Monday, April 6, 2015

The Children of the Blue Hills

View of the Boston Skyline from the Blue Hills Summer Camp.

I was standing on top of the Lemon Squeeze, monitoring my campers as they leapt from rock to rock, finding new places to explore. The Lemon Squeeze was the name used to describe the large boulders projecting out of the ground in the Blue Hills Reservation South of Boston. My fellow Mass Audubon Environmental Educators and I frequently paused our hikes at this jungle gym of rocks and secret tunnels to allow our campers to play. During staff training earlier that summer, our camp director led us on a hike to the Lemon Squeeze for our lunch break. This is where she told us that free play would be one of the most valuable components of our environmental education summer camp, and to make sure we allocated time for our campers to explore and play in one of the most important classrooms: the natural world. I remember thinking it was odd that we were being told to incorporate free play into our curriculums. I just assumed that was a given, and was expecting her to stress the importance of structured activities and lesson plans.
When I received my first set of campers, I began to understand my director’s warnings, and was shocked with how confused and almost unnatural these children acted outside. Little Aidan, who was 6 years old, was one of the clumsiest children I have ever known, and continuously tripped over himself and the rocks as we hiked through the Blue Hills. When I asked my campers, who were 4.5-6 years old, to make an animal home, or a teepee, using the rocks, twigs, and leaves available to us, I received a lot of blank looks and sometimes tears of confusion. Even during free play, a lot of the children didn’t know what to do and quickly became overwhelmed with having the freedom to make their own choices outside. Children this age are notorious for having extremely creative and curious minds… what was happening?
As the summer progressed, I watched my campers make remarkable changes physically, psychologically, and cognitively. Aidan stayed with us most of the summer, and by the end, he was the camper at the front of the line, leading the other kids down the rocky paths. I would later learn that the uneven, natural surfaces outside helps youth develop physical coordination skills, in a way that a level playing field cannot. It was also fun for me to observe the campers who initially held a stick as if it were part of the game hot potato, unsure of what to do, have an abrupt light bulb moment and start inventing elaborate, thoughtful games in the trees and rocks. Some of our campers also had moderate to severe ADHD/ADD, and I got to witness the pure joy they would experience from being outside, free from any judgments or boundaries. There was no doubt in my mind that for whatever reason, being outside was extremely therapeutic and necessary to help foster a healthy childhood development. I know I’m happier when I’m outside, and I also know I become more focused, confident, and less anxious, so why wouldn’t others experience a similar response? 
While volunteering at the Blue Hills Trailside Museum Gift Shop a few months later, I was browsing through the items on display, and a book stood out to me. It was called, Last Child in the Woods: saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. As I started reading what author Richard Louv had to say about how the nature-deficit is affecting our children, a surge of energy rushed through me like water breaking through a dam. What he had written down on paper was what I had subconsciously believed and known to be true: the growing detachment to the outdoors has direct psychological, physical, and cognitive consequences. Once you understand how spending more time outside positively affects you, you realize it is common sense, but we have become so far removed from our natural world that we don’t always see or understand the ext
ent to which we depend on it. We need our natural resources, but we also need to be outside for our own physical, cognitive, psychological, and for many, spiritual, well-being.
For me, understanding the extent to which we need to be immersed in our natural world became clear during my first summer at the Blue Hills Reservation. The memory of the children, and how happy they were outside, is what continues to motivate me to spread awareness of the nature-detachment so we can reverse it.