Want your kids to become ecologically conscious as adults? Get ‘em into nature now—that’s the most reliable way to build their love of the outdoors, according to mountains of research.
But in a harried and always-online world (for parents as well as children), what’s it going to take to do that?
One way: Find a program with mentors who guide them through the wonders (and occasional terrors) of the outdoors. That’s the conclusion of a new study of urban youth commissioned by The Nature Conservancy and funded by the Rhodebeck Charitable Trust and the Toyota USA Foundation.
The study looked at alumni of the Conservancy’s Leaders in Environmental Actions for the Future (LEAF) program, a summer stewardship program that puts urban youth attending environmental high schools into paid residential internships doing environmental work on Conservancy preserves across the United States.
LEAF participants are mentored throughout their internships by naturalists and conservation scientists—and the results over the 17-year span of the program are pretty amazing, say researchers:
- LEAF alumni place greater value on environmental issues (for instance, 73 percent rank “global warming” as “extremely serious,” compared with 37 percent of their peer group nationally); are much more likely to volunteer for environmental groups; and are much more likely to point out “un-ecological behavior” to others (like littering).
- They spend as much time outdoors on a typical day as they do watching TV, playing video games, or using computers.
- Parents should like these next two a lot: LEAF program alumni matriculate to college at rates more than 26 percent higher than average for their peer group nationally, and they’re much more likely to graduate high school.
- They’re also more often in full-employment jobs and earning more money than their peer group averages.
Can parents build on these findings for their own children, even if there isn’t a LEAF program near them? I put that question and others about how to get today’s kids into nature to Patricia Zaradic, director of the Red Rock Institute and lead author of the LEAF survey report.
Q. So what is it about LEAF that’s producing these sorts of results—these increased rates of graduation and volunteerism and good-old-fashioned nature-loving behavior?
A. The program gets these teens outdoors working one-on-one with mentors and conservation scientists in nature for an extended period of time, and that’s absolutely important. They build life and work skills in the program. They also spend time gaining self-reliance in a setting where they feel at peace, where they can build communities with a diverse population of peers and conservation practitioners. And they get time for self‑reflection, personal growth, and confidence-building by living independently in a totally new environment than they are accustomed to. Those are skills that give them a leg up preparing for college life. It’s a really good mix.
Q. Why do they need mentoring? Why not just throw them out there—wouldn’t that teach resilience?
A. A number of studies have shown that, when you take kids who live in urban settings and you put them in a rural, natural setting, their first experience isn’t necessarily going to be a good one. It’s often just because they are being confronted with strange sensory inputs—different smells, different textures, general differences in the environment. Having a mentor that helps introduce youth to these outdoors settings and experiences is very important. They feel more comfortable and come to regard the outdoors as a place that they can feel at home and enjoy.
Q. Remind us: Why is it important for kids to get outside and into nature? What does the scientific literature tell us about the benefits?
A. Science has documented both physical and psychological health benefits to being in nature. Kids in nature tend to be more active, which brings physical well-being. Psychologically, there are long-term benefits in dealing better with stress and becoming more resilient to challenges.
The LEAF program really helps with both. Graduates of LEAF are continuing to spend time in nature, and that might in part explain why they’re more successful in school and in life. And the mentored outdoor work LEAF provides them keeps them very active and teaches them to use the outdoors recreationally in ways they didn’t know about before. In addition to health benefits, the work-based nature of the program may open their eyes to career paths in environmental fields.