My daughter “graduated” from fifth grade a couple of weeks ago. Before you roll your eyes and think, what has the world come to that we now celebrate 5th grade promotions, step back and think about all your children have accomplished since they were preschoolers.
From all angles, it’s pretty phenomenal. By 10 or 11, they really can share, sit quietly, read, write, add, subtract, play instruments, follow directions, eat properly, draw well and obviously use every piece of technology available better than you can. They are pretty smart. As parents you know they are no longer extensions of you but rather expressive individuals who have perspectives unique to their life experiences. It can be very interesting to have a conversation at length with our rising sixth graders.
As part of the promotion ceremony, the kids are asked to share their best memories of elementary school, and every year, an overnight outdoor nature experience is mentioned. So I wasn’t too surprised to hear my daughter’s classmate Anna start to speak about the Outdoor Lab. What was surprising was that she didn’t highlight staying up all night, sneaking over to the boys area (yes, they are pre-teens), the food (okay, the homemade donuts were a highlight), or hanging out with her friends.
She spoke eloquently about her life literally being changed during the 24 hours she was exposed to the wonder and delights of nature around her. A self-proclaimed urbanite from Peru, she said “the sky opened up”¯ before her in ways she never imagined. From a literal opening of the skies via a torrential downpour to a drenching hike in the woods, this 5th grader talked about lichen, different trees, spider webs and more. A night hike and bonfire involved experiencing the night in a whole new way, and night vision took on a whole new meaning.
In a different setting, spending the night with snakes and turtles might have freaked out this girl. But at the Outdoor Lab, this just seemed, well, natural. Searching for critters in the creek and looking for bugs did not scare her. In fact, it seemed to embolden her. In this new setting, Anna tried boating and fishing and roasting hot dogs and eating s’mores – things that as a city girl she had never done before. No one forced her to try any of these activities, but she did. She had the courage and the confidence to take chances in a world that she was not as familiar with.
I’ve written about nature’s role in raising confident girls and more recently about how outdoor experiences help develop leadership skills in girls, which was based on a survey from the Girl Scout Research Institute, More Than S’mores, and from thinking about how my daughter interacts with the outdoors. What I found so fascinating as I listened to Anna speak was that she was highlighting the same findings in her retelling of a favorite time in elementary school. She didn’t do an extensive amount of research. She just experienced nature. Rising sixth graders really are pretty smart, don’t you think?
Being out in nature – sometimes out of our comfort zones – pushes us all to our limits and encourages us to take chances. Surrounded by classmates who are at different comfort levels with nature, she may have felt more at ease.
I venture to guess that nature played a role in helping her adapt and feel comfortable enough to try new things, and most importantly to make memories that will last a lifetime. And, hopefully, she will pass this experience and others like it on and continue to have and share them.
Image: My daughter’s fifth grade class on a boating adventure.
By Sarita Bhargava