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Connecting teens to the environment

Published on: April 01, 2010

Creepy crawlies, mud and rocks -- kids are naturally drawn to nature when they're young. But how does one reach them when they've arrived in their teens? Some local educators have created innovative programs that engage older kids, and give them important job skills in the bargain.

Building natural leaders Tim Wood, a teacher at the Waskowitz Environmental Leadership School (WELS), based in the Highline School District, has seen formerly bored and disinterested teens come alive in the program's full-time semester-long outdoor leadership program.

"Every semester we have parents stand up and say things like 'You wouldn't believe the changes I have seen in my kid. He's exhausted at the end of the week, but he really wants to go back to school on Monday, and that has never happened with my kid before,'" say Wood. "The kids are immersed in unusual and intensive experiences that are very positive, with positive people, and it changes their lives." While they earn credit for subjects such as math, science, art and social science, at WELS, teens practice and perform plays about the environment, collect and analyze samples from streams, and create artwork to reflect life goals. The program also trains high school students to teach what they learn serving as teaching assistants, counselors and outdoor guides for younger students. The program is so successful, Wood recently won a KCTS Golden Apple, which honors outstanding individuals and programs making a dramatic difference in Washington state education.

Amanda Henry, a high school senior, says she has become an "A" student through her experience at the school. "Since going into WELS, I have gained more awareness of the environment around me and the effect I have on it," says Henry. "Also, I wasn't able to stand in front of a large group and speak. WELS helped me gain more confidence in myself." Wood says that the outdoor classroom experience, which serves a diverse student base both academically and culturally, can be powerful for all teens, but especially those who would otherwise climb the walls in a traditional classroom. Some teens really need to see, touch, taste and smell the learning experience to really absorb it. Outdoor programs help them do just that. The Seattle area even offers many environmental programs and volunteer opportunities where teens and tweens can participate with their parents.

Though he says some parents worry that their teens might get off-track academically by attending the non-traditional semester program, early research shows that kids who go to WELS are successful in passing standardized tests, performing as well or better than kids in traditional programs. He has also seen students clarify career goals through their experiences with the program. "Learning becomes a little more real when life is in front of them," says Wood.

A crucial connection

High schoolers can be very disconnected from their communities, says Christina Gallegos, longtime Seward Park naturalist and mother of two teenagers. "Teens are frequently seen as the negative or derogatory element in the picture, and we often don't try to channel their energy into something positive," says Gallegos.

Gallegos hopes that her work for the new Seward Park Environmental and Audubon Center will better engage southeast Seattle teens in their local natural environments and community by giving them both an education and, eventually, internship or employment opportunities. The center is being built by a partnership of Washington Audubon and Seattle Parks and Recreation. It's set to open this fall in an historic landmark building just inside the entrance to Seward Park. Meanwhile, the program is up and running in a virtual mode, working with local middle schools and high schools on a series of field guides focused on Seward Park, and establishing a summer camp option.

Though they make up a large percentage of the local population, until now, teens in southeast Seattle have had very few opportunities to experience hands-on, experiential outdoor learning. Audubon chose the Seward Park location in part to reach that large teenaged population (45 percent of the area's 200,000 residents are under the age of 18), and to take advantage of the tremendous variety of ecologically rich sites nearby.

"By exposing middle and high school kids to some of these natural areas we are hoping to get them to really use hands-on science to explore and ask: 'What's going on? How did it get this way? What are we doing to make things better or worse?'" says Gallegos. "Ultimately, we want the teens to help educate the community about what those resources are and how their behavior and choices are connected to those resources."

Rhonda Aronwald is a communications consultant, freelance writer and parent.

Selected environmantal leadership resources for teens


  • YMCA Earth Service Corps: provides opportunities during the school year to participate in a club and also offers intensive 10-day summer sessions that combine outdoor adventure and environmental stewardship with learning. Seattle YMCA, 206-382-5013
  • EarthCorps: provides one-year-intensive programs for young adults ages 18 to 25 to learn best practices in conservation techniques. EarthCorps, 206-322-9296, Ext. 101
  • Teens in Public Service: selects teenagers to work paid internships at a variety of Puget Sound non-profits, including several that serve the environment. Application process begins in spring for next summer's internships. Teens in Public Service, 206-985-4647
  • Facing the Future: People and the Planet: Web site features a section called "Take Action!" that encourages students and adults to find issues they care about and choose projects that affect those issues. Also offer a book helpful to activist teens and their parents, It's All Connected: A Comprehensive Guide to Global Issues and Sustainable Solutions. Facing the Future, 206-264-1503

Originally published in the April, 2007 print edition of ParentMap.

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