In over 25 years of emergency services and 24 years of working with hundreds of 4-H youth I have come to strongly believe that outdoor experience benefits youth by developing awareness, coping skills and calm capability. Here are a couple of examples:
In the 1990s while serving as a Deputy Sheriff and Mantracker with Albany County a call came in that an eight-year-old had been separated from his family while berry picking south of Laramie Peak. The family was often in the country and had all come in to report one missing son. After starting to track him in early evening it was obvious the boy had come to the car, found no one there, went looking for his family and then returned to that site after his family had left. His sign hung around the sight for an extended period then went to a high point on the east side. His track in the dark calmly moved downhill and downstream toward the lights of Wheatland. At 7 a.m. I was getting close judging by his sign only to receive a radio call that he had flagged down a passing school bus for a ride to authorities in Wheatland. Smart youth – no panic.
In 1998 while working with the Pueblo Youth Naturally 4-H project in Colorado we often allowed 40-60 youth to play in the St. Charles River in a canyon below our staging area where most of the staff prepared meals. One August there was a heavy storm several miles upstream. When the clouds came over us I could hear a rushing sound and the staff rushed to the canyon trail only to see a four foot wall of water rushing down the canyon. None of the children were on the trail, or in the water. When the water started rushing four local ranch kids had led the entire group across the water south against the counselors coaching and up a gentle slope knowing that the canyon trail was too difficult to climb in a hurry. Smart kids acting without hesitation on their own knowledge.
In 2008 while working 4-H programs in Nebraska we led a large group to a petting zoo setup at Fort Robinson. The group included toddlers and infants with their mothers. Unknowingly the Park staff was bringing a large group of horses into the pens through the alley where the infants stood, at a run. Three of our young ladies in the 4-H horse program who were assisting as Jr. 4-H Leaders observed the running horses and simply closed two gates leading to the mothers and infants. You have to love capable kids.
A large group of 4-H and FFA kids helped us organize a ski trip to South Dakota each year. In 2009 the weather was great in the morning but turned vicious in the afternoon. I was aware that many of the younger junior members had limited layers which were wet. When I went looking for the young kids I found them sitting on bunched inner tubes surrounded by older youth who had covered them their extra coats and formed a windbreak around the younger kids.
In 2012 and 2013, 4-H youth in the northern Nebraska Panhandle decide to help families in the area who were hungry by organizing the Gravel Road Food Drive. Their plan was to allow rural families to leave bags of food goods near their mailboxes in rural areas and they would pick them up. In teams this group traveled along over 210 miles of remote county roads picking up donations from ranchers who seldom got to participate in such programs. They collected over 2.5 tons of canned and dry goods without anyone getting lost or disoriented. The food restocked 3 food pantries in two towns. The youth had set up backup plans in case any team had difficulty. Community organizers in development.
Outdoor experiences, whether through family activities, or organized programs such as 4-H, FFA, Scouts or others build awareness, competency and survival skills that carry well into adult lives. If you have the chance, provide opportunities for youth to generate the knowledge, experience, and capability to both survive and flourish in all conditions.
Get out – Get smart.