George Lucas Educational Foundation
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My wife and I were recently hiking up a beautiful canyon in Glacier National Park and joined a small group of college students on a research trip with their botany teacher. It started to rain and we all got soaked, but the feeling of connection we had with these students and the joy coming from each of us as we continued to walk and talk in the rain became part of what was a peak experience. We were each alive with vibrant energy, and even the rain was part of that.

On one of our ranger-led hikes in the park, I met a young woman who was picking up additional ideas to bring the wilderness experience into her work with preschool children. I mentioned Richard Louv's marvelous book Last Child in The Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, and her face lit up. "That book is fantastic!" she said. "It is my inspiration." She was familiar with Edutopia, and I told her she'd find writing here that could also be a help.

A few days later, we were hiking on Mt. Washburn in Yellowstone National Park, and as we descended, we met a group of multiracial teenagers coming up the mountain who were part of the Overland Summer Program. They were from cities all over the U.S. and, with the Overland leaders, were filled with an excitement and energy that I rarely see in teens in their daily lives in school. I'm sure it was a first time for each of these kids.

Finding Power and Meaning in the Natural World

These are not isolated experiences. Every time we explore these parks, we are not only personally renewed and infused with a feeling of being alive that often gets lost in our routinized lives, but we always meet and/or observe kids of all ages who I know are also having very meaningful experiences. Each of these encounters reminds me of how little the connection between kids and the wilderness is part of the school experience, and I'm reinforced in my belief that this should be a priority in all schools.

Synchronistically, just after we returned, my wife found this article about a program that uses nature photography to help at-risk teens. As in many of the programs across the country, the focus is on using the wilderness experience to help at-risk kids. But the fact is that most of our teens are in some way at risk and can benefit equally from these programs.

To cap off this continuing series of reminders about the importance of the wilderness in kids' lives, a few days after returning home I went to see Richard Linklater’s remarkable film Boyhood (more on that in a future post). Among the many memorable moments in the film are a few set in the wilderness in which the boy, Mason, becomes unusually open and intimate with his father in one scene, and with friends in another. In the final scene, Mason, his roommate, and two young women choose to skip a freshman orientation mixer at the university and instead go to Big Bend Ranch State Park, one of the most beautiful wilderness settings in Texas. Mason and his new young woman friend have an open, intimate conversation against this backdrop as the film ends. Linklater clearly had a sense of the importance of place and of the wilderness in the process of growing up.

Getting Out of That Small Corner

In Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote:

. . . if we think of [the] existence of the individual as a larger or smaller room, it appears evident that most people learn to know only a corner of their room, a place by the window, a strip on the floor on which they walk up and down . . .

I spend a lot of time with adolescents whom I call the creative dissidents, kids who are often very alive with ideas and energy, but are wrestling with somehow feeling trapped in their lives, including their lives in school. Many of our kids know that they want to get out of their corner of the room.

It can be argued that this is a challenge for parents and kids, not for schools, but I strongly disagree. This should be woven into the schooling experience of every kid, whether through an exploration of a local beach or wilderness park, or through planned, extended wilderness excursions. Louv's book can help with ideas, as can a book I've mentioned before, Companions in Wonder: Children and Adults Exploring Nature Together, edited by Julie Dunlap and Stephen Kellert.

But there is one piece missing -- this needs to begin with teachers and parents. They need to have this experience themselves. To that end, you might take a look at Louv's most recent book, The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age.

I know this isn't part of Common Core and is thus implicitly made a low priority, but I can think of no better way to get out of that corner Rilke describes than to spend time in the wilderness. There is something about being in the woods -- encountering wildlife, dealing with ice on a mountain climb, feeling rain on a trek through new territories -- that can be life changing. Let's make sure we give our kids that opportunity.

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TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


Everybody showed up except Jasper and Taboo and off we go on the annual eighth grade two-day rafting trip.

A hippy named Murphy was the guide of our raft, number 806. In the raft was Irving, Beauregard, Claude, Benny, and Dill. We had several miles of class one-to-three Ocoee River rapids ahead of us. Since Beauregard and Benny started bickering before we nudged our raft into the water, I honestly wondered what I would do if they fell out of the raft in a few minutes and were being sucked under and they were holding their hands up out of the water for a responsible adult to reach down to save them.

Murphy, who was pretty much in charge of our lives, and had been the ultimate professional during entrances and escapes from angry sections of the Ocoee River called Flipper, Broken Nose, and Table Saw, asked me, because I was sitting in the back of the raft near him and I was their teacher, do those two up there constantly argue. They have really been going at it, Murphy observed.

