Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Children Use the Great Outdoors as a Classroom for Life


OAC students on a fall hike. 

Every child is born a naturalist. His eyes are, by nature, open to the glories of the stars, the beauty of the flowers, and the mystery of life, observed Indian writer, Ritu Ghatourey.

That takes your work to a more meaningful level when you know that you could change someone’s life through nature. It’s important to introduce children to nature because there are social, cognitive, physical, emotional, and even financial benefits to developing a lifelong relationship with nature. Some children discover nature early while others discover it a little later.

Chelsea Manning, the new Program Coordinator for the Outdoor Adventure Clubs of Greater Cincinnati, says, I have a degree in Public Relations but when I graduated I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. My parents told me to follow my passion.  So she worked with inner city children in Cincinnati. Then after a while she moved on to work with underserved children at Brighton Center and that’s where she met Denny McFadden, the founder and executive director of OAC. She volunteered as a self described weekend warrior and then took on her current duties as Program Coordinator for OAC, the organizers of the highly successful Paddlefest (and the most visible fundraiser for OAC) and the outdoor club for underserved teens.


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 Chelsea came to her appreciation of nature though her parents. Her father, Chris Manning, whose Human Nature company designs outdoor spaces like Washington Park in Cincinnati and the pocket parks in Fort Thomas. Chelsea’s mother, Paula, says that they introduced her to the great outdoors when they took her hiking at seven weeks old. Even though Chelsea may not remember that moment, it certainly has influenced her.

Chris says From a young child, she was always curious about nature and inspired by the wonders of being outdoors.  She constantly wanted to explore, and nature was almost always the subject of her art and writing.  As she grew older, appreciating the strong community of support that she had grown up with, she began to really show an interest in helping those who might not have the same support and opportunities, particularly challenged urban youth. 

Chelsea Manning at 7 weeks in the woods. Courtesy Chris Manning.

Chelsea says  I loved playing in the woods, building forts, riding my bike, street roller hockey,  shooting hoops, swimming, soccer, and playing in the creek. The list goes on! And now she wants to share that same joy with a younger generation who have not experienced that joy.


She says Our organization is called Outdoor Adventure Clubs of Greater Cincinnati.  We are a non-profit,  founded by a retired high school teacher from Hughes High School, Denny McFadden.  We are partnered with all Cincinnati public schools, as well as Newport, Dayton,  Bellevue, and Ludlow schools. We take inner city high school kids outdoors. Last year we took out 3,000 inner city students, all of them voluntary. We take them hiking, biking, skiing, kayaking, etc. This is all at no cost to them. For example, this summer we took the seniors on a leadership trip to Red River Gorge. Our motto is No Child Left Inside.

OACGC’s website say that they are dedicated to connecting urban high school students with nature and the outdoors through positive, engaging, and free recreation, education, and conservation activities.  Our team is committed to making a difference in the lives of underserved youth by creating a safe environment for healthy physical, social, and emotional development while fostering good stewardship of green spaces and a better understanding of the environment.

Chelsea says that My role as Program Director includes all of the logistics - going out with the youth every Saturday, coordinating those outings, lunches, transportation, forming relationships, managing the teachers who join us on outings, networking, attending our fundraisers, and most of all, connecting one on one with the children then telling their stories through our newsletter.  Oh, and she often helps some of the students with their studies. She is that dedicated.

There is research to back up the success that Chelsea and OAC is experiencing. It is pretty well agreed that a lack of interaction with nature contributes to social, emotional, and cognitive development problems.  It is called Nature Deficit Disorder and is not a medical condition but it describes behaviors that coincide with the lack of natural stimulation.  In his pivotal book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louve wrote that Nature Deficit Disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses, detected in individuals, families and communities, can even change human behavior in cities. And that was a point of inspiration for OAC.

And they are succeeding. Chelsea tells a story about a girl from an impoverished and crowded home where food and even electricity was a recurring problem.  The teen signed up at her school but was reluctant to open up. She held back. She discounted some activities and motivations. That was until they hiked Natural Bridge. Chelsea says that When we reached the top of Natural Bridge she looked around and got this big smile and hugged me. She wanted her photograph taken on top of the arch. This young lady had accomplished something significant to her and she was proud of it.  And nothing has stopped her since. Sometimes the simplest things provide the gateway for the biggest epiphanies.  Chelsea beams when she tells the story.
Chelsea and student at the top of Natural Bridge.
Executive Director Denny McFadden talks about how students learn to cooperate doing something as simple as a kayak trip down the Little Miami. They help each other when they tip over and the encourage each other to continue. It’s natural, not forced, and a very, very effective growth moment.  The same thing goes for when they hike, bike, ski, skate, or rock climb.

It’s important for children to get a strong foundation in nature. Katie Wefer Cook, owner of Natural Start Preschool in the fort, understands that all too well. She has observed that When we are hiking or just spending time in the areas of the park, the children become more supportive of one another. They will hold a friend’s water bottle for them when they are tired. They help a friend climb up to the next branch so they can get a little higher. They take turns leading each other through the creek bed and grab each other’s attention to see something amazing they found on a leaf. I can see a rise in their manners towards one another and can see our classroom community building before my eyes.  That is a wonderful foundation but not all children are so fortunate.

And Chelsea Manning and the Outdoor Adventure Clubs of Greater Cincinnati are building a natural foundation for underserved inner city teens.

If we remove ourselves from nature then we remove ourselves from a vital part of being human. We are part of the world not apart from it.  A dependency on technology for work and diversions or living in an impoverished part of a city contributes to that isolation. The best room in any house should be outside. Seriously. There is room to play, to talk, to explore, to relax, to grow, to renew. Remember how renewed you felt after a walk through a park or after a camping trip? Well, there are lots of kids who do not have that opportunity and that is why Outdoor Adventure Clubs exists.  And since we can’t bring a forest, lakes, rivers, gardens, to kids in the city then those kids need to get out to those places. And that is where the Outdoor Adventure Clubs and Chelsea Manning come into play.


Chelsea leads a hike in the woods.
As I have matured, I have seen these children in need, and now, I have found the best way to address that, through nature and physical activity. It builds confidence,  reduces stress,  and sparks creativity. I have worked with inner city kids for 10 years, and finally found the perfect outlet for them.  It combines my 2 passions - working with  inner city kids and nature.  

Visit their website to learn more or to contribute - http://www.outdooradventureclubs.org.

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