July 31, 2013

The Best Classroom Might Be Your Backyard. ~ Michelle Welsch

Photo: Michelle Welsch

I grew up with dogs in my backyard, neighbors to bike with, and mountains to explore.

My fondest memories include hide-and-seek in cornfields, riding horses across dusty prairies and sunbathing on freshly cut grass. When I was little, my mom would scream at me to come inside at sundown, leveraging dinner and television to bribe me inside (not always effective).

Even now, in moments of uncertainty and stress, I head to the hills. Nature has a way of bringing me answers and peace when I think there is none.  A long hike listening to rustling leaves reminds me of a deep, ancient sense of knowing—a reminder that I have all the information I need if I’m willing to pause. My best ideas most often happen outside, away from gadgets, devices and screens.

Photo: Michelle Welsch

As a whole, we are spending more and more time indoors, connected to computers and sitting at desks. The less time we surround ourselves by green—in environments that energize and inspire us—the further away we move from our innermost callings. We are demonstrating to our children that the outdoors are not important.

I did not realize the simple act of getting outside is a privilege until I moved to New York. You would think (and hope) nature is one of those things that are accessible to everyone. It is not. Not every kid gets a backyard to play in. Not everyone has a teacher, a friend, a father, or a mentor to encourage spontaneous adventures into the wild.

As a social worker in South Bronx, I watched hundreds of grade school students cram into a tiny gym. Kids in NYC public schools (we are talking about a million students) get less than the CDC’s recommended amount of physical activity. Daily recess is not a state requirement. I have watched folks in Boulder crush New York’s mandate for physical education (120 minutes each week for grades K-6; 90 minutes for grades 7-12) in one day.

And then there are the kids who do not feel safe on their own street, so playing outside is certainly not an option. Forget mountains and streams. Consider it luck if there is an older sibling who cares enough to go to the park. First coined in 2005, “Nature Deficit Disorder” is a very real problem.

We need to make getting outside the norm, not the exception. We cannot do much about where our children are born, but we can influence the way in which they learn about and experience nature.

The great outdoors provides an incredible learning experience. Kids have the opportunity to navigate foreign environments, build trust with peers, and develop leadership skills and confidence. They return to the familiar with new-found strength and curiosity.

Photo: Michelle Welsch

It is up to us to get our children outside.

Whether finding a summer camp that reminds us of our own roots or scheduling time on our calendar to hit the trails, we must lead by example. We have the ability to teach our children to treasure natural resources and savor time in nature.

Take your kids to the park today. Support initiatives that provide opportunities for city kids to experience nature and start more conversations on the need for outdoor experiences among our nation’s youth. It will pay off in more ways than one.




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Assistant Ed: Gabriela Magana/Ed: Bryonie Wise

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Michelle Welsch

Michelle Welsch, founder and CEO of Project Exponential, is currently fundraising for the Discover Outdoors Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to connecting inner city kids with outdoor experiences. The foundation has worked closely with academic leaders to implement adventure education programs in over one dozen urban schools. For more information and to support her efforts, click here.

Michelle holds a master’s degree from Columbia University, a psychology degree from the University of Colorado and is a New York State Licensed Masters Social Worker. Before immersing herself in the tech and startup world, Michelle was a probation officer in Boulder, Colorado and worked in a variety of therapeutic settings. Her curated networking dinners encourage meaningful connection and authentic conversation among industry leaders, resulting in new business partnerships, client leads and lasting relationships. Learn more about Michelle on her website.