Commentary

Lifelong loves: Childhood and the outdoors

Olivia Cap shares how loving the oudoors shaped her life into becoming an oudoor educator, and why being outside is vital to child development. 

Allies and Partners

Editor’s note: — This is one in a continuing series of guest opinions about fostering environmental stewardship with an appreciation for our surroundings and the well being of future generations. The series is coordinated by ACES, the Alliance of Climate and Environmental Stewards.

"To say that my childhood was spent outdoors is an understatement."

Rambling through Maudslay barefoot, tidepooling on Plum Island, and playing out on the street until the streetlights came on — this was my childhood.

The timelessness of childhood was fostered and captured in the moments when I could just wander and explore, and play was simply facilitated by the curiosities and surprises found in the outdoors. But, it would be untrue to say that my outdoor experiences were only guided by my two wandering feet and a curious spirit.

Like many, I looked to trusted teachers to lead the way. I became enamored with Boat Camp and the mysteries I found on the F/V Erica Lee and Merrimack River. Summer after summer went by and I always returned to Merrohawke; first as a participant, then as teen staff, and now as leadership staff.

As a young 20-something, when I wasn’t on the F/V Erica Lee, I was scuba diving and caring for reef fish at the New Orleans Aquarium or crawling around tidepools in northeast Maine looking for periwinkle snails and green crabs for my academic research.

"But why does this matter?"

My time spent outdoors as a child created an unconditional love of the outdoors. A love that is so strong I simply had to become an outdoor educator and share the many gifts of the outdoors with others.

At Merrohawke Nature School, I am able to help young children establish a respectful and deep connection with nature, be it on land or at sea.

Not only am I able to spend countless hours exploring Boxford State Forest and fishing on the F/V Erica Lee, I am also able to engage in our community to strengthen nature connection in our youths.

In the summer of 2021 alone, Merrohawke provided outdoor education for more than 500 students. If even just one of them becomes captivated by nature, then our future will be better for it.

The benefits of being outside

By creating place-based nature programs, Merrohawke helps foster a connection between our students and the environments that surround them. This connection, along with time spent outdoors, allows youths to become confident advocates for themselves and the natural world.

Time spent outdoors has also been linked to improved physical health as well as professional or academic success through enhanced skills in leadership, self-awareness, critical thinking and creativity.

The impact of a pandemic

Childhood has certainly changed in many ways. Screen time, video games, highly competitive sports and a global pandemic has shifted the way in which children experience, or don’t experience, the outdoors.

Pre-pandemic, children would only spend, on average, four to seven minutes a day engaged in unstructured outdoor play and as many as nine hours in front of an electronic screen. The timelessness of childhood has become burdened with the demands of our new world.

We are in our third COVID-19 school year, and with that continues more time spent in isolation and in front of screens. Now, more than ever, it is crucial that the children of our community step away from screens and intentionally, and thoughtfully, step into the outdoors.

A daily wander in the woods for a child may only be a wander in the woods — but it also has the potential to be the start of a meaningful and resilient relationship with nature that will serve the child, and our community, for a lifetime.

Olivia Cap is the development and community engagement manager, teacher, at Merrohawke Nature School and may be reached at olivia@merrohawke.org.

This column was coordinated by ACES Youth Corps member Caleb Bradshaw. To share any comments or questions, send an email to acesnewburyport@gmail.com. To learn more about ACES, go to www.aces-alliance.org.

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about the author
Olivia Cap

Olivia Cap is the Development and Community Engagement Manager and Forest Kindergarten teacher at Merrohawke Nature School. Olivia received her BA in Environmental Science & Policy from Smith College, where she studied conservation ethics in marine ecosystems. She is always eager to get outside and share the importance of outdoor education with others.

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