Engaging Kids by Getting Outside
By Allyson Scanlon, Family & Youth Advocacy Specialist, Clarina Howard Nichols Center
It is that time again… school is coming to an end for the year and the weather in VT is actually pretty GREAT! It also means that it is a wonderful opportunity to get the time and attention of kids who may be significantly struggling with any number of things. For lots of kids, school may actually be preferable than spending every day at home this summer.
That’s why I feel one of the most important programs we offer through Clarina is our Summer Youth Program. Writing this blog, I’m realizing I should probably try to come up with a more exciting name for it, but the good news is that I have been coordinating and facilitating the program for the past four years and kids keep coming so we must be doing something right!
As an individual who is passionate about the outdoors and physical activity, I just see so many links to positivity, friendship strengthening and growth, self-esteem, team-building and confidence-boosting that can be formed simply by engaging in outdoor activity. Not to mention, here we are blessed to be nestled in the beauty of the Green Mountains. That beauty, especially in summer, is something impossible to ignore. I have witnessed kids bonding simply due to the need to walk single file on a narrow mountain trail. Kids who normally tend to follow begin taking the lead because they may be older and feel they finally have a reason to take on a leadership role. Simply meeting a group of new friends, and the feeling of a clean slate that comes along with that – combined with going places they have never been before and/or doing things they simply haven’t done, such as swimming in a pool at the bottom of a natural mountain waterfall – can coax out pieces of a child’s personality that are typically guarded; and not lightly.
Last year we were extremely fortunate to connect with a local horse farm, Hope Grows. Their mission is to encourage personal growth in children and families. They also strive to strengthen mind, body, and spirit through interaction with horses and caring staff members. I am so excited that we have been invited to bring the Summer Youth Program back again this year. Not only are the kids in our summer program able to interact hands-on with the majestic horses at the farm, but they do so under the trauma informed and therapeutic guidance of a staff member who is trained in providing equine therapy. It was an unforgettable experience watching children break right out of their shells instantly working with these animals.
Their time was partially spent conducting activities with the horses, such as building obstacle courses. Each construction represented a real-life obstacle the kids are facing, and they then had to work together to lead a horse through their obstacles. They did this multiple times, each time given different limitations on how they are to do that, which required all the kids to work together to figure out the best solution (i.e. easiest way to successfully get the horse to the other end of the obstacle course). In addition, we also gave back to the farm by helping out with chores including cleaning up the fields around the farm of horse waste! We learned that this is a very important chore as it prevents the animals from becoming sick. I think the part the children enjoyed the most however was at the end of each day when they were allowed to groom the horses for 45 minutes to an hour. This opportunity allowed them to truly feel they were caring for and creating a personal bond with their horse.
Needless to say, I am thrilled that another group of kids will be able to have this tremendous experience. Our connection with Hope Grows Farm served to only solidify my belief that getting kids outside and finding ways to engage them with nature can be one of life’s simple ways of healing.