extended wilderness excursions.
Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods” is the best resource for ideas. But it needs to begin with teachers and parents. They need to have this experience themselves. To that end, you might also take a look at Louv’s most recent book, “The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age.”
I know this isn’t part of Common Core and is implicitly a low priority, but I can think of no better way to help kids get out of the rut of their lives.
There is something about being in the woods, encountering wildlife, dealing with ice on a mountain climb, feeling rain on a trek through new territories, that can be life changing. Let’s make sure we give our kids that opportunity.
Additional Reading and Resources