YOUTH DEVELOPMENT IN NATURE: An Interview with Karen Pittman

About the Author

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 is "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.

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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. We’re delighted that Karen is one of our keynote speakers at the 2019 Children & Nature Network International Conference next month. I recently (virtually) sat down with Karen to explore her views on the importance of connecting all children, families and communities to the natural world. — Richard Louv

Did you have experiences in nature that helped form who you are today? As a child or an adult?

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.

You’ve spent your career launching youth development organizations and initiatives. Tell us what youth development is and how you became involved in this work?

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It is interesting that people rarely ask what early childhood development is, but frequently want to make sure we are working from a shared definition of youth development. Youth development first and foremost is a stage in the ongoing process of social, emotional, physical, cognitive, civic and moral development that begins at birth and continues, in many ways, throughout life. We now know that the development of all of these competencies starts in early childhood but continues through the adolescent and young adult years. These skills and competencies are not only malleable they are extremely responsive to contexts. The youth development approach is an intentional, prosocial, assets-based approach that engages young people wherever they are, providing opportunities for them to foster relationships and tackle challenges that allow them to build and use all of their skills.

I learned the definition and importance of the youth development approach from David Weikart, founder of the High Scope Educational Research Foundation. Weikart developed and validated the importance of using an active learning approach with all children and youth, and produced landmark studies (e.g. Perry Preschool Project) that demonstrated the lifetime power the active learning approach for improving the preparation and success of disadvantaged children and youth. High Scope is known for the Perry Preschool Project study which contributed to the development of Head Start. I was one of the first camp counselors at the High Scope Educational Camp for Teenagers, the summer setting in which Weikart’s active learning approach was translated into practice. The intentionality behind recruiting and training college students to create what could be described as an ungraded free choice learning community for teens was incredible. My career is a straight-line trajectory from these experiences.

Your career has seen many impressive milestones including serving as director of former President Clinton’s Crime Prevention Council and working with retired Gen. Colin Powell to create America’s Promise. What are the career accomplishments you are most proud of?

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On the policy side, I am extremely proud of the work we were able to do at the President’s Crime Prevention Council. I say “we” because Merita Irby, the Forum’s co-founder, and Thaddeus Ferber, the Forum’s Policy Director, were integral players in this short-lived effort.  While in place for just under two years, the Council provided us the opportunity to demonstrate that it is possible to develop concrete frameworks and strategies for helping communities align and leverage the plethora of federal programs (over 300). It took 20 years, but these lessons were finally codified into law. The Performance Partnerships Pilot program allows communities to apply for consolidated waivers to combine or direct discretionary funds from different federal agencies to support an integrated approach to improving specified youth outcomes.

On the practice side, I am proud that the Forum was able to bring Dave Weikart’s contributions to youth development into the national spotlight. In 2008, the Forum formed a joint venture with High Scope to create the Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality. The Center became a unit of the Forum in 2010. Working with over 130 networks, it is a leader in empowering education and human service leaders to adapt, implement and scale best-in-class, research-validated quality improvement systems to advance child and youth development.

How does a lack of access to nature factor into the challenges that youth face?

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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.


Can you share any stories about the benefits of nature for opportunity youth?

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.

How does nature and the outdoors fit into the work of the Forum for Youth Investment?

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It doesn’t in a direct way since we don’t work with young people or individual youth programs directly. It does, however, in our insistence that it is important to name and expand the range of environments in which young people live, learn, work and play. One of the reasons we push back against the popular term “after-school” is that it tends to be associated with a narrower definition of these places. I am not the only High Scope alumnus at the Forum. We are constantly looking for opportunities to expand the dialogue about the settings for youth development. We can certainly do more to highlight natural settings and would welcome the opportunity to work with C&NN more closely.

In your experience, what are the biggest challenges facing youth today?

One of the biggest challenges facing youth is that they are being taught, trained, treated, and assessed by professionals who have a limited understanding of child and youth development and an even more limited understanding of the impact that context has on how young people behave and respond. This means that young people, especially those who are “different” from the norm in any way, run a high risk of being misinterpreted.

Come see Karen Pittman in person at the 2019 Children & Nature International Conference in Oakland, California May 16-18.


Additional Reading & Resources

The Forum for Youth Investment 
THE NATURE OF EQUITY: An Interview with Dr. Gail Christopher
WHY I WEAR JORDANS IN THE GREAT OUTDOORS: A Natural Leader Builds Bridges Between Worlds
BALM IN GILEAD: Racism as an Environmental Issue, Nature as a Healing Force
RESTORING PEACE: Six Ways Nature in Our Lives Can Reduce the Violence in Our World
PEACE LIKE A RIVER: There’s a Time for Hyper-vigilance and a Time to Pay a Different Kind of Attention
THE WILD: An African American Environmentalist Faces Her Fear
ALL CHILDREN NEED NATURE: 12 Questions about Equity and Capacity
THE FIERCE URGENCY OF NATURE: New Generation Works for Human Right to Connect with Natural World
ALL CHILDREN NEED NATURE: Three Major Advances at IUCN World Congress
SAVING THE FIELD OF DREAMS: Natural Cultural Capacity in Our Parks
BROTHER YUSUF’S GIFT: One Man Who Made a Difference


Photo Credits: The Forum for Youth Investment

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