Children today spend as much as 90% of their lives indoors, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The effects on health are obvious. But, brain development? A California Department of Education study found that at-risk students who participated in outdoor education programs saw their science scores jump 27%, while boosting self-esteem and motivation to learn.
This is something the team at Santa Barbara’s Wilderness Youth Project (WYP) knows intrinsically. The 21-year-old nonprofit has a simple slogan: “Spending time in nature makes children smarter, healthier, and happier.”
Alongside afterschool services, summer camps, and teen camping trips, the organization’s marquis program is “Bridge to Nature,” a program that takes 4th graders on a 3.5-hour nature-based adventure once a month.
Despite having more than 80 percent of its students receiving free or reduced lunch, Franklin Elementary on Santa Barbara’s Eastside has become an oasis of promise with vibrant afterschool programs, dedicated teachers, and the Wilderness Youth Project.
“For me as a classroom teacher, I have really seen a change in the students in regards to how they view nature,” says 4th grade teacher Marlen Limón. “I love how they come back and are so excited and want to share how their day went. They are writing narratives about WYP, understanding science through hands-on learning, and just vocalizing how they love to be outdoors.”
On a recent Thursday, one of Limón’s students joined a pair of WYP’s experienced mentors and his classmates on a trip to Lizard’s Mouth, 20 minutes up into the Santa Barbara mountains. The group made time to play “coyotes and fawns” – a nature-based version of tag. They journaled and they made the steep hike to the top, with its sweeping views down over the shining blue expanse of the Pacific.
“I look out and see the ocean, the town, the world,” the 4th grader wrote from his perch. “This is one place where I can just be who I am: I can run, jump, sit, hide, and explore. I am amazed by this place and wonder what extraordinary animals live here.”
The WYP team loves seeing that kind of exuberance from their young charges. It’s that “kinetic joy” children get when exposed to nature.
WYP doles out nature-based joy to 1,000 children and adults every year.