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Screens vs. Nature: Lack of Exposure to the Outdoors

Blog by: Sam Hinkle, Field Trip Coordinator

This month, I was hoping to select a particularly fun field trip experience to share with you all. And we had some fun ones—building dams on Mesa Creek to generate hydropower, discovering a “honeypot” of mayflies near an old beaver dam, and exploring the anatomy and living-requirements of plants with preschoolers. In fact, I had one trip all lined up to write about, complete with a student shouting for me to “quit looking at that bird and teach me about plants!”

But then I got an email today regarding a future field trip request. In the email, the teacher who was requesting the program mentioned the lack of basic exposure to and understanding of nature her students have. This is something many of us who work with kids or have children of our own are familiar with—the addiction to screens and the lack of desire to be outside, etc. Queue a discussion of The Last Child in the Woods, or of the World Health Organization classifying video game addiction as a diagnosable health problem. Recently prior to going for a hike, I had a child on a field trip this month ask me if she could bring her Nintendo DS to play.

….No, you can’t…

The point I mean to make here is that a lack of exposure to and understanding of nature, accompanied by an increased desire to bury one’s face in a screen, is not uncommon to talk about in the field of environmental education. So this email I received shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me.

Then the teacher mentioned that an individual student she teaches legitimately did not know what a pinecone was. And I mean had never seen one before, or if they had, they never knew what it was. Never knew what it could do. Never knew how important it was to the world. Never knew that something so small could become something as powerful as a ponderosa pine or giant sequoia.

I should be clear: I did not see this conversation play out. Perhaps it was a simple misunderstanding. But the fact that this story sounded plausible reminded me just how important even individual exposures to nature can be.

And perhaps I should take another step back here. If you are reading this, increasing students’ exposure to nature is something you clearly care about already. I do not write this to communicate the significance and pervasiveness of this issue; I do not write to remind you of what you already know.

It is to help students know they can do. To know how important they are to the world. To know that someone so small can become something as powerful as a pine.
I write this after a successful fundraising event at the end of September and as I work with the rest of the staff to increase our corps of volunteers. Every dollar or volunteer hour donated to the Catamount Institute and to Field Trips specifically is not just to get 80 students outside for two or three hours. It can be to help students like the one above to intentionally explore the outdoors for the first time in their lives. It is more than just helping them to know what a pinecone is.

It is to help students know they can do. To know how important they are to the world. To know that someone so small can become something as powerful as a pine.

  1. I teared up reading this. I just moved to Colirado and have been looking for someplace to volunteer.
    I look forward to learning more at Volunteer Orientation.

  2. Thanks Sam for this reminder – distressing as it is. There are so many factors in addition to screen addiction all influencing keeping kids inside, including of course the general culture of fear that permeates our world. Sometimes it’s hard for me to feel hopeful about making any kind of a dent in what feels like a runaway train. all I need is one day out volunteering in the field with the kids to be reminded what an opportunity and a privilege we have to open the nature door…

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