Grantee Profile: Wild Earth and The Transformative Power of Wilderness
In his 2008 book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv identified what he calls nature-deficit disorder. “By the 1990s,” he writes, “the radius around the home where children were allowed to roam on their own had shrunk to a ninth of what it had been in 1970.” He explains, “average eight-year-olds are better able to identify cartoon characters than native species, such as beetles and oak trees, in their own community.”
The solution, Louv says, is environment-based education, which not only enriches the lives of participants but correlates with decreased obesity and depression and even better test scores. Nobody knows this better than David Brownstein, executive director and co-founder of Wild Earth. An LEP grantee partner since 2014, Wild Earth develops programs with local schoolchildren to provide transformative outdoor education experiences.
A typical day at one of Wild Earth’s programs might involve fire building, shelter building, hiking, storytelling, exploring, and navigating the landscape; making stone tools; learning camping and survival skills; and plenty of games and play, all in the outdoors. Participants say the programs resonate with them on multiple levels. “This is a different experience for me,” says one young attendee. “I feel like I’m at home.”
Brownstein is a firm believer in the transformative power of nature. He’s been working with local youth organizations and public schools (as well as reaching out to attendees directly) to help introduce children to the opportunities offered by the outdoors.
Q&A with David Brownstein
What inspired you to launch Wild Earth?
When I moved to the area, I was hoping to find activities for my children that focused on unstructured exploring, playing, and learning in the woods. When I didn’t find that, I was inspired to launch Wild Earth with others. The natural beauty and open spaces of the Hudson Valley are special. There’s so much to explore and so much that the land in the Hudson Valley offers us.
How does Wild Earth relate to the overall health of our communities? Is there a broader need that you’re fulfilling?
The feedback that we’ve received from parents is that when their kids got out of our program, they felt different. They were establishing character, qualities, and competencies that they weren’t really getting elsewhere. They were more helpful. They were appropriately tired and hungry.
This experience is helping to regenerate a healthy community culture. One specific example of this is our Ropes Teen Program where high school teams are in the woods with us one night a month. Instead of getting in trouble on Friday night, they’re coming into the woods and having an authentic experience with each other. They’re getting the guidance of people who are just beyond where they are, from 20-somethings and up. That, to us, is giving them appropriate role models who they can count on and contact if needed. Besides their mother or father, they might call their Wild Earth instructor or mentor and say, “I’m having a hard time with this relationship and I don’t really know what to do, can you give me some counsel?”
Do your instructors have a common background?
It’s mixed. We’ve brought on instructors who are part of other nature connection communities in Vermont and the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts, so several of them come from those areas and have chosen to make their homes in the Hudson Valley. Many others are from the Hudson Valley, including several who have grown up in our programs to become leaders. Some of our instructors are environmental educators, others have native skills expertise, and others are just great with kids and love the outdoors.
How are you collaborating with the Kingston City School District?
We’d been partnering with the school district for three years. It started with the possibility of doing an extended school day at Kingston, and with funding support from partners like the Local Economies Project, we were able to offer an after-school program at JFK Elementary. This evolved to become an all-day program for fifth graders, and luckily, school district officials recognized the value of kids getting out of the building to learn and to connect with each other.
Our collaboration with Kingston is a model that we’d like to continue to build upon. We currently only get to interact with the kids for one full school day a year, and we’d eventually like to see those kids for up to 18 to 20 days a year. That’s challenging, with the testing calendar and academic pressure, but we have a great partner in the Kingston district, which sees the benefit of the program.
What other collaborations do you have in the Hudson Valley?
We can’t do our programming without large expanses of land, and Wild Earth doesn’t own any land. Through a partnership, Scenic Hudson provides us with large parcels of land we can use for our programming in Kingston and Newburgh.
The old IBM recreation center land is right outside of Kingston, and for those kids to be participating in a program that’s literally in their own backyard makes all the difference. They’re right on land that they will be able to visit and use in the future, even without our involvement.
What does a typical Wild Earth experience look like?
There are certain pieces that all of our programs have.
All experiences involve a large canvas of nature where a person can feel appropriately sized. This offers an opportunity to get a real perspective. A second part is always the opportunity to meet multi-generational mentors. This is all about creating a village or tribe in the woods. When kids get out there, they’re seeing people of all ages.
All programs start with gratitude and what everyone is thankful for. Then the program takes a lot of different directions based on the season and what the day offers us. For example, when it’s snowing we might focus on tracking. During the fall, we typically work on debris huts and shelters.
What else is on the horizon for Wild Earth?
We’d like to continue to develop our programming with underserved urban school districts. We have four urban centers within 25 miles of our headquarters—Poughkeepsie, Ellenville, Newburgh, and Kingston—that are targets for us in making sure that youths in those communities have the opportunity to experience nature. With those urban centers and the with the incredible beauty in the Hudson Valley, it’s a shame not to bring those two things together, and that’s our focus.
Learn more about Wild Earth.
Banner Photo Credit: Maggie Heinzel-Neel