The sixth instalment in the Not Your Day Job series.
When I was a kid, I thought I’d probably have some sort of outdoor job when I was an adult. Growing up in Mt. Lehman, a small agricultural community in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, I spent a lot of time outside doing chores at home, hanging out with friends, or in sports at school. At Mt. Lehman Elementary School, founded in 1834 and still running today, a recess inside was rare, and teachers typically hung out in the staff room, which had a window to the yard. The playground was divided into areas for free play, including a playground structure and large open area behind the sports field. In all directions, the school was bordered by farms. The school population was small: there may have been eleven to thirteen kids in my grade, and most classes were split classes.
We were responsible for our own risks and knowledge of limits. We climbed the tarzan swing for kicks, or the drainpipe to access the roof of the school to boot balls down; we sorted out disagreements among ourselves and intervened if there was fighting. Many classes were outside, such as art and science; we walked to farms to learn about husbandry and business or to attend off-site courses; at times, we chose interest classes, such as pottery or bridge, that parents taught at the school. There was a lot to explore outside of school: creeks, deep ravines and open fields, multiple types of animal tracks, and large stands of fir, cedar, and mixed hardwood trees.
The decade of the 1970s saw the development of organizations such as Greenpeace and the Canadian Wildlife Federation, community environmental organizations, and the initial establishment of environmental departments, protection acts, and environmental assessment legislation by federal and provincial governments in various parts of the country. Likely, these broader developments had an influence on the way we were taught, and helped shape the teaching methods toward using outdoor, natural history, and parent and community resources as part of our learning.
I currently live in eastern Ontario, on the unceded traditional Algonquin territory of the Anishinaabeg peoples. A short distance away, and I am within the traditional territories of the Mohawk, of the Haudenosaunee/Rotinonhsho’n:ni peoples. The landscape is agricultural, with bursts of mixed hardwood or planted pine woodlots and various types of wetlands.
A few years ago, I asked the local school if I could run an “Outdoors Club” once a week during the forty-minute recess period after lunch. I had been involved with youth and the outdoors in a volunteer capacity for over a decade, and wondered if youth might want to explore beyond the school yard, given that within very short walking distance there were open spaces and trails with diverse species and landscape features. The youth signed up each week in a “drop in” format and each week we’d do natural history explorations, a short hike, or landscape art. I’d originally thought that Gr.4-6 would be a good age group for the Club, but the group expanded to include age groups from Gr. 1-6. On average, each week, I had at least ten to fifteen youth and at times, thirty. The Outdoors Club lasted about seven months — from mid fall to late spring— and while I had intended to run it again, other responsibilities took precedence.
The first Outdoors Club session started with some soft metal wire sculptures; each youth made a wire version of things I’d brought: rock, feather, pine cone, pine branch, oak leaf, a piece of wood, and cucumber vine. Over the subsequent months, we explored the maple forest, talked about water flow and human management of drainage and then traced the flow of water from culvert to stream to creek; picked up garbage; conducted an experiment to collect stream organisms and look for frogs, built dwellings and huts out of loose or fallen materials; wondered about ephemeral ponds, examined the world of seeds and leaf litter and collected seeds for planting; built snow huts and caves, and looked for nest types in differing tree species. Often, I’d simply ask them where they wanted to go — e.g. maple forest, field, park, snow pile—and build activities from their decision.
I like and admire the youth in my community and cannot help but also consider that they are a unique demographic: they have unprecedented access to vast amounts of unfiltered information — some of which is stable and some of which is in constant shift; they are busy with extracurricular activities; and transportation networks, city, suburban and rural planning, and various careers of family members, affect their lifestyles. They’re under pressure early, it seems, for both solutions to global problems and for meaningful careers, and this influences their educational choices. They seem surrounded, and affected by, cautions regarding outdoor experiences — from getting dirty to predators, poisonous plants, and concerns about personal injury or illness. Phones have become a kind of guide — for photos, information, and inevitable texting—subverting observational skills or the ability to be out of contact. During other outdoor excursions I’ve been on with youth, such as camping or canoeing, some of the youth notice the amount of time they’d otherwise be spending on their devices. It takes a few days for them to re-adjust to being outside for an extended time.
In the last decade, there have been quite a few studies addressing youth in our time in relation to “nature” and youth emotional and physical development. The language points to lack and dysfunction: deficit, disorder, and videophilia — sedentary and indoor activities involving electronic media—as opposed to biophilia, a hypothesis (first used in the field of psychoanalysis, and then developed by biologist, naturalist and writer E.O. Wilson) that points to complex, evolved human interrelationships with the natural world.
The youth who joined the Outdoors Club could, in a generalized way, be sorted into three groups: some were drawn to exploration, often getting to a point nearly out of sight before returning (or yelling across distance) to tell the others what they’d seen. Others enjoyed sticking close, looking at things microscopically and asking questions. Some moved between the two groups, often enabling conversations between the other groups. The same general distinctions were true of most of our activities, whether creative or physical.
And yet, on the wintry day we looked at Queen Anne’s Lace and the berries of the Western Ash none of the youth with me could tell me where we’d find the seeds of these plants or whether the scraggly components of some of the species were alive. The youth didn’t know the forest we were in (they’d never been in it prior to the Outdoors Club) and hadn’t explored the creek behind the park. The author Robert Moor, referencing the value of place in his historical and personal exploration of trails, notes that the absence of knowledge or remembrance of place, especially in proximity to human communities, affects its conservation. If the youth don’t know the forests, the trails, their species, our co-habitation, their legends and early formations — then how are these spaces to be conserved or protected by community members? What is the value of these spaces in the collective memory of our community or region? What language is used to describe the loss?
For the youth who joined the Outdoors Club, it seemed as though being outside together enhanced their enjoyment of the outdoors as much as their individual interests. Observing each other’s experiences helped ease unspoken fears or indecision. For example, a youth’s discovery of a beetle’s exoskeleton horrified some of his peers. But the youth’s enthusiasm and knowledge soon had everyone passing it around and looking at it. Following these interests with stories and examples of the macro components — local geography, local culture and history, and the natural history components of the community — helped them understand place: that place wasn’t just one person in a location, but a host of environmental and social formations, interactions and knowledges that are carried with them and that they can pass along, in turn. I’m grateful to my exposure to outdoor experiences when I was a kid — though they weren’t thought of, I don’t think, as “exposure to outdoor experiences”. We just went, or were sent, outside. While it wasn’t as if TV, or even videogames, were completely absent (these were the early days of the bulky Atari), there was a perception that the outdoors was both healthy and entertaining: one couldn’t be bored outside. All of the youth involved in the Outdoors Club, from Gr. 1 to Gr. 6, could talk easily about games and messaging, Netflix, and current pop culture. Some could code. If, instead of an Outdoors Club, I had run a Cyber Club, I think that all of those youth, and a few others, would have joined as a drop-in alternative to recess in the yard. But there is little physicality in cyberworlds. Even the word “connected” now connotes that one has joined a network, or is online, but cyber realities involve no physical, bodily connection. The Outdoors Club was an attempt to enable youth to choose the yard or “nearby nature” in their free time at school — to find places unexplored (by them) that they could access easily, connect with, and, in returning, continue to discover their complexities.