Young people today are so plugged into iPods, cell phones and laptops that the outdoors seem as foreign to them as vinyl records spinning on a turntable. Plenty of kids have scarcely played in the woods or creeks near their homes, much less spent the night in a tent. But at schools like Cannon, Carolina International, Countryside Montessori and Vance High School, students have a chance to explore the wilderness – and develop self-confidence and teamwork – through programs that send them out to climb mountains, paddle canoes or go whitewater rafting.The experience was a big adjustment for Vance senior Christina Collazo, 17, who spent eight days in the N.C. mountains last summer with students from four Charlotte area high schools. And no electronic gadgets were allowed. “Eight days of camping with no showers,” says Collazo, who had never camped before. “It was very hard, but very worth it. I think it helped me grow as a person, and I learned so much about other people. I know I can survive in the woods now. I learned never to give up.”Some experts believe contact with nature is essential to a child’s physical and emotional development. Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods,” says time spent in nature can not only help combat obesity, depression and attention disorders – but can even increase test scores.Amanda Sturner also believes in the transformative power of nature. She’s the Charlotte program director for North Carolina Outward Bound, a nonprofit wilderness education organization that runs programs for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Cannon School. The CMS program – offered to students at Vance, Butler, Phillip O. Berry and Myers Park high schools – is called the Unity Project. It’s designed to chip away at prejudice and intolerance in the schools by taking diverse groups of teens camping, hiking and rock climbing together. “We call the wilderness the great equalizer,” says Sturner, who got hooked on the wonder of nature on an Outward Bound trip at age 16. “Everybody is out of their element. Everybody has to work together to make the trip successful. They’re all out there wearing dirty clothes, eating dinner out of the same pot.”When students are rock climbing, for example, the most popular girl in school can be on the rock face, while the quiet kid from the back row of biology holds the ropes that keep her safe. By working together, they’re able to break through social cliques.“The teamwork piece is really crucial,” says Katy Hill, Vance High’s Unity Project coordinator and an Outward Bound veteran herself. “You’re all on common ground. It definitely does pull together a diverse group of students. This year on my team we have students from African, Hispanic, Indian and African-American cultures.” Hill says last year’s Unity Project students formed a Unity Club on campus and held a diversity awareness workshop for students at James Martin Middle School. They also took part in a program called National Mix-It-Up Lunch, encouraging students to take different seats in the Vance cafeteria and talk about issues that divide and unite the student body. At Cannon School in Concord, 10th-graders spend four days in the N.C. mountains each year on an Outward Bound program that emphasizes self-reliance and working in teams. The experience was powerful for 16-year-old Jane Campbell, who made the trek last year. “We realized you can do so much more than you think you can,” said Campbell, who did her first backpacking on the trip. Students made their own tents out of tarps, went climbing and rappelling and hiked off-trail using a map and compass.Students gain “self-confidence from challenging themselves physically, mentally and emotionally,” says Cannon’s upper school counselor Anne Hoffman. Plus, she says, “There’s no way to text in the woods. It’s just a nice, slower pace for them, even though it’s hard work. They learn they’re only as strong as their weakest member. And it’s not just about rushing to the next endeavor. It’s about the journey – which is a metaphor for life.”At Charlotte’s Countryside Montessori School, students spend time at YMCA camps or other outdoor settings beginning in first grade. High school students spend three days at the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Bryson City for climbing and whitewater rafting. The school’s elementary campus is connected to the Mallard Creek and Clark’s Creek greenways, which students explore for science studies and nature walks. The campus is also certified as a National Wildlife Federation Schoolyard Habitat site.At Carolina International, a charter school in Harrisburg, seventh- and 10th-graders go on a two-day fall camping trip to the N.C. foothills for hiking, canoeing and lessons in forestry. The school itself is surrounded by woods, where students explore creeks and trails as part of science classes.“Their minds open up a little more” during hands-on study outdoors, says Carolina International science teacher Kevin Lipp. “Kids observe things around them that they wouldn’t see in the neighborhoods where they live.” Such experiences can be as valuable to students as history or algebra. “When you’re outside, there are fewer distractions,” says Outward Bound’s Sturner. “You’re able to focus better. You connect with the natural world, which helps you understand your place on the planet and how you function.”
More Info:North Carolina Outward BoundNorth Carolina Outward BoundNantahala Outdoor CenterRichard Louv, author of "Last Child in the Woods."