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?

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.


City Fox and Urban Owl

View from the upstairs front windowview from the upstairs back windowI’ve noticed that recently Corvidae Corvus has been dominated by posts about technology and do-it-yourself/maker topics. I guess that’s indicative of where my head has been at lately. But it is Spring (a little early, but nonetheless…), and it’s hard not to notice all the changes budding out–even here in urban DC.

We’re lucky enough to sit on the edge of Rock Creek Park. Across our back alley our neighbors are the fox family, who we occasionally hear and see late at night yapping to each other down the length of the alley. No doubt, out hunting rats and other vermin for their nightly meal. The wild goings on in our alley differ markedly from those in other parts of the District. Last night, I woke to the plaintive questioning of a barred owl, “Who-cooks-for-you? who-cooks-for-you?”

For an urban dweller, I have unusual access to forested tracts. But even in parts of the city without direct access, nature abounds. Recognizing it is a matter of looking with a different kind of gaze. And also, I would argue, recognizing nature when you don’t necessarily think you’re looking at it. The falcon waiting on the ledge of a building to pick off an unsuspecting pigeon, or even the tree sprouting out from the Metro overpass are examples of nature adapting to and reclaiming the urban landscape.

Stories of raccoons and coyotes rummaging through trash cans are not at all uncommon. But the common Norway rat that we city folk see running along a wall or run over by a bus represent a little bit of the wild in our cities. The lessons of nature don’t just occur in the forested rural lands, or even in suburban back yards. Survival, growth and beauty are sometimes all the more evident for the stark contrast of the city. It’s worth taking a walk along the river or through an alley to see some unexpected scenes.

Below, I quote from a piece by Rick Curtis, Director of Princeton University’s Outdoor Action program. Mr. Curtis is writing here specifically about observation in the forest–particularly about tracking. But his advice holds even in the most congested urban area:

The most important part of nature observation is relaxation. Observation and stalking require you to slow down and settle yourself. It is akin to a moving form of meditation. Animals can sense when you are agitated, anxious or fearful and will disappear. When you settle yourself, you can move among animals without them sensing your presence. You must press yourself to use all of your senses all of the time or they will become atrophied.

I. Varied Sensory Awareness

Vary your vision. Pay intermittent attention to your environment. Shift your focus. If you pay rapt attention to one thing, it will dull your senses (“highway hypnosis”). You will learn more if you are paying intermittent attention. Flash back and forth through your various senses, vision, hearing, smell, touch, and taste.

II. Wide Angle (Splatter) Vision vs. Pinpoint Vision

We tend to use focal vision about 95% of the time and wide-angle vision only 5%. Animals use the reverse (5% and 95%). To use wide-angle vision you want to take in all the information from your peripheral vision constantly then focus down when needed. Concentrate on the entire picture, mentally blocking out information to focus down.

The primary thing that gives you away (or an animal) is movement. Focused vision doesn’t pick up movement whereas wide-angle vision makes the eye reactive to movement. When you notice movement then focus down to that object. And once focused, keep tracking that animal visually very closely so that you don’t loose it. Keep this process in mind! This is how the animals look for you. Anything that is out of the natural order, movement, shadow, or noise attracts their attention and they focus on it.

At night using wide-angle vision utilizes all the peripheral areas of the eye which are more sensitive to low levels of light. This improves night travel and seeing animals. It will allow you to notice nighttime animal movement. Flashlights cause focal vision which restrict your sensitivity to movement. At night a wind will blow things in one rhythm. Anything moving contrary to that rhythm, check it out with focal vision.

III. Automatic Vision

When you are looking at something you scan “take a picture” then scan, “take a picture” etc. as you look across a landscape. When you look across that landscape again you tend to “take the same pictures” or focus on the same spots. The Blind Spots (dead air space) are the ones you miss. Over time the number of automatic snap shots decreases until you only see a few out of the whole scene. Eventually you really don’t see it at all. You must consciously fight dead air space all the time. Each time you look at a scene again look at it as something new. Also, don’t just look at solid objects (e.g. a tree); look through the spaces of the tree, between the branches. There may be a deer behind that tree that you will see if you look through it rather than looking at it.

IV. Focused Hearing

We have tremendous peripheral hearing with our ears on the sides of our heads, but poor focused hearing. Since we can’t move our ears as many animals can, we don’t have directional hearing. But we can increase our hearing by 10x by cupping our hands, thumbs up, behind our ears, with the elbows out. This creates a parabolic reflector which gathers the sound in to our ears. This technique is paramount in locating animals and finding out what lies ahead of you.


Adult Education

Here’s a great quote from Saul Griffith in a past issue of MAKE magazine… “Kids can smell didactic like a giant adult skunk.”Pepe le Pew

I was thinking about this the other day as I was talking with my wife about how even “creative teaching” can become burdensome when it’s rote. I remember coming home from school in the third grade, excited about a brand new investigation we were about to start in class, only to have my older sister say that she could tell me everything I’d need to know (and do) because she’d done it just two years earlier with the same teacher.

Of course, teachers–like writers, accountants, doctors, cooks, and just about everyone else–recycle successful work from the past. And of course, we hope that the work grows and changes based on our own experience, the individual interests and learning styles of our students and the dynamics of the classroom. But like everyone else, teachers get overwhelmed and tired. We can easily be drawn to reach into that same bag of tricks over and over. Even the most creative lesson or project (the first time) becomes didactic when we think we know exactly how it’s supposed to go, and what the end result will be. In fact, I bet if you took a video of these types of projects from year to year, you’d see not only the teacher, but the students become less and less engaged.

As adults we know that we do have a responsibility to teach our children well. But it’s like the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song: our children will also teach us. We’re too often trapped by the triple threat of adulthood: 1- We have a responsibility to care for and protect our children; 2- We don’t want to look like we don’t know what we’re talking about; and 3- We think we’re too old to learn anything new.

So, how do we avoid this trifecta of stink? I think the solution is simple, yet somewhat uncomfortable and hard to do within the context of traditional (or even untraditional) learning environments. We have to tackle questions and experiments with our students to which we do not already know the answers. We have to be willing to be wrong and to understand that rather than making us look stupid in front of our charges, it provides us with an opportunity to model the type of learning we’re trying to encourage. We also have to be willing to listen to students’ ideas and thoughts, and to explore the implications even when we don’t think they’re going to take us where we want to go.

Now, this is not to say that our experience and wisdom shouldn’t determine how we structure investigations, or how we approach problems. Experience is the best teacher–whether it’s our own or someone else’s.

It all sounds easy. But no matter how hard one tries, there will always be a time that you’ll be standing at the front of the room looking at a bunch of people holding their noses.