By Mike Bienkowski
San Juan Mountains Association
It is early June, and we are five minutes into our first day of San Juan Mountains Association’s “San Juan Ramblers” nature camp.
Twenty kids have gathered in a small field near the upper Junction Creek Trailhead. They play games, search the high grass for insects and make nature journals from a box of craft supplies. A typical enough scene for a Monday morning, but my colleague and I exchange apprehensive glances. We are already exhausted. This is the most human contact any of us have had in months, and undoubtedly everyone, counselors and kids alike, is already thinking, “And we have how many more hours of this?”
We begin to walk, and within minutes everyone has dropped back into the wonder of the present moment. Blooming flowers, verdant green, the golden filtered light and the popping colors of butterflies quickly erase any anxiety or apprehension.
After a day spent filling basins with nymphs collected from the stream, sketching wildflowers, building forts and lizard homes, and catching up with friends amid the safety of open air, the kids are all smiles as they return to the trailhead and their waiting parents, the colorful face-coverings the only indication that anything is different in the world.
I am amazed each day at how naturally learning happens in the outdoors. Young children are very much in their “explorer” phase of life. They are wired to connect to the world around them, which is still so new.
Their excitement shows up in many ways – from one child exuberantly declaring, “Lookit! We got a biggie big BIG big!” in reference to the giant stonefly nymph he just pulled from the stream to the enraptured silence of an entire group, as a harrier emerges from the ponderosas and circles us noiselessly before sweeping off toward a new clearing.
Learning in our programs tends to follow the same model – a memorable experience involving direct contact with something wild serves as an anchor point for learning. Once captured by the experience of the harrier circling, suddenly questions about flight adaptations, hunting strategies and predator-prey interactions become far more relevant and real.
While the benefits of outdoor learning are real and easily observable, the impacts go far beyond content and standards. These days, we live our lives amid a constellation of stimuli that pull our attention in multiple directions at once. We get caught up in stories about how things are different than we remembered them, or in anxieties about planning for an uncertain future. Mix this with the increased access to information afforded by technology, and we have a recipe for very unsettled energy indeed.
Children are not impervious to this energy – they absorb it, carry it and feel the weight of it, just like adults do. Nature offers a symphony of sights, sounds, smells, textures and sensations, which capture children’s attention, stimulate their senses and imaginations, and immerse them fully in the present moment so they can focus on what they are wired to do – explore, connect and learn to love.
SJMA continues to offer nature education year-round. Fall programming includes after-school hiking and outdoor science camps, school-based nature enrichment and teacher education workshops. For more information about our programming or to enroll your child, go to www.sjma.org.
Mike Bienkowski is a former secondary science teacher and educator with Durango Nature Studies who now works for San Juan Mountains Association as the curriculum coordinator for education programs.