As many of you know, I’m combining a personal journey — an attempt to climb all 48 New Hampshire 4,000 footers in a single summer — with an effort to raise money for an environmental education group, Kestrel Educational Adventures.
For a modest nonprofit with a tiny staff and even tinier budget, Kestrel has a powerful impact. Its instructors connect hundreds of North Shore elementary school students to nature — real nature, in all its wet, smelly, messy glory. Sometimes that means bringing animals into the classroom to help explain how ecosystems work. Sometimes it means taking kids into the woods to see vernal ponds teeming with life. This year alone, Kestrel’s naturalists expect to work with more than 1,700 students at 23 partner schools.
Kestrel also runs successful after-school Conservation Clubs in Ipswich and Gloucester. The boy, a member of the Gloucester club, spent much of last spring helping to build an osprey nesting platform along the Annisquam River. This spring they’ve been outside for almost every meeting; Lucas comes home with his shoes and pants covered in mud, muck and grass.
All of this is done on a budget that, at under $40,000 a year, could charitably be described as ‘shoestring.’ Times are tough for nonprofits these days, especially the smaller ones. Sometimes folks don’t take pay for the work they do. Budget-strapped, test-centered schools don’t have the money to offer much beyond the basics of environmental education.
So why does it matter?
Kids need nature. Their bodies, minds and souls crave it. And we’re not giving it to them. If anything, we’re taking it away.
Author Richard Louv puts it this way in his book, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder”:
“The shift in our relationship to the natural world is startling, even in settings that one would assume are devoted to nature. Not that long ago, summer camp was a place where you camped, hiked in the woods, learned about plants and animals, or told firelight stories about ghosts or mountain lions. As likely as not today, “summer camp” is a weight-loss camp, or a computer camp. For a new generation, nature is more abstraction than reality. Increasingly, nature is something to watch, to consume, to wear — to ignore. A recent television ad depicts a four-wheel-drive SUV racing along a breathtakingly beautiful mountain stream — while in the backseat two people watch a movie on a flip-down video screen, oblivious to the landscape and water beyond the windows.”
Bringing kids into contact with the outdoors has several benefits. Studies have shown it helps soothe the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, improve science test scores and boost a child’s physical activity and overall health.
But the natural world does something else for these kids: It surprises them. In a world where the day of a first-grader is as planned and regimented as a CEO’s, where even the toughest video game can be beaten with cheat codes, nature doesn’t play by the rules. Every experience is different and new. The salamander that walks tamely up your arm one day dashes under a row of desks the next. The tidy little ecosystem you find in Ravenswood Park one week is gone the next, a victim of predators or dry weather. The mountain that looked gentle at the trailhead tests your resolve once you leave the treeline.
Kestrel is in the business of surprising kids. It knocks them out of their hyper-connected, overpixilated routines and brings some wonder into their lives by introducing them to something that is at once new and incredibly ancient. They’re better for it, and so are we. Nature needs kids, too.
Check back later this week for information on how to support Kestrel while watching me haul my tired carcass up 48 mountains.