We are honored to post this for our guest author David Freeman, Executive Director of The Wilderness Classroom. David’s insights into the impact that outdoor adventure has on youth mirror our own beliefs that free, unstructured time outdoors is critical for child development.
Now more than ever it is critical that people of all ages, but especially children and young adults, spend time in nature engaged in active, unstructured activities. Young people need space to explore, push themselves, solve problems, be creative, and fail. We naturally want to protect our kids, provide them with things they want and need, and make them comfortable and happy. More and more our lives and our kids lives are structured and we are constantly plugged into our phones, computers, and TVs.
More than 50 years ago Sigurd Olsen wrote “Wilderness to the people of America is a spiritual necessity, an antidote to the high pressure of modern life, a means of regaining serenity and equilibrium.” Spending time in nature has always been critical, but technology has insulated us from the natural world in ways humans have never experienced before. Time spent outside is as critical to our health, well being, and development as a healthy diet, and wilderness experiences are like a super food whose benefits stay with us long after we leave the Wilderness. I have seen these benefits first hand hundreds of times and I hope this short story will help you understand how transformative Wilderness journeys are.
The bow of the lead canoe rode up onto the mud in the middle of a thin stream bed leading north from Scoop Lake deep in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Northern Minnesota. Seven miles from the nearest road or building, 35 miles from the closest town, our group of eight was on the second day of a 5 day Wilderness canoe trip. Our party consisted of 6 high school students from Chicago, their biology teacher, and myself. This was their first wilderness experience, many had never seen stars before, swam in a lake, paddle a canoe, or slept in a tent.
I had traveled this route dozens of times over the previous 20 years with groups of all kinds. For as long as I could remember, a small beaver dam raised the water level in this tiny creek leading north to a smooth, 100 foot long trail leading to the next lake. This short trail or portage was a nice chance to stretch your legs and stop of lunch after carrying packs filled with all our food and equipment along with our 17 foot long canoes from one body of water to the next.
But the Wilderness is not a static place. That year, the beavers had stopped maintaining the dam, leaving the stream impassable and the once familiar path forward was suddenly uncertain. What had been 5 minutes of pleasant work suddenly turned into an hour of struggling through a mud sucking bog. As we unloaded heavy packs from the canoes and prepared to head out through the bog, I explained that it would likely be hard and everyone needed to tie their shoes on really tight so they wouldn’t get sucked off and lost in the mud.
Legs quivering under the weight of heavy packs and 50 pound canoes, the teenagers headed off into the bog. There were screams and laughter, smiles, groans, tears, and acts of kindness as nerds and cool kids, jocks and book worms started to shed their labels and insecurities, working together to overcome the very real challenge of hauling everything they needed to survive across the marsh.
At one point, everyone dropped their packs and canoes to jam their arms up to their arm pits into the mud in search of Jose’s lost shoe and the image of Miguel — only yards left to go, stuck in the mud up to his waist with a massive pack on his back, grinning from ear to ear — remains etched in my mind years later. I guarantee that week in the wilderness and that muddy slog through the bog five summers ago remains etched in those kids’ minds as well.
Each year their teacher returns with a new group of students; without fail, a few years later as they write essays for their college applications, many of them reflect on their week in the Boundary Waters: the self confidence, resilience, and understanding that suffering is temporary (and is a normal part of growing, living, and improving) are a few of the lessons that have stuck with them as they head off to college. There was no white board, or lesson plan, their teacher did not teach them these things, the Wilderness did. These skills are critical to the formation of well adjusted, creative, inquisitive, hard working, resilient members of society.
I still get nervous watching a 90 pound kid struggling across a portage trail with a 17 foot canoe perched on his shoulders, legs and arms wobbling as they struggle forward across mud, roots, and rocks. It would be quicker and easier for me to snatch up the canoe and trot across the trail, but that would be doing them and society a real disservice. We can’t teach kids grit and resilience, but we can give them the opportunity to find it by introducing them to places like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and giving them the space they need to learn, grow, explore, and fail.
To meet David Freeman, please join us on Thursday November 9th at the Barnes & Noble in Springfield IL!