Valley Information – From the Trails: Youths want that outside connection

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Published: 4/1/2022 21:01:36

Modified: 4/1/2022 21:01:07

It is undeniable that being outdoors offers countless benefits for those who regularly breathe fresh air.

Research has shown that spending time outdoors improves vision, reduces 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’s a shame that Americans are spending less and less time outdoors.

These statistics are particularly striking when it comes to children: in 2018, children participated in 15% fewer outdoor activities than in 2012, just six years earlier.

As the Trail Program Director for the Upper Valley Trails Alliance, I have many opportunities to work with youth in the great outdoors. Each summer we host several weeks of our High School Trail Corps, which completes needed projects on trails around the Upper Valley with students from area high schools. Applications for 2022 are now possible.

A large part of the program consists of hands-on training, which often gives students who have never done trail work the opportunity to complete complex projects like building bridges in just a short week. Each week and year of Trail Corps is rewarding, but we’re always happy to find additional ways to connect with students in the great outdoors.

For a week this March, I had the opportunity to connect more youth with the outdoors by leading an intensive education course for Hanover High School focused on nurturing the outdoors called Champions of the Trail . Together with a colleague from UVTA and Hanoverian teachers, we took a group of high school students outside each day to complete a range of educational activities to provide an alternative to a largely closed classroom experience.

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

Our first stop was the Vermont Institute of Natural Science Environmental Education and Avian Rehabilitation Center. Students heard an introduction to the concepts of conservation and preservation and their relationship to recreation and trails. VINS has a variety of trails to illustrate the level of development, from small dirt tracks to the towering, handicap-accessible Canopy Walk.

I’ve given this same lesson many times, but it’s far more powerful when supported first-hand by outdoor recreation facilities that comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act and dozens of bird of prey shelters that show rehabilitation in action.

At a time when virtually everyone carries a device in their pocket that can be used as a calculator at any time, students (and adults) may struggle to understand the practical uses math can have in the real world. In an attempt to distill some of these abstract concepts into tangible – and hopefully enjoyable – educational activities, for our second day of the March Intensive, students split into groups and built scale bridges.

To make this familiar lesson a little more dynamic, we’ve used our experience building bridges in a professional setting to add some complexity. Each group was given a unique bridge design and scenario derived from real examples UVTA had in the past.

Once the groups had sketched a diagram to scale, they had to submit it to the “Trails Committee,” which was responsible for issuing permits. Unbeknownst to the students, each committee added additional assignments, forcing the groups to redesign their bridge to add additional elements.

After the permitting process was complete, students would have to go to the “lumber mill” with a budget of $100 to buy shed wood at set prices. After hours of designing and redesigning, the students finally built their bridges and presented them to the group.

For added fun, we decided to stress test each of their 24:1 scale bridges by loading them with weights until they fail catastrophically. In a satisfying twist, each bridge in turn could hold all 10 1-kilogram weights we had available. With their bridges intact, the students had to resort to a more chaotic mode of destruction to properly destroy their bridges.

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 that students use to retain information. For some, a lecture on proper splinting technique may not impart much knowledge. However, a brief introduction to the technique followed by instruction on how to use the meager supplies in a medical kit and whatever they can find on the ground could spark a creative connection that can last a lifetime.

With the proliferation of screens and devices now inhabiting every room and pocket in America, it’s no surprise that people are spending less time outdoors. In addition to the physical and mental health benefits that outdoor spaces bring, being in nature also strengthens our connection to the natural world.

The next generation will be the stewards of our environment and its rapidly disappearing natural spaces. It is therefore of paramount importance that we young people connect with nature in creative and engaging ways.

Sean Ogle is the director of trail programs at the Upper Valley Trails Alliance. He can be reached at [email protected]