I do not consider myself to have the expertise that so many have in Outdoor Education, especially those that really have devoted careers to it. However, I do think I have acquired some skill in it and I’ve worked to capture a particular flavor to it— I’m beginning to see myself more and more as a “bridge” between being Chicano/Latino and having an appreciation for the enjoyment and care of the outdoors (and environmental issues in general). At this moment I will not delve too much into categories, definitions, and the like, for that I recommend you check out my main website. Rather, what I would like to provide here is more of a brief narrative of how I got to where I am connecting to outdoor education and a general appreciation for the outdoors.
The research shows that “an outdoor childhood experience” is a significant and defining factor for those that grow to love the outdoors or make careers out of that passion. I think I partly fall in that category but maybe not exactly following the expected pattern.
Growing up in Mexico I had access to the outdoors but I never thought of it as “the outdoors” in the somewhat separate context it may be seen here in the US, such as “going camping to the outdoors”. Rather, it was more like “I’m going to go help my grandpa tend to his field and we are going to walk there” or “I’m going to go play in the riverbeds and come back for dinner”—the outdoors was an accessible and daily part of childhood play. Furthermore, the whole idea of a “protected natural space” did not hit me until much later here in the US. In particular I remember trying to go to Yosemite with the family for the first time— with no clue whatsoever what it meant to go to Yosemite.
We didn’t make it.
What we did not know was that it cost money to get in and in foolish retrospect we tried going when the roads were snowy. We did not have enough for the entrance and we did not have snow chains. We turned back and I would not return until many more years later—but I still recall that moment, thinking how my dad too was trying to figure out what made this place so special they had to charge—and that we couldn’t afford it.
Returning to Yosemite years later I can now happily say I’ve climbed half dome and that I “get it” why Yosemite is a special place– but forever part of my memories will be that experience of first trying to get there, and the “failure” of not making it past the gate.
Around that same in 6th grade I also had my first “science camp” experience. I had two actually, one with the regular school year (Foothill Horizons!) and a summer one through the Migrant Education Program (Green Meadows!). I do not consider them defining moments in my love for the outdoors, specifically that they are a place to protect and worthy of study….but I think it was definitely a start. In fact I’m not sure if I can clearly point back to a moment but I do think it those initial experience were key in exposing me to those opportunities and creating a reference point to which I could return. And specifically it would be my experience in college with the CA Mini-Corps Outdoor Education Program and beyond that provided the training and experiences that built on those early childhood opportunities.
To explain the CA Mini-Corps Outdoor Ed program in a nutshell: college students with a migrant background serve as outdoor instructors to migrant students in a one week residential program focusing on art, language arts, and science in an outdoor setting. But it’s mobile. Every week the team may move to a new part of the state. And thus through that experience I had the opportunity to experience the natural wonders of the state and learn from so many places and people. I learned from an outdoor education library from the 1950′s in the San Bernardino Mountains, from naturalists at a school by the beach near San Luis Obispo, from wandering the redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and from hiking the hills around Napa. The learning continued from starting as an instructor and working my way up to leading a team. Now I’ve had the opportunity to train teams and team leaders. Later when I taught at a middle school I would continue to put those skills to practice by taking kids on hikes in the nearby natural spaces so I could share what was available in their own backyards.
This, along with having like-minded friends, played a big part in taking the next step and going on to get my MS from the School of Natural Resources & Environment at the University of Michigan.
Jumping to the now, I think about what opportunities we get and take in terms of enjoying public natural spaces– In particular opportunities for Latino/Chicano communities. I think about how for many kids we serve, it may be their very first time experiencing the outdoors— and it could matter the way we are presenting it. Sometimes all the kids take away is a “bunch of trees”, other times a rich learning experience. In the Mini-Corps program the fascinating part is that it’s not only a learning experience for the students but for the instructors as well. I know it was certainly for me.
So what am I getting at? I like to think I have background in education and an interest in the arts. But as to a connection to the outdoors and environmental awareness issues, I could not necessarily see in my future. But I’m so glad it is a part of me. And I will continue to look for ways to keep growing and make the connections in all my interest areas.
And are there other lessons? I’m sure several could be drawn, but I would at also say that we need to keep providing those opportunities for the diverse youth of today— Kids will put it together, we just need to help, with neither doing it all for them, nor getting in their way.