From the Trails: Youth need Outdoor Connection

It is indisputable that being outdoors provides myriad benefits to those who breathe the fresh air on a regular basis.

Research has shown that extended time outdoors improves vision, lowers stress, minimizes pain, increases white blood cell count — and can even provide as much energy as drinking a cup of coffee. With all these benefits, it is a shame that Americans are spending less and less time outdoors.

These statistics are particularly stark among children: In 2018, kids took part in 15% fewer activities outside than they had in 2012, just six years prior.

As the trail programs director for the Upper Valley Trails Alliance, I have many opportunities to work with youths in the outdoors. Each summer, we hold multiple weeks of our High School Trail Corps, which complete needed projects on trails around the Upper Valley with students from area high schools. Applications for 2022 are open now.

A large part of the program is hands-on education, often allowing students who have never done trail work the opportunity to complete complex projects, such as the construction of bridges, in just one short week. Every week and year of Trail Corps is rewarding, but we are always excited to connect with students in the outdoors in additional ways.

For a week this March, I was given the opportunity to connect more youths to the outdoors by leading an Educational Intensive for Hanover High School centered around stewardship of the outdoors, called “Champions of the Trail.” Along with a colleague from UVTA and Hanover teachers, we took a group of high school students outside each day for a series of educational activities to provide an alternative to a largely indoor education experience.

Being outside is an irreplaceable experience. For some students, it is an opportunity to use alternative learning styles that may be difficult in a classroom setting.

Our first stop was the environmental education and avian rehabilitation center at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science. The students listened to an introduction to the concepts of conservation and preservation and their relation to recreation and trails. VINS has a variety of trails to illustrate the levels of development, from small dirt paths to the towering handicap-accessible canopy walk.

I have given this same lesson many times, but it is much more impactful when supported firsthand by Americans With Disabilities Act-compliant outdoor recreation facilities and dozens of raptor enclosures showcasing rehabilitation in action.

In an era when virtually everyone has a device that can be used as a calculator in their pocket at all times, students (and adults) may struggle to understand what practical use mathematics may have in the real world. In an attempt to distill some of these abstract concepts into tangible — and hopefully fun — educational activities, for our second day of March Intensive the students broke into groups and constructed scale bridges.

To make this well-known lesson a bit more dynamic, we used our experience of building bridges in a professional setting to add some complexity. Each group was given a unique bridge design and scenario, taken from real examples UVTA has had in the past.

Once groups sketched out a scale diagram, they had to present it in front of the “trails committee” in charge of granting permits. Unbeknownst to the students, each committee would add additional tasks requiring the groups to redesign their bridge to add additional elements.

Once the permitting process was complete, students would have to go to the “lumber mill” with a budget of $100 to buy scale lumber at set costs. Finally, after hours of designs and redesigns, students constructed their bridges and presented them to the group.

For an added bit of fun, we decided to stress test each of their 24:1 scale bridges by placing weights on them until they catastrophically failed. In a satisfying twist, one after another each bridge was able to hold all of the 10 1-kilogram weights we had available. With their bridges intact, students had to resort to destruction of a more chaotic fashion to annihilate their bridges properly.

Later in the week, we visited Ascutney Outdoors and Storrs Pond for camp skills, outdoor ethics and wilderness medicine training. There are a number of different learning styles students use to retain information. For some, a classroom lecture about proper splinting technique may not impart much knowledge. However, a brief introduction of the technique followed by a directive to use the meager supplies in a medical kit plus whatever they can find on the ground might elicit a creative connection that can last a lifetime.

With the proliferation of screens and devices that have come to inhabit every room and pocket in America, it is no surprise that people are spending less time outdoors. In addition to the physical and mental health benefits that outdoor spaces bring, being out in nature also reinforces our connection to the natural world.

The next generation will be the stewards of our environment and its rapidly disappearing natural spaces. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that we connect youths to the outdoors in creative and engaging ways.

Written by Sean Ogle and published in the valley news on April 1st, 2022.