Outdoor Urban

About a week ago, an article titled “The Business of Escapism” ran in the Washington Post Business section. The story was about the marketing of outdoor gear and “adventures” to an increasinlgy wealthy (and white) demographic. Well, that’s one of the things it was about. It was also about technology and modern conveniences infiltrating outdoor activities. But what I’m interested in here is who chooses to (and gets to) use the greatest resource Americans have–our natural and wilderness spaces.

The following is a lettter to the editor I wrote in response to the article. Since The Post chose not to publish it, I guess I’m free to post it here:

Who would think that getting back to nature could be so fraught. Unfortunately, as Lillian Cunningham points out (“The Business of Escapism,” Sunday, Sept. 7 Business section), in these hyper-connected times one cannot take a walk in the woods without carrying deep cultural baggage.

Among Cunningham’s insights, one point in particular stands out. By and large nature activities are, as Gregory Miller of the American Hiking Society points out, marketed to an increasingly affluent and overwhelmingly white demographic–arguably to the exclusion of lower income urban youth. Companies that specifically target minority youth to sell fashion and status stop short when it comes to promoting environmental values. Why?

One of the main responsibilities of my job is to accompany these very same young people into nature on wilderness adventures. I can tell you that such experiences have dramatic effects, and that love of the natural world is not, and should not be, exclusive to any particular demographic. Missing an important opportunity, outdoor companies continue to market exclusivity and privilege over authentic appreciation of nature. That is just sad in so many ways.

Fear of Falling: Adult Origins of Children’s Fears

As adults, we know that our actions and attitudes have a dramatic effect on the young people with whom we live and work . Most of us also recognize that acting on our best intentions sometimes has unintended consequences. Seeing the pronounced effect even small actions can have young people can be enlightening.

A while back I took a class of second graders on a short hike. The trail we took wound its way above a creek, climbing to the top of the hill before heading back down to a rocky beach about a 1/2 a mile downstream. Not a long hike, but pretty big for some of the students. At one point during the hike it becomes necessary to work your way around a protruding tree root along an especially narrow part of the trail. Negotiating some rocks at the highest point along the trail you then proceed down a set of rough stone “stairs”. It can be a bit dramatic–which is part of the reason I do it. I’ve hiked this route many times with students from 8 to 18 years old without incident. Until Tuesday…

On Tuesday four adults set out with eight students to hike the trail. We’d split the class of twenty-four into 3 equal groups to ease the flow and give students opportunities to experience three different activities centered around an investigation of water in the natural environment. Our first hike was completed without incident–save for the obligatory conversations along the way reminding excited students not to run and to stay in close porximity. When we reached the root mentioned above, the adults took up positions along the side of the trail to guide students safely along. Each student passed through in turn and walked down the steps back onto the dirt trail.

Our second group of the day was having much the same experience until the second to last girl–we’ll call her G–passed me on the stairs. As I looked up to make sure the next child was safely in place to begin the descent, G took a tentative step backward and tumbled from the side of the stone stairway. It was a dramatic fall. When I jumped down to help G, she was a bit shaken, but there was no obvious damage save a small scrape on her arm. In fact, when given the choice, G opted to head on up to a higher, but wider trail for the return trip rather than crossing a foot bridge to head back on a level, paved path.

My final hike of the afternoon was pretty much the same as the first two until we reached the now infamous stairs. Though none of the children knew about G’s fall, as adults we were a bit more cautious (I might even say overly cautious). We maintained what we felt was the same attitude and demeanor, but this time I walked with each student from the root negotiation all the way down each step.

The process took considerably longer and was a little awkward, but that’s not what was most striking. In this third group several students expressed fear either verbally or through their posture. This hadn’t happened in our earlier hikes. Granted there had been slight hesitations and slow steps, but never the outright expression of fear.

There was nothing remarkable about this final set of students. No more or less experience on hiking trails, no age or ability differences. The only difference was in the actions of the adults. In our abundance of caution, we’d instilled a level of fear beyond what was ordinary… or necessary.