I told Murphy they constantly bicker. Yes, they do. All day. I told Murphy that those two also bickered at each other all day just this past Friday while we were on a field trip to Six Flags. I emphasized to Murphy the words, Six Flags. I emphasized some more words to Murphy: Can you believe it?

Murphy said, Dude, you must be a payyyy-tient man.

I allowed my awesome silence to communicate to our long-haired river guide of raft number 806 the response to his comprehensive observation.

The next day, on another river, the Nantahala, which means, "Certain type boys, God love them, will bicker incessantly," in Cherokee, Irving, Dill, Beauregard, Earl, Benny, and I were in raft number 601. Of course there was an amount of bickering. It's what they do. It's what they enjoy. They're really good at it, so now, as their teacher, I enthusiastically encourage something they're good at.

A river and sun and cigarette-seasoned local fellow named Creed was our raft guide who said after about two minutes on the river...You a___holes sure do squabble a lot.

I looked at Creed...with an expression of teacherly approval. Squabble. Bicker. Both work, but squabble's even better.

On the way back home the road show stopped in Murphy, North Carolina at a Chinese and American buffet restaurant. You could describe the buffet-style eating of over thirty eighth graders as frenzied, with a slurping and gnawing and hiccupping and chewing and licking and crunching quality to it. Then you've got the sounds Old Burrell makes while he enjoys his food.

When you could tell the restaurant employees were finally ready to get rid of us and at least break even on the ocean of Coke and Sprite and Dr. Pepper refills and cat-head-sized rolls soaked in butter which were enormously popular with Huckleberry, a very Chinese waitress who was working our tables all of a sudden said something to me I couldn't decipher. Having a few manners, I politely asked her to repeat what she said...she did...and then I asked her politely to give it a try one more time. I was sitting at a table with Winx and Click and they finally lifted their heads from cramming Chinese and American food items into their sandwich holes to see what the international relations rumpus in Murphy, North Carolina was all about.

Here's what our determined Chinese waitress said to me: When you get to the cash register tell them you're a bus driver and you eat for free.

I said I'm not a bus driver. I'm a teacher. I drive a little school bus. I drive these kids a little school bus.

She wagged a finger...You no bus driver?

I'm looking at her, inquisitively, amusedly, with quite a bit of the two buffets in my guts and she's looking at me with my two days of gnarly-looking beard and my day-two raft trip do-rag which has red and yellow flames on it and I've got on beat-up old cowboy boots and greasy blue jeans and a moldy adidas Originals track jacket which looks like it emits a fragrance, and it does, and a social studies-type thought finally hit me: my honky ass just got profiled.


Todd's teaching memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave," at corkscrew turns hilarious, heartwarming, and sometimes heartbreaking, will be published this fall by Stairway Press.

Cindy Johanson's picture
Cindy Johanson
Executive Director, Edutopia

Thanks Mark - another fantastic post! Sounds like you had a great summer vacation. Welcome back -- now, thanks to you, I'm going to head outdoors for some fresh air. . .

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist

Thanks Cindy! Yes, a great vacation and difficult to re-land in the tame world of Marin.
But then I think of Pt. Reyes and the wilderness that's right here! I hope you enjoyed the fresh
air and, especially, that your two kids do too!

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist


On the last day in the Tetons, there was a fire alert at our lodge and everyone went outside, most to the back deck. While there I met an 11 year old, Ryan Saldanha, and spent a wonderful time speaking with him and his father. They had just completed their own travels through Yellowstone and the Tetons. Ryan is one of those kids whose wisdom and sensitivities belies his age. Unfortunately, his thoughts, which I asked him to send me, arrived too late for my column deadline. But I'd like you to read them now. They so eloquently capture exactly what I was trying to get at in my column. Thanks Ryan! And remember again, this is from an 11 year old boy.

"I believe that a child or any person of any age can learn incredibly just from experiencing the vast wilderness that surrounds us. Often times, I think that us humans are far too caught up in there own busy agenda and life and forget that there is much more to the world that we find ourselves in than office cubicles, school desks and technology. I myself am guilty of this as well. If we just stopped our hurricane of events, planners, agendas for a second, I believe we would see the world in a whole new light and learn in a way that was not given a thought before. A great way for us to guide and encourage children to experience our world including the wilderness like national parks is to integrate in the curriculum a way to ensure that kids experience things like this so that when they grow up to be great hardworking and dedicated people they always will bear in the back of their mind that there is so much more to explore in different ways. I know that I an 11 year old boy, have been encouraged by my parents to do things like this and have benefitted from this. I have visited numerous national parks including Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, Rocky Mountain national parks. in addition to hikes in and around our area. I can say with the outmost confidence that not only have I learned so much from these experiences, but I have been changed by the beauty of nature at work unhindered by anything. This is why I believe children should be encouraged to experience the world!"


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