By Stephanie Love
On a snowy afternoon in mid-January, 50 8th graders pile off a charter bus, ready to spend the next four hours exploring a variety of winter activities at Positive Energy Outdoor (ed)Ventures, a not-for-profit organization I co-founded with my husband, Blake Cazier, in 2004.
After a welcome, tips on staying warm, and dividing into smaller groups, we immerse these young people in the world of dog sledding, draft horses, snowshoeing, winter ecology and winter survival skills.
Positive Energy was created because of a realization young people do not have opportunities to participate in outdoor activities like rock climbing, kayaking, dog sledding and driving draft horses. In fact, there is an alarming decline in participation in any outdoor activities–the Minnesota DNR reports that fewer young people are participating in hunting and fishing activities than ever before. Outdoor activities like these are part of our northwoods culture.
With electronic gadgets galore, obesity on the rise and screen time soaring for kids—well over 40 hours a week for an average teen—it is vitally important to expose young people to outdoor experiences. Is there a best way? As a professional outdoor educator and youth development trainer, I am often asked how we encourage young people to get outside.
Research tells us to engage kids, especially kids growing up in a world of distraction and instant gratification, we must meet the developmental needs of the youth we serve, both in school and during out-of-school time. Those developmental needs include providing safety, structure and supportive environments. We also need to help kids interact positively with each other and adults, set goals, make plans and reflect on their experiences.
Does outdoor education provide opportunities for these kinds of experiences? Absolutely. Knowing what works to engage young people is the first step to creating high quality, outdoor programming that has lasting impact and competes with the allure of video games, computers, cell phones and TV.
So back to our 8th graders: what kinds of experiences do we provide for the youth who participate in our programs? Experiential and active, of course, and supportive to learning and personal growth. Outdoor education is a blend of social, emotional and physical skill building. Youth learn to work together as a real team, and often comment on how strong the dogs and horses are because they work together. Kids challenge themselves to try new skills and explore new relationships and perceptions of the outdoors. We also help youth work through difficulties and frustrations, and provide opportunities for young people to talk about what they are doing and feeling, and how these experiences apply to their lives when they return home.
Youth are our partners in helping harness the sled dogs, riding and driving the sleds on our 1/2 mile bog loop, and taking care of the dogs when we return to the yard. They meet Tracy, Sid and Blaze, our draft horses, and try their hand at driving the team on our bob sleigh. We also provide opportunities for youth to experience grooming, harnessing and ground driving. In addition, youth work together to use a two person saw and other historic tools from the early logging era, imagining life in a winter logging camp that relied on horse and human power.
On our cranberry bog and lake, students learn about animal and plant adaptation to harsh winter conditions, snowshoe through deep snow on and off trail, and auger through the ice to measure its thickness and gain an understanding of life below. Back at our wood stove heated wall tent, they learn about winter camping equipment and skills to stay warm and comfortable in even the most frigid weather.
Before they get back on the bus, we gather everyone together and ask a few reflection questions, wrapping up their experience, and helping them transfer what they have learned. We encourage them to start imagining their next outdoor adventure. Many of the students are excited to learn more, or get involved with an activity or event that happens in their town.