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Wilderness Youth Project Fosters a Nature Connection with Kids

Local program introduces youth to the lifelong value and benefits of the outdoors

[Noozhawk’s note: This article is one in a series sponsored by the Hutton Parker Foundation.]

Children are spending less and less time in the outdoors, a change in lifestyle that is linked to an alarming increase in childhood obesity. And studies show that children who spend almost 90 percent of their time indoors are more susceptible to stress and depression.

Meanwhile, the United States has seen a precipitous rise in prescriptions for antidepressants, and it has become the largest consumer of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder medications in the world.

Locally, the nonprofit Wilderness Youth Project has taken steps to reverse such trends, developing programs to expose Santa Barbara County youth to natural settings. Such activities have been shown to reduce ADHD symptoms, according to a 2000 Sage Journals article, “At Home with Nature: Effects of ‘Greenness’ on Children’s Cognitive Functioning.”

“Kids these days stand to benefit greatly from time outside — both facilitated and educational time as well as unstructured free play,” Michelle Howard, the Wilderness Youth Project’s development director, told Noozhawk.

According to findings introduced to Congress through the Healthy Kids Outdoors Act of 2014 (HR 4706), children today are spending less time outdoors than ever before. Recent studies have concluded that children enjoy half as much time outdoors today as they did just 20 years ago, and they spend more than 7½ hours every day in front of electronic media.

“iPods, iPads, gadgets, TV and video games, and even educational programming, are brilliantly designed to capture the imagination and attention of children,” Howard explained. “The high-stimulation entertainment factor is unbeatable. So nature has to be a family value, right up there with dinner time, family time and homework time.”

Early intervention — before the age of 11 — to create a relationship with nature starts a long-term connection to the outdoors. The Wilderness Youth Project measures its organizational accomplishments in transformed lives that make participants smarter, healthier and happier.

Research has also shown that time in nature improves self-esteem, emotional stability, cognitive flexibility, critical thinking and the use of imagination. And the stress level of a child can fall within minutes of seeing green spaces, according to an American Journal of Public Health report.

“There’s just something about going outside that is good for all of us,” Howard said. “And I mean all of us in both senses — all people of all ages, and all of us as beings, body, mind and soul.”

Studies show that time spent in nature in childhood often positively influence environmental attitudes in adulthood. (Wilderness Youth Project photo)
Studies show that time spent in nature in childhood often positively influence environmental attitudes in adulthood. (Eric Isaacs photo / EMI Photography)

The Wilderness Youth Project began in 1997 as a teen adventure program from Santa Barbara’s Transition House homeless family shelter. In 1999, it became an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

WYP’s mission utilizes a unique mentoring and active outdoor experiences to establish a lifetime desire for learning for young people and families.

This vision encompassing the benefits of nature guides WYP in the belief “that children who have the opportunity to spend time in nature will be the ones who grow up to be the future stewards of the environment,” Howard said.

WYP spreads its message by partnering with a variety of local nonprofit organizations, among them (CALM) Child Abuse Listening Mediation, Just Communities, Police Activities League, Storyteller Children’s Center and Santa Barbara County schools. The program draws student participation from Adams School, Adelante Charter School, Brandon School, Crane Country Day School, La Cuesta Continuation High School and McKinley School.

Youth between the ages of 4 and 17 — more than 500 annually — are served by WYP, with a solid majority receiving scholarship assistance.

“Exploring and testing the boundaries of natural spaces develops discernment and decision making in preschoolers,” Howard said. “Running and playing games outside develops social skills in school-age kids. And the list goes on well into adulthood. Nature isn’t just good for kids!”

Scholarships are available for families in disadvantaged circumstances. Based on a successful 2011-2013 pilot program at Adams School, 2701 Las Positas​ Road in Santa Barbara, WYP has determined that the school-based approach is effective for reaching low-income and underperforming students.

According to a 2005 study by the California Department of Education, participation in outdoor education programs raised at-risk children’s test scores by 27 percent, while also improving problem-solving skills and conflict resolution.

Programs are offered year round and throughout the week during the school day or after school, plus weekend camping excursions with summer and family camps.

Research indicates that test scores, problem-solving skills and conflict resolution all improve when children spend more time outdoors. (Wilderness Youth Project photo)
Research indicates that test scores, problem-solving skills and conflict resolution all improve when children spend more time outdoors. (Eric Isaacs photo / EMI Photography)

During the 2012 school year, the Wilderness Youth Project provided 26 weekday programs for local children, 60 percent of whom received scholarships. The programs were led by nine full-time and 31 part-time staff, plus more than 60 volunteers.

Waiting lists for WYP’s programs are common, but the organization is committed to making them accessible with a long-term goal of offering them at every school in Santa Barbara and Goleta serving low-income students.

These important environmental education programs lead to higher scores on standardized tests in math, reading, writing and listening at schools, according to a 2003 thesis from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.

“Wilderness Youth Project is like therapy,” said Tina Mavaro, a teacher at McKinley School, 350 Loma Alta Drive on Santa Barbara’s Westside. “We’re giving enrichment opportunities to a slice of society that might never have experienced the beauty of nature or felt a part of the environment around them.”

According to Howard, local parents can help instill the value and benefits of nature and conservation behavior to their children in just a couple of steps.

“It turns out that the two primary factors that influence environmental attitudes in adulthood come into play in childhood, and they are, time spent in nature and a mentor who can help make the nature connection,” she said.

With school-based environmental education limited across the United States, and only 80 schools and agencies across the country doing work similar to WYP, the next generation of children face challenges with political and social issues in protecting the environment.

“I’m hopeful that Common Core boosts schools’ interest in environmental education,” Howard said. “And there’s lots of reasons for schools to do that.”

Outreach programs like the Wilderness Youth Project are effectively making a difference as measured by feedback from local school-based members.

“WYP leaders served as amazing mentors, seeing students in terms of their assets and potential, encouraging each of them to their unique ‘greatness’,” said Holly Gil, an elementary science education consultant for the Santa Barbara Unified School District.

“The students will never be the same. I only wish more educators recognized the importance of this intimate connection to the natural world so that more children in Santa Barbara could have similar experiences.”

Click here for more information about the Wilderness Youth Project, or call 805.964.8096. Click here to make an online donation.

Noozhawk contributing writer Melissa Walker can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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