Out In It

By Chris Thurber

Within five seconds, I can tell which kids have spent time in nature. I simply give each youngster a stick of artists’ charcoal the size of a AAA battery. The ones who wrinkle their noses at the marks the charcoal makes on their fingers are the newbies. And so begins my favorite outdoor-education activity.

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Next, I walk with the dozen kids and my co-leader into the woods. Amid the queries of, “Where are we going?” and “How will we find our way back?” and “Will there be bugs?” I remain silent, letting the kids wonder alone or formulate an answer as a group. At least one youngster will make a half-hearted joke about dangerous wildlife that—unbeknownst to them—doesn’t exist in North America but fits their Netflix paradigm of a forest: “Watch for cobras” or “This is tiger territory.”

When we’ve walked long enough so we can no longer see, hear, or smell civilization, I ask the kids to form a circle. I review what poison ivy looks like and how to perform a tick check, and remind everyone that I have the Epi-Pen and the inhaler. Then I hand out white, 4 x 6 index cards and explain what’s going to happen.

“When everyone is ready, you’re going to turn around and walk 150 paces into the woods. Walk away from the center of the circle here, so that we end up spread out like the tips of a twelve-pointed star. Then sit down and close your eyes. Keep them closed for 10 minutes. Just listen. Smell. Feel.

“At the end of about 10 minutes, open your eyes and look around. Notice what’s right in front of you. Notice what’s far away. And notice what’s in between. After about five minutes of noticing, I want you to draw what you see. Draw anything, big or small. Whether you consider yourself a good drawer or not doesn’t matter. Just use your charcoal and your index card and draw what you see. Anything.

“Everything I just explained will take about half an hour total, at the end of which I’ll blow my whistle. When I do, please return here where we started. Just follow the sound of my whistle and walk back. When we’re all back, we can share what we noticed and describe what we drew.”

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From The Mouths Of Campers
The magic of this activity, which I call “Out In It,” hinges on two constructs: intentional downshifting and natural beauty. Because the pace of life for many of us has reached a fever pitch, opportunities to reflect, digest, and ponder have become rare. By protecting the space and time to quiet one’s mind and body, “Out In It” dissolves the distraction that prevents most people from savoring the natural world.

Humans are the only species whose evolution has included inventions that neglect, pillage, and mask nature. Some of this is beneficial: I prefer to coat my skin with a chemical that repels mosquitoes rather than endure bites. Some of this is detrimental: I fail to notice most of my surroundings when I use my smartphone to navigate.

Once we downshift, though, we notice. And once we notice, we begin to benefit from being in nature. But don’t take my word for it. Listen to what kids say when they return from just a half hour of “Out In It”:

  • “I watched an ant for a really long time. It was dragging a piece of a bug with its mouth, but it kept dropping it. He never gave up, though … just kept picking it back up and dragging it some more.”

  • “I heard some kind of bird, way off to my left. Then it was quiet. A few seconds later, I heard the bird again, but this time, it was off to my right. Then I realized there were two birds and they were talking to each other.”

  • “The ground was a little wet where I stopped, so I didn’t want to sit down. Then I found some dry leaves and piled them on my spot so I had a dry place to sit. Everything makes a sound in the woods, even dry leaves. It would be impossible to sneak up on someone.”

  • “I drew a pine cone. I saw one and turned it over, and there were tons of little bugs underneath where the pine cone had started to rot. Actually, the rotten side was way more interesting than the non-rotten side.”

  • “I thought about school. We’re moving later this summer, and I don’t want to go to a new school and try to make new friends. But I felt a little better when I closed my eyes. I could smell the rain from last night. It just helped me feel calmer.”

  • “I watched a chipmunk eat an acorn. When he saw me, he froze … and so did I. Eventually, he started moving again and he found an acorn. He chewed and chewed to get to the inside. The best part was watching how he used his hands to hold the acorn.”

  • “I lost track of time, so I didn’t draw anything. I might have actually fallen asleep for a little while before you blew the whistle.”

  • “This year, in science, we talked about photosynthesis. I used to call everything in nature a plant or an animal. Then I learned that mushrooms and lichen and stuff are funguses or fungi. They don’t use photosynthesis.”

Every youngster’s experience with this activity is different, of course, but they all enjoy slowing down and seeing beauty. The natural world does have violence and chaos, but it mostly exudes order, symmetry, harmony, and productivity. When young people witness how the natural world looks, sounds, feels, smells, and even tastes, they return to it, irrepressibly. In so doing, they come to know themselves and their fellow living things better. They discover, intuitively, that the earth is shared space.

This summer, protect some time to downshift and appreciate the great outdoors, in whatever way feels most pure to you. Mountains of research detail the physical and mental-health benefits of such experiences, but most of us are not inclined to read scientific journals. So walk right past the library and leave the smartphone at home. Spend time in nature and experience the benefits for yourself.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a board-certified clinical psychologist who enjoys creating and presenting original educational content. He serves on the faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy and consults with schools, camps, and other youth-serving organizations worldwide. Learn more at: DrChrisThurber.com.