Posted by: James Wapotich | March 12, 2012

Trail Quest: Wilderness Youth Project

What if there was an educational tool that could meet each student right at their growing edge and stimulate new learning on a weekly basis? And what if this same tool could also be used with a number of students simultaneously, and was engaging and fun for both the students and the teacher? It would almost stand to reason that such a tool would be expensive, complex, and difficult to use.

And yet amazingly this resource is readily available to us, particularly here in Santa Barbara. As you may have guessed this resource is the natural environment around us. If you have ever watched kids in nature you know that the land can draw out their imagination and natural curiosity and that as a physical environment can provide almost unlimited opportunities to test and try out the world.

Studies have shown that children who play regularly in natural environments have better balance and agility, increased coordination and more advanced motor skills than kids that don’t. That the natural environment can buffer the stress associated with adversity and life’s challenges. And that being in nature increases a child’s awareness of the world around them and improves their observational and cognitive skills all of which can translate into healthier and happier students.

But there is a catch, since we like to have catches, in order to realize the benefits of this educational tool one has to let go of their preconceptions around learning and trust that the land itself is not only a capable teacher, but can co-create with the student what they’re ready to learn. In other words we also have to be willing to become students ourselves, and meet the land as a partner. And it is from this place that the role of the teacher shifts to that of mentor.

This is where Wilderness Youth Project comes in, founded in 1999, Wilderness Youth Project offers Nature Based Mentoring and provides a variety of programs for kids ages 3-17. At the heart of the organization is a valuing of nature and community. The staff is comprised of individuals who share that vision and many started as volunteers themselves, being mentored by more experienced staff members and then in turn leading programs.

I was fortunate enough to be allowed to ride along on one of their outings, specifically the program that’s being offered at Adams Elementary School, and what I immediately noticed was how enthusiastically the staff was greeted by the students and how outgoing and confident the students were. I was also impressed by how welcoming and inclusive the students were of me as a visitor.

The students are part of Ms. Ayala’s 5th grade class, and each week half of the class spends alternate Thursday mornings with Andrew Lindsey, Mario Mendes, and Lindsay Reed from Wilderness Youth Project. The morning starts out with students circling up and sharing what they are grateful for in their lives and what their nature name is for the day. And then from there they head out to one of the many natural environments available to us here locally.

The week I visited we went to Rattlesnake Canyon and most of the kids opted to go barefoot and hike up the creek. And even though the kids were immersed in their own experience I was struck by how purposeful it still felt and how every once and a while one of the kids would check in a make sure I was doing okay. In other words even though in some ways the reins had been taken off, the kids were still operating as a group.

Each of the kids met the land on their own terms and I was reminded that nature is one of the few places where we have an opportunity to meet challenges in our own way. In talking with Andrew Lindsey he shared, “there is a never ending opportunity for learning and growth right now for these kids, they are no where near exhausting what they can be learning on a physical level about movement and carrying themselves and so I think that dominates a lot of their experience.”

The kids come prepared with an extra set of clothes, and it is this permission to experience nature as it really is and to take risks that creates the opening for deeper learning.

As we made our way up Rattlesnake Creek and arrived at the first waterfall, several of the students were inspired to jump in, and one of the things I noticed was the lack of competitiveness or need to show off that one would expect from almost any group outdoors. Instead the students were supportive and encouraging of each other as they explored this new place.

For me one of the more striking scenes that day was watching the girls wade out into the water and form a chain holding hands. And while in one sense it was part of their playing together, it spoke to the level cooperation that being in nature seems to engender in people of all ages.

When I asked Ms. Ayala what she felt was the most noticeable change in the students in her class she shared that the students had become more of a community since the program started last fall.

In talking with Mario Mendes, who is also active in the program Wilderness Youth Project offers at McKinley Elementary School, he shared that parents will often say to him, “I don’t know what you guys do with them, but whatever it is keep on doing it because my children are now more respectful at home, they don’t talk back as much, and they can’t wait to be outside, instead of being inside playing video games or watching TV.”

And while all of this might just sound like kids having a good time outdoors, what’s actually being created is a relationship with the natural world. And it is that relationship that leads to wanting to learn more about the natural environment. In the program at McKinley, now in its third year, the students there are interested and engaged in learning about the plants and animals and their ecosystems. It is also this same relationship to the natural world that fosters a sense of stewardship for the environment.

How this program became available at Adams Elementary School was through a series of synchronicities. About three years ago Wilderness Youth Project took a look at the demographics of its programs and decided to actively draw in new participants and staff to more closely match the demographics of Santa Barbara.

Since many of their programs meet at Tucker’s Grove, one of the biggest challenges for a lot of students, aside from the cost, was just getting to the program because of their parents working full time or lack available transportation. And so with the help of Tina Navarro, who teaches third grade at McKinley, Wilderness Youth Project started an after school program that meets on campus and is largely funded through scholarships.

In some ways the next logical step was to find a way to make such a program available during class hours. Around this same time, the students in Ms. Ayala’s then fourth grade ESL class were involved in the school garden program sponsored by the Orfalea Foundation. When the Principal at Adams, Amy Alzina, became aware that the students involved with the garden project were seeing positive benefits from the experience, she was inspired to find a way to expand that experience, which ultimately led her to Wilderness Youth Project who offered to help raise the necessary funds and make the program available at Adams.

For more information about the Wilderness Youth Project, to get involved as a volunteer, or to help sponsor a student or program, go to

This article originally appeared in Section A of the March 12th, 2012 editions of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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