Clint here, Founder and Executive Director of Forest Floor. I want to share a quick story with you about a recent encounter I had with one a long-time student:
This past Monday I was visiting FernLeaf Charter School in Fletcher, NC. Molly Luplow, Co-Director of FernLeaf, was giving me a quick tour of the campus while we discussed plans for the new upcoming early-release after school program on Fridays(I’m so excited BTW, more info on that here). As we passed through a wide hallway separating a series of classrooms on either side there was a suddenly flurry of movement as several classrooms emptied out, small flocks of hungry kids shuffling through, heading to lunch. Then I hear a familiar voice rise above the murmur of the crowd:
I look over to see one of our long-time Saturday Grey Fox students running over to greet me, a big smile on his face. He gives me a quick hug and excitedly says “I’m coming on Saturday! I can’t wait to see my friends!”
He then ran off to rejoin his classmates. It was a brief moment, but it stuck with me for several reasons:
- In past seasons, before our recent 15 passenger van purchase(now Saturday drop-off & pick-up is at Earthfare Westgate, soooo much parent time and gas saved!), this family would drive 45 minutes one-way to bring him and his brother to the program location in East Asheville. Thats commitment!
- He first joined us at summer camp at age 6. He’s now 11. At this point the only program of ours that he attends is this every-other-Saturday Grey Fox program, which meets a total of 16 times a year in the Spring and Fall. And even though they go long stretches of time without seeing each other, it’s abundantly clear that he is genuinely excited to reunite with his friends there. Many of the other Grey Fox students are also old-school participants that have been with us for years, growing up with one foot in the forest.
- In spite of the fact that Forest Floor is launching this new after-school program right at his own school, which would be WAY MORE convenient for his family in terms of drop-off & pick-up logistics and almost certainly include many of his friends at FernLeaf, he chose instead to continue joining the Saturday Grey Fox program. I didn’t ask him why, but based on conversations I’ve had with his mother its clear that its because of the connection he feels to that group and the forest that program takes place in.
What this tells me is that the nature-connection mentoring we do at Forest Floor works. The mentors at Forest Floor are connection specialists. We put a lot of intention into crafting rich, connective experiences for the kids. The plan for any given day is accounting for the needs of the individuals in the group, the overall group dynamic, as well as the conditions of and unique seasonal opportunities presented by the natural world we’re immersing ourselves in.
The result is that those kids fortunate enough to join us in the forest, even if only a handful of times a year, treasure those experiences and look forward to them. And it’s becoming increasingly clear why. Study after study(like this one) now confirms what both outdooor enthusiasts and indigenous peoples have known for generations: Time spent connecting to nature, even if infrequent, has huge physical and mental health benefits. For my part, I know that when I take even just 20 minutes to go sit in my backyard with my phone on silent, taking in the sights and sounds of nature, it improves every other aspect of the rest of my day.
So, time spent in nature is a significant part of the benefit of our programs, but it’s not the whole picture. There are two other essential aspects that, when combined with nature-connection, create a synergy that is greater than the sum of their parts.
One of these synergistic elements is Mentoring. Sometimes, when we’re feeling especially wiley and clever, we call it Coyote Mentoring. I could write a whole book just on this topic(and in fact books on this topic do exist; one of our unofficial staff training manuals is called Coyotes Guide to Connecting with Nature), but for now I’ll simply define Coyote Mentoring as subtly guiding students to a greater level of discovery and understanding through carefully employed questions, stories and role-modeling. When done well, kids and adults alike don’t even realize that they are being mentored. In fact the student might start assuming their teacher doesn’t actually know much about nature at all, since the “instructor” just keeps asking questions of the student and encountering the world with a degree of wonder that would suggest they’re seeing it for the first time.
The other factor adding to the potency of the experience is the peer group aspect. Humans are inherently social creatures. Whether consciously or not, we’re constantly monitoring those around us and re-calibrating our expectations and choices based on what others are doing. This is a natural survival mechanism, helping ensue the cohesion of a tribe/society/group, ultimately providing mutual support for all involved. This is as true when getting in line to check-out at the grocery store as it is when gathering a variety of wild edible plants to make a salad. But generally speaking, and adventure int he woods is much more fun than a trip to Ingles. Being with a group of friends excitedly collecting a large variety of delicious wild greens and then together enjoying the meal you’ve created deeply reinforces the value and importance that experience then holds for the individuals involved. It becomes more important to them because it’s important to their friends too.
If you’d like for your child to get a more regular dose of Vitamin N, consider joining us at our Saturday Grey Fox program this spring.