Can playing in the woods help kids focus in the classroom? Environmental psychologist Nancy Wells, a Cornell University professor, is studying that question – and others like it – by measuring the effects of a wilderness-immersion program on local city youth.
Urban Forest Adventures, led by Tim Drake and Jed Jordan of Primitive Pursuits, takes low-income tweens and teens in search of animal tracks and wild edibles in such accessible patches of nature as drainage ditches.
“We put ourselves into the same places the animals live, the marginal spaces,” Drake said. “We’ve actually seen deer and … rabbits, because we’ve been in the brush. We go to the thickets.”
The Tuesday after-school program at the West Village and Parkside Gardens apartment complexes can be transformative for participants, many of whom have little to no prior experience in the wild, Drake said.
“You take a group of kids who normally get all their food plastic-wrapped, and you say, ‘Just pull it off that branch,'” Drake said. “Just seeing that you can take food, even in an urban setting, and eat it or making bracelets from plants that grow right there…raises the bar on awareness and (helps) create pathways to healing in the rest of their lives.”
Scientists have not yet established why the wilderness aids well-being, though interest in the concept itself has been gaining attention since Richard Louv’s book, Last Child In the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, hit the presses in 2005.
Some experts suspect it’s got something to do with the benefits of peer bonding and physical exercise. Others, such as Emory University’s Howard Frumkin, believe it’s wired in our DNA.
“We all evolved in a natural environment. We didn’t evolve in concrete,” said Wells, whose previous studies established that time spent outdoors mitigates stressful events in childhood and improves cognitive functioning. “It’s a common denominator for all of us, regardless of our professions or perspective.”
Though it’s only the beginning of the first school-year-long stint, Drake says he’s already seen progress in the group, from shy, standoffish kids taking on leadership roles to a cynical, too-cool teenager who broke into un-self-conscious song in front of his peers.
Nhu Le, a 4-H Urban Outreach employee who runs after-school programs for the low-income community, says the ESL students in the Urban Forest Adventures program, most of whom are Burmese refugees, talk about Primitive Pursuits in school. “They talk about it to all of their teachers and get really excited for it,” Le said. “There’s this one kid who comes to programs, he just gets really into it and focuses. It funnels his energy in a really positive way.”
The value of anecdotal data notwithstanding, Wells will evaluate the effects of Urban Forest Adventures by surveying participants in youth-friendly fashion: Kids will be asked to jump different distances to indicate their responses. In addition to evaluating cognitive functioning, Wells plans to study attitudes about preservation, fear of the wild and preferences about where to spend free time.
The human preference for a connection with nature is well documented. In a 1990 study published by Timber Press, 99 percent of residents in a retirement community said living within an attractive landscape is “important or essential.” In another, office workers told researchers that they felt calmer and more relaxed with plants around.
Environmentalists argue that the link is intuitively obvious. Even now, a time when much of society regards the natural world as a dangerous and mysterious place, lovers buy each other flowers, children surround themselves with stuffed animals and one of the most wildly successful marketing campaigns in years features a talking gecko.
Drake believes the program, too, taps into an instinctual fondness for the wild.
“We had a day when we were out hiking and up ahead somebody spotted something fly in. It was a pileated woodpecker hanging out at the top of a tree we were at the base of, calling off to a partner in the distance. They’re very otherworldly when you see them flying. They have this long beak, long head and arced wing; you can’t help but think of some kind of teradactyl,” he said.
“You could see this bright glowing red crest on this bird. Everybody was very quiet and in awe,” Drake continued. “It was the world around them coming alive, with food you can eat, animals you can track and stories written in the snow.”
The program, funded by a $27,000 More Kids in the Woods grant from the National Forest Service, meets Tuesday afternoons. Interested participants can call 272 2292, ext. 261.