These Outdoor Education Programs Are Inspiring the Next Generation of Climate Activists
Across America, youth-centered nonprofits are reshaping the face of the environmental movement
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For those of us who have benefited from an outdoor upbringing, it can be easy to forget that taking a family walk in the woods is an immense privilege. Many marginalized groups have limited access to the natural world, and in some families there may be no precedent for even deliberately cultivating a relationship with it.
Meanwhile, youth are grappling with climate anxiety. One recent global study found that 59 percent of young people aged 16 to 25 were extremely concerned about climate change, and more than 45 percent of them said this negatively impacted their daily lives. The good news, according to another study, is that participating in collaborative, hands-on educational activities related to climate change is one proven way to ease the distress. These activities can also help kids find community in environmental stewardship, which is key to creating a sustainable movement—youth who make a shared positive local impact are more likely to remain invested in climate action as adults.
Organizations are popping up worldwide to provide more outdoor access and environmental education to youth, fostering the next generation of advocates for our planet. From New Mexico’s Navajo Nation to the school gardens of Charleston, we identified five programs across the U.S. that have proven track records of igniting kids’ interest in the natural world and inspiring them to fight for outdoor equity and climate justice in their own backyards.
The Green Heart Project, Charleston, South Carolina
In an age where young students aren’t guaranteed any outdoor activity during the day—just ten states in the country require recess in elementary school, for an average of 25 minutes—The Green Heart Project is setting a better precedent with its farm to school program, which brings kids into a garden for one hour every week through the year. Started in 2009 with a third grade class at Mitchell Elementary, Green Heart now operates in 18 public and private schools throughout Charleston (including three schools added this year), and has built a successful model for hands-on food and outdoor education between its bountiful vegetable gardens and lesson plans covering food, health, science, and the environment. The in-school and after-school program, serving pre-K to 12th grade, reached 3,900 students last year, and expects to reach 5,000 this year. “Our core value is to respect, so we have three rules: respect yourself, your buddies, and the earth,” says Amanda Howell, Green Heart’s development director. “When you have that as a core value and that experience nurturing the garden and understanding how food grows, where it comes from, and the impact on the earth, it is raising a generation of kids to have this fundamental respect for the environment and a drive to do something about it.”
Aaron Johnson, who recently graduated from the Charleston Charter School for Math and Science, started with Green Heart as a third-grader at the program’s flagship elementary school and has since returned to participate in all three summers of its eight-week youth internship program, which entails working in school gardens and engaging in educational sessions on food systems, healthy living, career preparedness, and environmental and financial literacy. “Working on Green Heart projects has changed how I eat and my perspective on life while having fun and learning how to live off the land, even in the most unexpected spots,” says Johnson.
Howell says that these days, the community is more interested in the gardens than ever: “Especially after the COVID spike, people have shown a new appreciation for the food system and where food comes from.” During the pandemic, she’s also seen many high school interns becoming inspired to study sustainable agriculture, gardening therapy, and social justice work. “If our high school students are a testament to the next generation of climate leaders,” Howell adds, “I feel pretty good about the direction we’re going in.”
K’é Community Trail Building Program, Crownpoint, New Mexico
This past summer, amid 90-degree heat, sagebrush, and sandstone plateaus, 17-year-old Caleb Jack found himself carrying giant rocks as he worked to create a half-mile of the Hashtłishnii Trail, completing a one-mile loop in his Crownpoint community of the Navajo Nation, the largest Indian reservation and tribe in the United States, with over 27,000 square miles and 400,000 residents. Jack is one of five paid interns who worked on the four-week K’é Community Trail Building Program, which launched in 2018. He says he’s learned more than he imagined, from trail design to Leave No Trace principles: “I have an idea now of how to protect our land and take it back to how it used to look.”
Virginia Nelson, program supervisor in the Office of Diné Youth, says Navajo applicants were selected based on their interest in environmental science. “Some interns came from 25 miles away and worked from 8 A.M. to 5 P.M.,” says Nelson. “Passing by the trail, seeing it being used by local community members, after-school students, and their own families, the interns feel very proud of their work.”
Daniel Vandever, who coordinates trail development, says the program was designed to give kids hands-on experience in trail design and rehabilitation, offer safe walking paths in town, hold space for youth to connect with different educators—from places like Chaco Culture National Historical Park and the Navajo Nation Climate Change Program—and expose kids to various career options associated with outdoor recreation and community development.
“Whether this program leads to a path toward community development, conservation and stewardship, or climate activism, is up to them. The important thing is they have the option,” says Vandever, who’s also an acclaimed children’s book author and owner of South of Sunrise Creative, a strategic communications firm that helps advance higher education initiatives through community development.
Generation Wild, Colorado
After creating local parks and trails with communities across the state for 20 years, Great Outdoors Colorado saw that kids were spending less and less time outside. Since 1992, GOCO has been receiving 50 percent of the proceeds from the Colorado Lottery to protect wetlands, rivers, and open spaces. In 2017, GOCO launched the Generation Wild initiative with a 29 million dollar investment, “with the intent being that if kids and towns can’t connect to the outdoors, they won’t be compelled to advocate for it in the future,” says executive director Jackie Miller, who helped spearhead the project. GenWild funds central community hubs, which it calls coalitions, that bring families together to not only get outdoors but also imagine new ways of engaging with nature.
