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Kids and Trails: Antidote for "Nature Deficit Disorder"

By Roger Bell

"Good trails might be viewed as close-by mobile classrooms, safe places for kids to explore nature and learn about their own neighborhoods."

Recently I had a serendipitous experience that left me personally delighted. And it significantly heightened my awareness about the importance of getting kids into more intimate contact with nature. Trails can be an important part of that effort.

What happened is that we— my crew leader and I— while building a trail near my home in Redlands, CA, had lunch one day by an access road to the San Bernardino National Forest. I noticed, next to the restaurant, an office sign for something called "Outdoor Education Science Program." Curious, I stopped in to find out what this was about. The receptionist told me they provide outdoor education on contract with school districts, mostly in Orange County, and that they lease a camp in the Forest where they take kids from schools for a week to learn about the natural environment.

photo: kids on the trail
Kids exploring the Rivanna National Recreation Trail; Charlottesville, VA

I told her that when in high school I had worked at two such camps— one in the Angeles National Forest called Clear Creek and the other at Pt. Fermin Park near the ocean in San Pedro. These camp programs were actually started by my father, who was at that time Director of Youth Services for the Los Angeles Unified School District. He had been able to convince the District, based on similar programs in San Diego, that these were legitimate forms of experiential education for kids. During the summer months when I worked, the kids came from different school playgrounds around the City.

She told me these camps still were going strong. Another lady heard our conversation and asked my father's name. She then informed me that since 1962, the year following my father's death, the Association for Outdoor Education— which he helped form and which had subsequently added the word "Environmental" to its name— had given an award to the outstanding outdoor educator in the state of California. In his name! She went on-line and gave me a write up about the award and a list of the awardees down through the years, starting with my father, given to him posthumously.

You can imagine my surprise and awe to learn about this in such an accidental way after so many years. I told them that I build trails professionally, am part of several national trail organizations, and would be glad to offer my services if they thought trails could in any way be a part of such a program. Nothing further has come of that specifically, but it did get me thinking.

Pam Gluck told the American Trails Board of a legislative effort from an east coast state to rekindle interest in outdoor learning for kids called "No Child Left Inside," an ironic way of indicating that so many programs of this sort have been eliminated in the narrowing— and frankly dumbing- down— effects of "No Child Left Behind."

Shortly thereafter, I was at an opening for a section of the Santa Ana River Trail and saw tee shirts touting what supporters were calling the "Childrens' Outdoor Bill of Rights." Also, I met someone there from San Bernardino County's Public Health Department (I thought it significant that this was seen as a health issue) involved with another outdoor education project for school kids. Once again I offered my services in helping them see how trails might be made a part of such a program. I later spoke with the County Parks trail person and reiterated my interest. He seemed enthusiastic about the idea.

(These two projects, plus a full range of ways that kids are being introduced to nature through trails, are elaborated in the new KIDS and TRAILS area on the American Trails website.)

The next and most important piece of this reawakening for me has been reading a book I highly recommend, Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. Since reading it I am increasingly aware of the healing and learning value of connecting kids with the natural environment. Louv suggests that the lack of unstructured learning opportunities for kids, indeed the actual discouragement of outdoor experience, leads to a condition he calls "nature deficit disorder," a variation of "attention deficit disorder," with dire consequences for mental and physical development.

As I read, I vividly recalled how important the out of doors was for me as a kid, and I suspect for other fellow elders as well. It was a place of freedom, adventure, and exploration. I am fortunate enough to have carried that influence into my professional life as a trail builder and so have kept in intimate contact with the natural environment.

As my new book Trail Tales reveals, some of my contacts were a bit too close for comfort! But that is another story.

Anyway, I have begun to understand just how much kids now— TV/Game Boy addicted, overly scheduled, and perhaps kept indoors and safe from perceived dangers "out there"— are cut off from that important aspect of learning and growth. We need to redress this balance. Trails may be one potent route, so to speak, for doing so.

Changes in schooling modes and curriculum have not helped. "No Child Left Behind" has, from many reports, been a failure because it puts way too much emphasis on passing tests while limiting exploration of learning opportunities considered marginal and unimportant— like the arts, physical education, and the natural environment. Kids are being fitted to the competitive world of business, their noses stuck to the proverbial grindstone, and in the process they may be missing real-life learning opportunities immediately accessible via trails and other aspects of the outdoor environment.

My thought is that good trails might be viewed as close-by mobile classrooms, safe places for kids to explore nature and learn about their own neighborhoods. Or they might be distant places to visit and encounter wilderness adventures. I would like for trails to provide not only environmental teaching opportunities where kids can learn first hand about flora and fauna, but also places to take care of and be understood as aspects of intelligent community design. Maybe something about trail layout, erosion protection, construction methods, health benefits, recreation opportunities, smart growth, community development.

How about a classroom "adopting a trail" and learning to appreciate volunteerism, getting hands-on experience maintaining trails, contributing art and interpretive aspects, nurturing the plant and animal life, perhaps helping the kids to actually become junior land stewards. I can see a whole course of study built around a program of this sort, one that combines academic and practical engagement.

My serendipitous reconnection to the outdoor education I experienced as a kid has come full circle, pushing me to connect my professional expertise with my father's legacy and to actively pursue how trails might become even more relevant to the younger generation.

Roger Bell, is a former college administrator with a PhD from the University of Washington. He has served with the Western Trailbuilders Association, Whole Access, and the Redlands Trail Committee. As a contractor, he has completed 300 projects in 14 states over the last 30 years. Roger also consults on trail issues: see www.Naturtec.com.

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