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Trails: an antidote for "Nature Deficit Disorder"

How trails might become even more relevant to the younger generation.

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.

While building a trail near my home in Redlands, CA, I noticed an office sign for "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, primarily in Orange County, and that they lease a camp in the national forest where they take kids from schools for a week to learn about the natural environment.

I told her that when in high school I had worked at two such camps&emdash; 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.

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&emdash; which he helped form and which had subsequently added the word "Environmental" to its name&emdash; had given an award to the outstanding outdoor educator in the state of California in his name! She went online and gave me a write-up about the award and a list of the honorees 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.

Pam Gluck told the American Trails Board of a legislative effort in Connecticut to rekindle interest in outdoor learning for kids called "No Child Left Inside." That name is an ironic way of indicating that so many programs of this sort have been eliminated in the narrowing&emdash; and in my opinion, dumbing-down&emdash; 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 the "Childrens' Outdoor Bill of Rights." Also, I met a representative from San Bernardino County's Public Health Department (I thought it significant that the trail was seen as a health issue) involved with another outdoor education project for kids. Once again I offered my services in helping them see how trails might be made a part of such a program.

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 children, 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 outdoors 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.

Changes in schooling modes and curriculum have not helped. "No Child Left Behind," from many reports, puts way too much emphasis on passing tests while limiting exploration of learning opportunities considered marginal and unimportant&emdash; 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 encounter wilderness adventures.

I want trails to be places where kids can learn first hand about flora and fauna and the environment, but also places where they can learn about intelligent community design, places that need to be taken care of. They would study trail layout, erosion protection, construction methods, health benefits, recreation opportunities, smart growth, and community development.

How about a classroom "adopting a trail" and learning to appreciate volunteerism, getting hands-on experience maintaining trails, contributing art and interpretive features, 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 child 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.

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