Today, there are 12 coalitions across the state, which have collectively reached more than 40,000 youth through programs, jobs, internships, and volunteer opportunities. In addition to free community events for all ages, such as trash cleanups in Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge or Pencils in the Park art lessons in Pikes Peak, GenWild has offered 1,598 paid opportunities for kids ages 15 to 22. These include positions leading land stewardship projects on public lands, organizing recreational activities at nature centers, and leading environmental education workshops.
Prior to rolling out GenWild, Miller says GOCO looked at what the barriers were to getting youth outside and gear was top of the list, followed by lack of time and lack of representation. “We knew we had to provide resources,” she says. “Now there are many gear lending libraries such as Get Outdoors Leadville at Colorado Mountain College, which is a hub for their Generation Wild activity.” Miller credits part of the program’s success to experiences that allow for bonding with peers, creating a sense of community, and generating personal growth by doing things kids never thought they could.
That has been the case for Jovani, a high school senior from Sheridan, who’s been involved with the program since he was in seventh grade, and has worked in various paid GenWild positions for the past six years. “The people in my community notice the work we do—the gardens, the river cleanups, the rain barrel installations, planting over 40 trees in our neighborhood. I think it gives people hope in our community and more faith in those around us,” says Jovani, who got a tree tattoo to show his love for nature. “I’ll stand up for natural places no matter the cost.” Besides discovering a love of camping and public speaking—despite being an introvert, he points out—Jovani has found a passion for water sampling. “It’s actually quite fun to go into the river and test the quality of the water to make sure that every little organism lives and prospers so that the entire ecosystem is healthy. It helps everyone around us to get this data down so that people can be informed because it impacts us all as a community together,” says Jovani, who was just hired as the water assistant at a GenWild affiliated organization, Groundwork Denver.
Urban Ecology Center, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
The Menomonee Valley branch of the Urban Ecology Center sits on the southern bend of the Menomonee River, between 24-acre Three Bridges Park to the north and Silver City, one of Milwaukee’s most diverse neighborhoods, to the south. “For the last ten years, we’ve been building a positive connection with nature,” says branch manager Angélica Sánchez. “Whether it’s a third-grade class learning about the rock cycle with our Neighborhood Environmental Education Project, a summer camper catching a frog for the first time, or one of our after-school Valley Explorers making their own kite from items found in nature.”
As with all three inner city UEC locations in Milwaukee, the Menomonee Valley branch shows how nature is all around us, that families don’t have to make a long trip outside of the city to find it. Sánchez understands that it can be hard for kids in cities to think of their local green spaces as safe places to learn and grow. “Fostering a space in which kids can explore, learn with a mentor, and see themselves reflected is key to our mission,” says Sánchez, adding that her branch interacts with roughly 20,000 kids every year within a two-mile radius of the center. “We want kids to see the parks we manage as theirs, their park in their own backyard that they can steward and care for.”
One eight-year-old Valley Explorer participant spoke proudly of how they feel more connected to and protective of the environment now than before participating in the UEP program. “I’ve learned how to get from place to place in the park, and am getting to know the park and its hiking trails. I’ve learned how to be kind to animals,” says the Valley Explorer, recalling memorable moments when they learned how to fish, touched a turtle, and studied a salamander. “I love handling the animals and I like to run around outside with the other kids.”
Sánchez has watched kids light up when they are active in the outdoors, climbing trees and connecting directly with creatures—especially while pond dipping and digging for worms—and how profound those seemingly simple experiences can be for them. “We have seen some of our elementary-age students come back as high school outdoor leaders, summer interns, and even staff,” she says.
Community Nature Connection, Los Angeles, California
When the pandemic put a halt to much of Community Nature Connection’s programming, the six-year-old nonprofit took the forced pause as an opportunity to reflect on how best to broaden access to nature for those most affected by racism, socio-economics, disability, and gender bias. The organization has always centered its work around marginalized youth, but CNC’s new executive director, Delaney Alamillo, says that moving forward there needs to be a greater awareness of the urban environment as a mecca of discovery, with its own rich tapestry of plant and animal species. Instead of initiating participants at one of CNC’s coastal sites or a distant mountain trail, the program is going first to where its youth actually live, seeking a mutual understanding of what exists there. “Outdoor learning doesn’t have to take place in a natural setting,” says Alamillo, who will put this message into practice at 20 elementary schools in Los Angeles this coming spring.
One of CNC’s major new projects is the Akuutet Learning Nursery, situated in Elyria Canyon Park in Northeast L.A. Opening this year, the native plant nursery will aid restoration efforts in the area while also operating as a community engagement site for public education. “We’re planning to recruit nearby high school students at Sotomayor Arts and Sciences Magnet as paid interns to work in the nursery,” says 23-year-old Tawny De Guzman, CNC’s new nursery and restoration coordinator. “They’ll learn techniques like developing a seed bank and have the experience with native milkweed propagation to support the declining monarch populations.” During college, De Guzman worked with the National Park Service as well as with CNC on a restoration team, helping to lead a project planting more than 50,000 plants in the Santa Monica Mountains. She says this new full-time role at Community Nature Connection is a dream job. “My position perfectly combines restoration, field work, native plants, and increasing environmental justice for communities that are marginalized, folks like me who had no idea these mountains and natural spaces existed and were readily available to people in L.A.”