Learning from Children: The Importance of Outdoor Education and Leadership

By Elena Gustafson
January 2009

Imagine you've grown up in a city. Your haunts are public transportation and the shopping centers; you've never spent a night outside in your life. Now imagine you travel hundreds of miles, all by yourself, to explore the "wild": you enroll in a wilderness canoe trip in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota. You join eight strangers and set of for a week paddling across the border lakes, bringing with you only what you can carry, sleeping in tents, going to the bathroom in the woods, cooking over a fire.

While to many of my friends this type of adventure is exactly their cup of tea, with a majority of the urban youth I've led as a wilderness canoe guide, this is a terrifying experience. We tend to fear what we do not know, and increasingly for youth in our society nature is connected with fear.

In a time when environmental problems are so abstract, it is essential to have complete knowledge of them. This doesn't just come from what we learn in the classroom or in books. We need both academic and experiential knowledge to carve out a sense of understanding and place in our increasingly global and complex world. Environmental problems are going the be the pinnacle challenges of the next generation, and it is essential that youth are given outdoor experiences as part of the knowledge base from which they will address these problems.

Children in America today, more than at any other time in our history, lack opportunities to explore nature. This is where outdoor education comes in. I've been an outdoor leader in many different capacities over the past five years, often for youth with no previous experience in the wilderness or even hiking around in a local park. Providing youth with their first experiences outdoors, giving them a sense of place in their surrounding environment, is an amazing experience, but it also comes with great responsibility.

We need outdoor experiences for both our physical and emotional health. As Richard Louv notes in his book "Last Child in the Woods," children with more access to nature, whether that be parks or simply overgrown vacant lots near their homes, received lower ratings for behavioral conduct disorders, anxiety, depression, and obesity than peers with less access to nature. Youth now know about climate change, about rain forest destruction half a world away, about overwhelming environmental problems at earlier and earlier ages. I've heard 5-year-old children talk about how the earth is "sick."

If we don't give children tools to deal with these issues, what will the impact be--in both their health and their future actions with regards to these problems?

Being an outdoor leader and environmental educator has provided me with some of the most challenging yet most rewarding experiences of my life. Every trip is a humbling experience, recognizing the courage of inner-city youth coming out to the woods or youth admitting their fear of heights yet being supported by a group of peers to make it to the top of a rock-climbing wall. The joy and amazement in a child from seeing a wildflower, playing in the snow, and tasting a wild blueberry--for the first time--continues to buoy my spirit and passion.

Often our lives pivot around moments of epiphany--we may not realize it at the time, but our paths shift and we gain a new perspective. Outdoor experiences for youth, I believe, are essential to creating a relationship with the surrounding world, one that ultimately impacts environmental choices. As an outdoor leader, you provide the opportunities for those pivotal moments, through the challenge of creating safe, positive, and fun educational experiences. I've learned a lot about myself from being an outdoor leader; I've gained technical skills and naturalist knowledge. But I continue to learn the most from the children I lead, through the inquisitive perspective with which they look at the world if given the chance.

This year PEEC is expanding on this idea by offering training in outdoor leadership for high school students. Participants will learn about group management, games, safety, and education for elementary and middle school students in PEEC's programs.

The free workshop will be held on Saturday, January 10, from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. at PEEC (3540 Orange Street-behind the high school). Students who participate do not have to sign up to be a leader in PEEC programs; there will also be information about other local outdoor leadership programs that will be taking place this summer through the Volunteer Task Force. The training is also a great way to gain valuable leadership skills for college and beyond.

For more information about the Outdoor Leadership Workshop, please call 662-0460 or visit www.PajaritoEEC.org. The program is free and lunch will be provided, but please call to reserve a spot.

Elena Gustafson is a junior at Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA and graduated from LAHS in 2006. She is majoring in Enivronmental Humanities, and spends a lot of her time at college working with the Youth Adventure Program, a program she founded to provide outdoor opportunities for at-risk youth in the Walla Walla community. She will lead the Outdoor Leadership Workshop this Saturday.


Return to PEEC website Articles by Local Authors.