As adults we often tell ourselves that our primary obligations are to love and protect our children. But what kind of love is it when our protective instincts instill fear?

What’s your Intelligence?

The other day I went running with my 13-year-old son, Louis, in Rock Creek Park. It used to be that we’d go running and I’d adjust my pace, and maybe even our course, so that we could run together–so that Louis wasn’t chasing me through the woods. This run, however, was different. From our first steps into the woods it was clear, I had become the hound chasing the fox. The fox slid through narrow turns and over obstacles, while I, the clumsy hound, tried my best to keep up lumbering along with my tongue out and haunches flailing.

Now let’s make no mistake, I still have some chops as a trail runner, and this was my trail. The Pulpit Rock trail we were running is a narrow, winding, root- and rock-filled path. It takes you up and down some steep hills, and along the creek. It’s a ton of fun. From years of running the trail I’ve become attuned to its twists and turns, roots and rocks, and seasonal changes. But Louis has a natural grace and ability at 13 that I never had. Small for his age, his physical intelligence is remarkable for a boy who can’t find his socks when they’re on his feet. It’s something I’ve always known about Lou, but watching his feet fly over the trail–from behind, which is where I was for most of this run–I was able to see how smart his feet are.

We do don’t often think of physical acumen as an intelligence, but what else would you call it? Perhaps because it comes so naturally to some we see it as a gift rather than intelligence–and like any intelligence it is a gift. But it’s a gift that must be used, explored and fostered if it’s going to grow and develop.

I encounter students–boys mostly, but by no means exclusively–who don’t think they’re smart, but who can run like the wind, climb without fear or consistently toss exquisite layups. We encourage them on the court or out on the rocks. We stand in awe of their abilities and their fearlessness. It goes beyond our awe of youth, these people are physically brilliant.

Physical intelligence is just one example. I also know young people who shine outdoors. Put them in the woods and they come to life. Then there are those people who can manipulate clay or wood or some other material in almost magical ways–pulling beauty and function from what many of us consider a lump of dirt or firewood.

As educators we spend a good deal of time talking about how we can harness a students love of sports, nature, art… you name it, in the service of teaching math or writing. And I’m not saying this is always a bad thing. But what we essentially tell that person is “You know the way your smart at (fill in the blank)? Well, that’s nice, but it really doesn’t mean a lot. Here’s how you need to be smart.” Is that really the message we intend to send?


Crows are well known for their intelligence. In fact, the entire Corvidae family is renowned for being the smartest of all birds and some of the smartest of all animals. The secret to their superior intellect has been located in their brain for the first time, according to a new study from Lena Veit and Andreas Nieder from the Institute of Neurobiology at the University of Tübingen. – See more at: http://www.iflscience.com/plants-and-animals/crow-brains-reveal-secrets-their-intelligence#sthash.welnXqx2.dpuf

By Third Grade…. Is that what matters?

Yesterday NPR discussed President Obama’s proposal for universal early childhood education. A popular argument for universal early childhood education cited by Gene Sperling, an economist who I really admire–as much as one can admire an economist–is that spending on early childhood education save taxpayer dollars down the road. Sperling sites research suggesting that every dollar spent on high-qulaity pre-kindergarten education saves between $4 and $17 down the road in terms of things like higher wages and decreased juvenile delinquency. Nice, right?

This morning, continuing their look at the President’s proposal, the station showcased Georgia’s early adoption of universal early childhood education legislation. Critics of the policy point to the added cost and evidence that by third grade the gains seen due to early childhood education basically even out. In other words kids who went to pre-k are performing at the same levels as those who didn’t.

Aside from the point that the evidence is arguable on that last point, I think both commentaries point to a common but pretty disturbing perspective: That the value of the child can be measured–should be measured–in future achievement. Essentially we are saying, it doesn’t matter so much what high-quality early childhood experience means to a child, unless it translates into higher test scores, higher wages, or increased employability later. We value the child on for his or her future potential, not for the inherent value of that child as a person. I find that to be one of the saddest comments on our educational system and our society as a whole.