Get Kids Outside
Originally published in the Fall 2019 issue of Spoke+Blossom
When looking for innovation in the field ofresearch establishing the effect of nature on children’s health, the densely-populated, urban neighborhood of Oakland, California, paints an unexpected backdrop. Yet Dr. Rashin Noozani, a pediatrician at USCF Benioff Children’s Hospital, Oakland, and her team in the Stay Healthy in Nature Every day (SHINE) program recently published some powerful, peer-reviewed studies connecting long-term health, especially for children, with time spent in nature. Their findings support the long-held, but not previously clinically tested, belief that nature reduces stress and anxiety and supports strong immune systems which lead to fewer chronic health conditions as an adult.
RESEARCH SAYS GET KIDS OUTSIDE
These studies are ground-breaking as they provide replicable data and validated protocols to prove that people, especially children, are far more healthy when they go outside. Focusing her work on the children of families living in poverty and those more at risk of facing toxic-stress situations early in their development, Noozanie hopes to create a stronger connection between doctor’s offices and local parks by “prescribing nature.” Her urgent call to those interested in the long-term health of the next generation, whether they are doctors, parents, teachers or community leaders, is to help get America’s children back outside.
In the Grand Valley, nature seems a lot closer to us than it does to the residents of Oakland. We have the Book Cliffs, the towering ochre beauty of Colorado National Monument and the confluence of two major rivers. For many of us, it is the work of a weekend to get lost in a maze of beautiful public lands, unplug and let stress evaporate under starry skies. However, what every local public school teacher and nonprofit leader knows is that not all residents of the Grand Valley see it that way. Getting into the great outdoors or taking time to walk through a park is a luxury that requires time, money and transportation, as well as sufficient background knowledge and the confidence that you are actually welcome there.
Yet, as research like Noozani’s — connecting health and happiness to time spent in nature — piles up, local school districts, nonprofits and volunteers are still pushing back against the false assumption that anyone can get outside if they want to. Below are three local examples of groups who provide different ways to engage kids more with the beautiful natural world surrounding us.
IN THE SCHOOLS
Nearby in Parachute, School District 16 has recently taken impressive strides in establishing a vibrant and inclusive outdoor education program. According to Clint Whitley, the new outdoor education coordinator for the district, “the biggest challenges for families to get outside are gear, transportation and know-how.” The school district is working to overcome these hurdles through a major grant from GOCO Inspire.
Besides funding his position, Whitley explained that the three-year grant has helped build a vibrant gardening community at the elementary and middle schools. Students can take classes in how to become junior master gardeners through a partnership with 4H/CSU and tend the food garden under a new garden dome at Bea Underwood Elementary school.
Off-campus, the grant has also provided for experiential and adventure programs for students that most would not otherwise be able to afford. The school district offers trips, classes and after-school programs for middle and high school students interested in rock climbing, river rafting, archery, fly fishing, hiking and camping.
Often, these more skills-based programs that require specific gear involve a partnership with an already established community group or organization. For example, Blue Sky Adventures takes the students rafting in Glenwood Springs; Roaring Fork Anglers provides fly-fishing opportunities and gear; Colorado Mountain College provides a high-ropes challenge course in the summer, and hunter safety classes and archery are offered under the instruction of a Colorado Parks and Wildlife expert.
“I can’t connect every child [to nature], but if I can connect one or two, then it’s a success. It works like a pyramid scheme, really, if you get one or two [hooked], then they get their friends outside, and then their friends and family, and it spreads through the community.” Whitley says.
In Grand Junction, the school districts work with a variety of nonprofits who offer outdoor opportunities to their students. One of these providers is Colorado Canyons Association (CCA), a nationally-funded management organization for local conservation areas. Their youth education programs work with a collaborative model that allows it to push programming into classrooms by bringing the kids outside. In some cases, whole grade levels can explore the archaeology, geology, fossils, plants and animals of McInnis Canyons, Dominguez-Escalante and Gunnison Gorge Conservation Areas.
Rob Gay, director of education since early this year, knows how important it is to offer access to nature without an associated cost. “We are working actively to make sure outdoor experiences are available to all, not just those with means. By working with donors and applying for grants, we make sure all our programs are free for schools and students.”
Currently, CCA brings half of all the third-graders from Mesa County, along with every sixth and seventh-grader from Delta County, to explore the paleo trail in McInnis Canyons Area.
At the high school level, CCA provides programs for youth in residential programs to spend time outdoors in smaller groups. Gay recalls one moment clearly when a young woman of about 16 was sitting on a rock above the Fruita Paleo Area and, unprompted, shared a personal revelation about how sitting there allowed her to feel connection to the world which she had never experienced before.
Of course, one trip a year, or even two, doesn’t necessarily change the reality of every student: ‘‘Backyard to backcountry is a huge leap — just because you bused the kids up to the Monument once doesn’t mean that they have any way to get there again,” says Gay about the reality of changing lifelong behavior.
Gay believes that more collaboration is needed between nonprofits, school districts, community members and other local organizations to offer outdoor opportunities to all the kids and families who need them.
HANDS-ON INDOOR LEARNING
Another approach to connecting kids to nature is, as biologist Jessica King puts it, “to bring the outside inside.” Inside the Mesa Mall, in fact, The Children’s Nature Center (a 501(c)3 nonprofit) offers kids hands-on experiences of the natural world. “Visitors, including school groups, can tell us what they are learning about — life cycles, pollinators, oceans, etc., and we can create a hands-on experience for them.”
The Children’s Nature Center has a small zoo of amazing amphibians, reptiles and fish to observe and learn from, as well as hands- on demonstrations of natural forces like ocean waves. They are open to families, school groups and even birthday parties.
The groups discussed above are just a handful of the organizations working to bring a healthier, outdoor lifestyle to the young residents of the Grand Valley. Others include River’s Edge West, Wilderness Lab and smaller programs within multiple public schools. All of these groups rely on volunteers and donations of gear and money.
Gay summed it up like this: “If someone is passionate about the outdoors, and they want students to cherish the outdoors, they can share that passion, whether it is for local history, wildlife, geology, recreation or anything.”
Reach out to any of these amazing programs to ask how you can get involved.