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Getting Children Outdoors: Learning and Nature in the Sierra Nevadas

I was 20 years old when I first packed my things into two duffle-bags, boarded a plane, and left home... for summer camp. Stressed, nervous, and worried about the things to come, I fretted about the fact that it had been nearly a decade since I last attended a stay-away camp, and now I was supposed to be in charge of several groups of girls over the course of five weeks in the middle of the Sierra Nevadas? I’m still not sure what the camp director was thinking when she hired me during that job fair, but I am eternally grateful for the opportunity she gave me. That first summer sparked a lifelong love of outdoor education and a deep understanding of how clear mountain air and bright summer stars can change the course of a child’s life.

Image: A view from the inside of a standard platform tent in Camp Wasiu II, located in Tahoe National Forest

I went back to that camp for three years straight. The pay was low, the days long, and the nights constantly interrupted by upset children, but each week ended in happy tears and hugs from kids who didn’t want to go home. As a 25-year-old college graduate, most people expect me to start looking for ‘real adult jobs’, saying that camp jobs aren’t “real careers,” etc. Well, Nevada residents and organizations seem to think differently. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with six of the many non-profit organizations in the Reno/Sparks area in the last five years, and my AmeriCorps services promises opportunities to help many more.

Northern Nevada has an incredible amount of gorgeous outdoor space, with over 200 parks in Washoe County alone, not to mention Lake Tahoe and its tributaries and the Sierra Nevadas!. Both children and adults have great freedoms to breathe in the fresh mountain air and breathe out their troubles.

Image: Myself and camp coworkers bouldering at the Sierra Buttes’ Fire Lookout Station.

Children, however, are especially fortunate that many of Reno’s nonprofits focus on providing them fun and engaging, guided outdoor and STEM-based educational programs. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are currently the hottest focus in education. Current projections from the Department of Commerce show that STEM jobs will continue to grow at a rate of 17% compared to 9.8% for non-STEM occupations.

Public opinion on outdoor education and park-based teaching is also making strides as research continues to reaffirm what I have always personally experienced: that learning outdoors improves health, attention, retention, development, skill acquisition, and leads to a stronger sense of community and environmental awareness.

Image: Two 2nd grade girls looking for arthropods at their park with the Student Stewards Program.

Image: Two 2nd grade girls digging for arthropods at their park during the Student Stewards Program.

From the born-and-bred city kid to the one that says, “Do you think it’s warm enough to go camping yet?”; my favorite outdoor adventures have been the ones involving kids and their sense of adventure.

There is wonder to be found from something as simple as getting a group of bug-squeamish girls to learn the excitement of digging for arthropods, or as taxing as encouraging kids to finish a grueling 60-minute uphill hike to a beautiful lake.

I am excited to have had the opportunity to get kids outdoors, whether it is in our parks or in our mountains. I'm even prouder of that fact that all the organizations I’ve worked with give special focus on making sure kids from all backgrounds get an equal and fair chance to participate. Nature is there for all of us to enjoy, to protect, and to experience.

For information about Truckee Meadows Parks Foundation STEM-based Spring and Summer Science Camps, follow the links below:

For information about similar programs in the Truckee Meadows Valley, follow the links below:

Image: Leading Girl Scouts on the trail to Volcano Lake, near Sierra City, California.​


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