The Living Classroom: Connecting Children to the Outdoors
New technologies, science, and adrenaline-fueled adventure programming are being used more and more to connect kids to benefits of nature, but we often forget that the most impactful and long-lasting connections between a person and a place are found within our oldest traditions. Cultural traditions like storytelling, local knowledge, and family histories are often overlooked as key components to reconnecting children to the land, but one grassroots organization in the California/Mexico borderlands harnesses the power of the story above all else.
“Storytelling is the loom that we use to weave the tapestry of culture,” says Jon Green, Program and Outreach Director of Back Country Land Trust. “People have been using stories to convey information across time and distance for thousands of years. Our stories reinforce our cultural connections, our local history, and ultimately our ‘sense of place.’”
KEEN Effect grantee Back Country Land Trust (BCLT), based in Alpine, Calif., is uniquely active in a shared mission of finding new and creative ways to better connect children to the outdoors. Our grant supports BCLT’s Living Classroom program to help stem the tide of nature deficit disorder, and the effects caused by the slow distancing of children from engaging with natural environments.
When we teach about native plants in our communities, it’s really the instructors that are doing the learning, because many of these children already know the native plants! They know which ones to eat, because their Kumeyaay grandmother used to cook yucca or harvest elderberries.
SOWING SEEDS AND STORIES
This grant cycle alone, the Living Classroom program has already engaged 750 students to plant 225 native plants and cast pounds of native seed for habitat restoration in their own backyards of the increasingly disenfranchised and underserved rural populations of the California/Mexico borderlands. The Native American and Hispanic American populations that the program serves makes up 85% of the local demographics, and the culture and traditions of the students are probably the single biggest asset to the continued success of the program.
“When we teach about native plants in our communities, it’s really the instructors that are doing the learning, because many of these children already know the native plants! They know which ones to eat, because their Kumeyaay grandmother used to cook yucca or harvest elderberries. Hispanic families harvest local cactus, nopales, as a common vegetable,” Jon says.
Paradoxically, BCLT’s Living Classroom program’s approach is novel by embracing local culture. Jon notes that BCLT’s Living Classroom program utilizes storytelling, in conjunction with nature stewardship, to “highlight local history, enhance student experience in the natural world, and put our community, our place, into a larger context.”
For example, Jon says that they talk about a time when California was owned by Mexico, and the Californios on that frontier were fighting the "illegal aliens" who were coming from America and speaking English. “We tell all those old stories, from [multiple] perspectives, and share the narrative of the lives here before us,” he says. “Our program brings that history alive by visiting existing cultural sites on our local preserve and puts our community into context through storytelling in the field.”
It’s always amazing to learn from these deep cultural traditions that are alive and well in this region. I like to think that our program helps to bring a sense of pride to these students and validate their environmental knowledge in a way that isn’t often highlighted in their classroom learning.
REENGAGING THE NEXT GENERATION
But the Living Classroom program doesn’t reduce storytelling to just history. It is committed to actively incubating new stories, connecting families to the landscape through tradition, and reinforcing the fact that both traditions and histories are only relevant if they are continually relived, reimagined, and reproduced by the next generation.
“It’s always amazing to learn from these deep cultural traditions that are alive and well in this region. I like to think that our program helps to bring a sense of pride to these students and validate their environmental knowledge in a way that isn’t often highlighted in their classroom learning,” Jon says.
Anytime kids get to help us plant native plants, or spread local seed, fix up a trail, or even move rocks, they feel like they’re making a difference in the world and that helps to create their own personal connection to the land.
The Living Classroom program is ultimately an avenue to share passion and validate the knowledge that lives within the traditions and ecology of the border region and directing that passion toward bettering the environment. Jon believes that it doesn’t stop with stories, but that we must actively provide a path toward action.
“I’d say the part of the program that our K-8 students connect with the most are the hands-on service learning projects,” he says. “Anytime kids get to help us plant native plants, or spread local seed, fix up a trail, or even move rocks, they feel like they’re making a difference in the world and that helps to create their own personal connection to the land.”
Looking ahead, BCLT aims to expand the Living Classroom program, but also offer much more for a diverse array of community sectors. Jon says BCLT is opening up avenues for preservation of large-tract working landscapes in the Las Californias region – working with farmers and ranchers to protect their rural heritage in these communities. The organization is also on-track to expand its environmental education programs to three rural school districts and to host over 1,000 students on field trips during the upcoming school year.
To learn more about Back Country Land Trust or how to contribute to the success of the communities and ecologies of the California/Mexico borderlands, visit www.backcountrylandtrust.org/.
For more information on the KEEN Effect grants program, visit www.keenfootwear.com/grants.