Outdoor education has been a staple for Papillion-La Vista sixth-graders every fall for the past 36 years. The two-day lesson remains relatively unchanged, but the take home may be totally different these days.
A 2011 study shows 88 percent of children use a computer every day while just 11 percent say they spend part of their day in nature and that study is two years old, before tablet sales took off. Studies also show the main reasons kids avoid the outdoors are bugs, heat or cold, a lack of transportation or no access to natural areas. It's numbers like these which make this long-running outdoor education program held at the 4H Center near Gretna invaluable.
Teachers say it used to be a time for more in-depth exploration of environmental science, but now it's just a beginner's course in being outside for many kids. While there they hike, observe plants and animals, tackle a trust course and enjoy a classic bonfire.
"It's been really fun ‘cause we're used to going in a classroom and learning boring subjects, but now we're hiking and ziplining and climbing,” said Bell Elementary student Rian Boub.
“Learning out here, I get to visualize things better too ‘cause in the classroom we talk about trees and stuff, but it's just pictures on paper,” said Bell Elementary student Brayden Brandvold. "I got to learn a lot of new things about trees and plants and what you can eat and what you can't eat."
Teachers say many parents ask how they can bring this experience home and the answer is easy. "Just take the family in the car and go to one of the nearby parks and explore,” said Ann Danner of the Outdoor Education Program, herself a retired Papilion-La Vista School District teacher. “Have the kids start looking at things and collecting things and then research ‘em, but just get out there."
Danner started the program. The reaction she's seeing from kids now versus the 70s and 80s is eye-opening. "The reaction, like of a youngster that's been inside all summer, is like 'oh, oh, oh.' Kids are naturally, definitely naturally curious and if they bring a blade of grass to mom as a 2-year-old and ask about it, fantastic! That's where it all starts."
Danner gave decades to education and can't quite leave it behind. “My heart is here."
The great outdoors is great for adults as well. One study reveals that hospital patients and inmates who simply have a view of nature are more likely to have improved health.