One of the greatest pleasures of my job as coordinator for the Carpinteria Garden Park is working with young people. The community garden hosts multiple class trips every semester, a bilingual garden program for homeschoolers and helps tend vegetable gardens on school campuses with the help of dedicated garden members. As our planet spins towards a future promising greater ecological uncertainty due to human-caused climate change, connecting younger generations with tools for ecological awareness, practical problem-solving, and greater resiliency is more urgent than ever.
Exposing kids of all ages and backgrounds to time in nature, whether along our coastal bluffs, shoreline or in the community garden, provides deeply formative and nourishing experiences that carry into adulthood. My experience as a school garden educator has shown me time and again the deep empathy and instinctive connection to the other-than-human world that all young people feel, regardless of past experiences (or lack thereof) in nature with their families or educational institutions.
The mental, emotional, social and physical benefits of time outdoors for young people have been well-documented by myriad peer-reviewed scientific studies and popular books such as Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.” Outdoor play has been well-documented to increase critical thinking skills, reduce the symptoms of ADHD, dramatically reduce levels of daily stress and bolster social and community-building skills.
These health benefits make sense when you consider the history of human evolution. We evolved in the context of tens of thousands of years of dynamic and challenging natural environments which required focused attention and robust social communities. Humans are social creatures: we have relied upon one another and the natural world for survival throughout our entire existence.
Procuring food, preparing healing plants for medicine, building shelters and developing rich, nature-based material cultures are in our collective, genetic memory. It is life-affirming and empowering for young people to experience these historical and deeply embedded connections. Moreover, humans have thrived thanks to keen observation and imitation of the many other wild creatures that share these ecosystems. Our kids and students are naturally geared towards observing and celebrating the natural world—it is part of their human heritage.
All kids deserve access and time to play in the natural world, but not all kids get it. Outdoor education and recreation have historically been opportunities less accessible to children of color or from lower economic means. Moving forward, our society and the planet will need the abilities and capacities of folks from all backgrounds to solve pressing issues of environmental justice—all people must be represented in the choices our society makes to protect a verdant and ecologically complex planet for future generations.
Luckily, there are many opportunities to expand environmental education and awareness for young people of all economic backgrounds and physical abilities in Carpinteria. Our public schools do a great job with limited resources to provide opportunities for connection with nature via trips to the Carpinteria Salt Marsh, local beaches, the Channel Islands, and the community garden, among other wild spaces (many of which are wheelchair accessible).
If you are a parent, perhaps you can carve time out of hectic schedules for free play in the many natural spaces available just a short walk or bike ride away. In particular, the Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve is an incredible place for a child’s imagination to run wild. One of the express purposes of the visionary citizen groups which protected 52 acres of undeveloped coastal bluffs just outside of town was to provide open space for people young and old to wander “off trail” to quiet corners and hidden spots in the open grasslands and coastal sage scrub of the preserve.
If you have been to the Bluffs recently, perhaps you have seen a flock of young people doing so—Wilderness Youth Project, a Santa Barbara-based non-profit committed to nature experience for all kids has recently started a bluffs-based program, and has many full scholarships available (wyp.org).
Whatever the medium, however simple it may seem, kids excel at finding ways to connect to nature and the other-than-human world. All we need to do is get out of their way and support their wonder and curiosity in the dynamic natural spaces that surround Carpinteria.