Commentary

Raising the Next Generation of Environmental Stewards

Many of our youth are tuned out, stressed out and over-scheduled. Youth and adults who regularly spend time outdoors enjoy priceless benefits to mind, body and spirit.

Photo by Ben Wicks on Unsplash
Participating Allies

Editor's note: This is one in a series of guest opinions about fostering environmental stewardship. The series is coordinated by ACES, the Alliance of Climate and Environmental Stewards.

It's a fact that modern childhood has moved indoors. Neighborhood kids no longer adventure outside to play until called home for dinner. On average, American children spend between four and seven minutes a day engaged in unstructured outdoor play (not including organized sports) and as many as nine hours a day in front of an electronic screen. This national trend has paralleled an alarming growth in childhood obesity and prescribed pharmaceuticals for children. Did you know that preschoolers are the fastest growing market for antidepressants? I can’t help but think of this when I see so many adults handing over small screens to youngsters in restaurants, stores and even public parks.

Many of our youth are tuned out, stressed out and over-scheduled. Last Child in the Woods author Richard Louv calls this Nature-Deficit Disorder. And this is not just limited to kids, as it also strikes adults, families, and whole communities.

However, youth and adults who regularly spend time outdoors enjoy priceless benefits to mind, body and spirit. These include improved physical health as well as professional or academic success through greater capacity for leadership, self-awareness, self-confidence, communication, critical thinking and creativity. Further, every generation decides what to protect. If we raise a generation of youth who are disconnected from nature, how can we ensure both their good health and the health of the natural world that sustains us all?

At Merrohawke Nature School we are working to rebuild a culture of nature connection in our community. While spending time in nature is an important habit, rebuilding a lasting culture of nature connection in ourselves, our families and our neighborhoods requires a longer view and deeper commitment. We think seven generations ahead. We ask: What can we do today for the benefit of future generations?

My husband, Capt. Rob Yeomans, and I co-founded Merrohawke in 2007. Originally known as Boat Camp, Merrohawke is no longer a summer-only program aboard a charter boat. As a year-round nature school, Merrohawke is one of at least 75 nature connection organizations nationally -- and 150 internationally -- that emerged out of the 1970s environmental movement and self-identify as an 8 Shields school. Developed by Jon Young in 1983, the founding belief of 8 Shields was that if we can return children to the same intimate relationship to the natural world as was held by our indigenous ancestors, then these children will grow up to consciously appreciate, connect with, and protect the natural world and their community. This ethic is fostered through active mentoring, ancestor awareness, the arts of tracking and survival, and the surrounding culture of elders and adults who value this deep immersion to place. Nationwide, the nature connection movement now serves upwards of 50,000 youth annually. Merrohawke annually serves 2,500 youth living within a 50-mile radius of Newburyport and beyond.

All of our programs provide time to explore the natural world, because this is where the taproot of deep connection to the earth -- land or sea -- takes hold. We intentionally create time for youth to follow their curiosity. They catch mackerel, flounder or striped bass. Watch whales and seabirds. Haul a beach seine net for sandeels. Get muddy. Run wild. Build forts or fancy sandcastles. Race handmade driftwood boats by the shoreline. Dig for seaworms or dig for lost pirate treasure. Climb trees. Catch frogs and fireflies. Carve and coal burn wooden spoons. Weave cordage from milkweed fibers. Tend a fire through from sunset to sunrise. While youth believe they are "just playing outside," recent studies have proven that childhood experiences such as these, and not the more traditional forms of environmental education, directly lead to adults who are active stewards of the earth.

At Merrohawke, we are committed to guiding learning in nature that fosters empathy, resilience, grit, and a deep connection to the earth for the benefit of raising a strong generation of youth, healthy families, a thriving greater Newburyport community, and a flourishing planet.

Kate Yeomans is the co-founder and executive director of Merrohawke Nature School. Learn more at www.merrohawke.org.

This column was coordinated by ACES Intern and NHS Senior, Eleni Protopapas, who can be reached at eleniprotopapas@gmail.com to share any comments or questions. To learn more about ACES and our Youth Leadership Initiative, please view our WEBSITE –  https://www.aces-alliance.org



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about the author
Kate Yeomans

The co-founder of Merrohawke Nature School, Kate has deep roots in the Newburyport waterfront, where she grew up working aboard various passenger boats. She and her team guide youth as they learn in nature with an approach that inspires empathy, resilience, and a deep connection to the earth.

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