Clinicians who do not have outdoor resources will find access to nature at Scout camps. Their excess capacity is a bargain for clients who need some kind of wilderness therapy.

As a boy growing up, I was quite heedless of the nature surrounding me and certainly unaware of how being outdoors might be developing my brain. But research shows that being in nature is good for brain development and may be useful in therapy too.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, Algonquin Books

Last week I spent days reading that research for one of my recent posts at the same time I started reading Last Child in the Woods.  I found a kindred spirit in its author, Richard Louv, who like me played unsupervised outdoors. 

He writes, “As a boy, I was unaware that my woods were ecologically connected with any other forests. Nobody in the 1950s talked about acid rain or holes in the ozone layer or global warming. But I knew my woods and my fields; I knew every bend in the creek and dip in the beaten dirt paths. I wandered those woods even in my dreams. A kid today can likely tell you about the Amazon rain forest—but not about the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude or lay in a field listening to the wind and watching the clouds move.

Like Louv, my field of play extended miles in every direction. Even at our elementary school, at the very farthest reaches of the playground was a large stand of Utah Gamble Oak—the adventurous things we imagined during play were incredible and we always arrived back in the classroom ready to work.

Michael Gurian, a family therapist and best-selling author of The Good Son and The Wonder of Boys wrote, “Our brains are set up for an agrarian, nature-oriented existence that came into focus five thousand years ago… Neurologically, human beings haven’t caught up with today’s over-stimulating environment. The brain is strong and flexible, so 70 to 80 percent of kids adapt fairly well. But the rest don’t. Getting kids out in nature can make a difference. We know this anecdotally,” then he lamented, “though we can’t prove it yet.”

Louv offers some studies that do prove it. First, Stephen and Rachel Kaplan who are environmental psychologists at the University of Michigan built research based on William James’ well-established attention-restoration theory, in which he describes attention as either directed or fascination, which is involuntary.

The Kaplans studied groups that went into the wilderness for weeks. “During these treks or afterward, subjects reported experiencing a sense of peace and an ability to think more clearly; they also reported that just being in nature was more restorative than the physically challenging activities, such as rock climbing.” wrote Louv.

The Kaplans named this “the restorative environment” and explained that it counters what they call “directed-attention fatigue.” The kind of fatigue that “occurs because neural inhibitory mechanisms become …[blocked by] competing stimuli.” According to Louv directed-attention fatigue is “marked by impulsive behavior, agitation, irritation, and inability to concentrate.” In the Monitor on Psychology, Kaplan reported, “If you can find an environment where the attention is automatic, you allow directed attention to rest. And that means an environment that’s strong on fascination.” Clearly, this describes the outdoors and nature, and is “the most effective source of such restorative relief,” says Louv.

Nancy Wells, assistant professor at the New York State College of Human Ecology, did research that showed that being close to nature boosts a child’s attention span. she wrote, “By bolstering children’s attention resources, green spaces may enable children to think more clearly and cope more effectively with life stress,”

Louv suggested that being outdoors is nature’s Ritalin. He wrote, “Some of the most important work in this area has been done at the Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois. Andrea Faber Taylor, Frances Kuo, and William C. Sullivan have found that green outdoor spaces foster creative play, improve children’s access to positive adult interaction—and relieve the symptoms of attention-deficit disorders. The greener the setting, the more the relief. By comparison, activities indoors, such as watching TV, or outdoors in paved, non-green areas, increase these children’s symptoms.”

Other research from the Institute for Housing and Urban Research at Uppsala University in Gävle, Sweden, showed improved mental abilities on those that took a wilderness backpacking vacation as compared to those who choose an urban location or took no vacation at all. The last two groups performed the same, showing staying home had no advantage over vacationing unless you were in nature, really out living in it.

These and many other studies may offer some proof that getting kids out in nature can make a difference. I listed several of these last week “Ten Scientific Reasons to Get Outdoors.” Of course, the main question these days is where to get away.

Returning to my own youth, ours was one of the first homes in the foothills outside of town, and we were not far from a Scout council camp—a camp that my father as a Scout had hiked 17 miles to from town, but because we lived so close, our patrol could ride bikes there.

The camp was nestled along the eastern stretches of Millcreek, the natural water feature that flowed through my childhood town. Our little community in the country was also called Millcreek, though the mill was long gone. The hundred-year-old church we met at for Scouts was on that creek. I walked along a trail to school besides that stream from kindergarten to ninth grade—my new high school was constructed on farmland less than 100 yards from the creek.

Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. —RACHEL CARSON

Millcreek flowed through our lives as kids. There was unsupervised fishing in it all summer long. When we were old enough to graduate from the Cub Scout Pack 525, we went up the canyon to Camp Tracy. We were there for winter camp, where I later worked. We held the “New Scout” camp there. I took and gave Junior Leader Training there. And it was there I kept my Vigil.

Grandeur Peak summit overlooking Salt Lake Valley

Each month of the summer, our patrol, the Eagles, would bike to Camp Tracy and take the Grandeur Peak trail to the summit, making the hike a great game. Each time we gasped at the view as we crested the peak, imagining we were the first pioneers to see the valley below.

Our troop went camping nearly every month. When we didn’t go camping as an entire troop, our Scoutmaster expected the patrol leaders to take their group camping or hiking. But the Scoutmaster didn’t just send us; he trained us how to do it right. All forty of us! And we could camp nearly anywhere with permission, within minutes of home.

But that all changed, by the time I was a Scoutmaster. Just ten years later, those places we camped at nearby were gone. Lucky for us the council camps were close and in business.

They were still there for weekend campouts, but what’s more, they became resources every day of the week for families, church groups and more recently for wilderness therapy groups. Clinicians who do not have wilderness resources will find the excess capacity Scout camps offer, a bargain for their clients.

To reserve campsites across Utah, check out the Council’s camp availability HERE.

BSA camps are very busy in the summer months, but during three other seasons, there is capacity for more guests and often in the summer too. There you can stay in cabins or tents; cook over a campfire or use our food services in indoor dining halls; use our camp staff or bring your own; bike, hike, swim, boat, go SCUBA diving, cexplore the woods and enjoying cozy campfires, [yes Scout camps still allow wood-burning fires for cooking, song, and fun]. There are high ropes courses (COPE), rifle and archery ranges, lakes, swimming pools, dining halls, pavilions and more available 42 or more weeks of every year.

You can learn more about this kind of research and other ways to improve your mental health at the upcoming EternalCore Mental Health Conference, March 29-30. We’ll be there with more information about the benefits of Scouting and the outdoors.

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