No Child Left Inside

Wilderness programs in local public schools unplug city kids from their devices and plug them into the joys of nature.

No Child Left Inside
Katherine Harris


Spending time outdoors isn’t just fun for kids—it’s important. “A growing body of research documents the costs to children, teenagers, and society when youth are not engaged in active play and exploration outdoors,” says Marti Erickson, co-founder with Richard Louv of the Children and Nature Network. A developmental psychologist and retired University of Minnesota professor, Erickson says the costs are reflected in many ways:

Skyrocketing childhood obesity rates
Difficulty concentrating and learning in the class-room (especially for those with ADHD)
Overmedication of children for behavioral “disorders”
A marked statistical increase in childhood depression
Missed learning opportunities that build on natural curiosity and encourage creativity
Lower test scores in the natural sciences
Lack of confidence and poor body image, especially in teenagers
A new generation of adults—and voters—who may be less inclined to care about, or inform themselves about, the environment and environmental issues


Beyond academics, the program also seeks to bridge the enormous gap between urban youth and the great outdoors. As child-advocacy expert Richard Louv writes in his ground-breaking work, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, many of the seemingly unrelated maladies of the younger generation—obesity, depression, behavioral disorders—may be linked in part to a highly wired environment that is detached from nature. Whereas every generation before them has spent a substantial portion of their free time outside (because there wasn’t much to do inside), the younger generation’s fascination with video games, television, computers, laptops, and smartphones has lured them indoors, where they now spend the majority of their time. Louv calls this lack of exposure to natural beauty and the sensory experience of being outdoors “nature deficit disorder.” Drawing on extensive research, Louv makes a compelling case that regularly interacting with nature is essential to healthy physical and emotional development.

The Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventures program is specifically designed to expose urban youths to outdoor activities they might otherwise never experience, and it deliberately takes place in parks near the city in order to impress upon kids that in the Twin Cities, beautiful natural habitats are never far away.

In only its fourth year, Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventures has led day trips down the Mississippi River for more than 22,000 youths. Older students are offered longer excursions that include an overnight at Fort Snelling. Those who have completed both day and overnight trips have an opportunity to apply for a much grander trip to Glacier National Park.

The program is being studied by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement. According to last year’s U of M report, the Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventures program significantly improved students’ classroom attendance, increased their interest in the natural world, and heightened their commitment to take care of the city’s natural resources.

“Something happens to city kids when they get into nature,” says Mike Hastert, an educational associate who accompanied his students on the trip, along with his colleague Maria Vallejo. Hastert has a scruffy blond beard, wears his baseball cap backwards, and is just beefy enough to look tough. He considers these outings to be a big job perk, even though he is giving up part of his own summer to do them. At one point I remarked that the kids seemed more engaged and lively than they were on the bus, and he nodded in agreement.

“The walls come down,” Hastert says. “They don’t have to cling to whatever identity they have at school, athlete or hipster. They don’t have to stick in a clique. And they see me as a regular guy, tossing the football and telling jokes—not the one nagging them about schedules and homework.”


Back on the lake, a group of students shouted “Whoa!” as an egret floated to a graceful landing on the opposite bank. Michael, a sophomore who wouldn’t let go of his girlfriend Diniqua’s hand all morning, bobbed in the water playing a game of Marco Polo, while Diniqua played tag on the shore. Only Renuke, a girl from Nepal who wore a pink knee-length top and ankle-length pants, sat apart under a tree, engrossed in a paperback book. “It’s not common for us to undress,” she told me.

After lunch, the students split into groups. Under the direction of national park ranger Mary Blitzer, some wandered off with a Wilderness Inquiry guide to study Fort Snelling’s voyageurs and traders. Another group headed to the lakeshore to test the water for nitrogen levels and turbidity, as well as plant and aquatic life. They scooped up freshwater mussels, clams, and crayfish in tiny nets, and even found a baby catfish. For a math assignment, they measured trees and calculated their height using geometry and ratios. The groups that correctly answered all the questions got to splash the guide; those who didn’t got doused themselves.

Come evening, the students were divided into cooking and cleanup crews. I listened as three girls—Clarisse, Anna, and Renuke—shredded cheese and chopped tomatoes. They talked about what they cook at home—Nepalese soups, Swedish meatballs, pot roast, fajitas—sketching between them a sort of international culinary map. Before we ate, we gathered again in a circle to hold hands through announcements for the evening’s schedule, then observed a moment of silence. The “chow circle” was broken after we “passed the pulse,” squeezing the palm of our neighbor to the left. There was plenty of food—burritos with spiced chicken, guacamole, salsa, cheese, refried beans, lettuce, chopped tomatoes, sour cream—and we ate a lot.

0712-nochild1_320.jpg0712-nochild6_320.jpgScience on the lake: Students test water and investigate plant and animal life.

I complimented Diniqua on her rings, one on each finger, and she had a story for each. “This one my boyfriend Michael just gave me. This one is from my mom’s boyfriend. This I found on the ground,” she told me. “This is the one my dad was wearing when he was shot. My mom took it off his finger before he went to the morgue, so it never got washed,” she explained. “It’s like his skin is still right next to mine. I keep it on all the time.” The table went silent; I didn’t know what to say. “It was bad,” she added. “But he’s in a better place.” “When do we get s’mores?” Clarissa chimed in.

Kyle, a lean and lanky junior with an afro that added five inches to his height, hopped up on his table to announce that it was time for the cleaning crew to gather. He told us all to wipe the food off our plates into the trash before dunking them in the wash water. “Respect me, please,” he shouted. After cleanup, the students broke into five groups and were prompted by the Wilderness Inquiry guides to reflect on their day. Swimming was a highlight, they agreed. So was meeting new people. Several admitted that they wanted to be more patient and more accepting of their peers. Some even claimed they wanted to be better listeners.