Features & Essays Kids & Family

Raising a Mountain Kid

Research shows that kids who spend time outdoors are more well adjusted. Here’s why—and a real-time example to prove it.

A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO, when my oldest son was 13, he came to my husband, Shawn, and me with an interesting proposition.

Scout has long been an admirer of people like Ed Abbey, Jon Krakauer, and Peter Matthiessen. He fancies himself like them: a true adventurer. He’s read all of the books—Into the Wild, Into Thin Air, The Snow Leopard, Freedom of the Hills. He’s also done his fair share of outdoor travel, with us, his parents, by foot, by bike, by skis, raft and duckie. And now he wanted to lead three of his best friends on an overland journey that would start approximately 20 miles from our house—in the middle of Roosevelt National Forest—and traverse rugged kind of terrain. They’d go by foot and mountain bike with exactly zero adults.

Shawn and I thought this over and had different reactions. His was, “That’s a big adventure to bite off for a bunch of 13-year-olds” and mine was “Oh, hell yeah. Let them do it!” It’s not that Shawn is more cautious than I am (quite the contrary). I simply shouted yes because I believe—like a growing number of scientists, researchers, pediatricians and child psychologists—that the more time a kid spends doing outdoor sports, the happier, more well-rounded, more confident and more competent that kid will be.

Studies show that kids who do the opposite are in ever-increasing danger. According to a 2015 report by Common Sense Media, the average American 13-year-old spends nine hours a day in front of a screen. Some are playing video games while others are checking social media. A recent CNN study mentions kids who check their accounts 100 times a day. The study reveals that the more kids look at social media, the more distressed they can become. Another downside for teenagers in our technologized world is a disconnect from nature that scientists believe is tied to vast increases in ADHD, a soaring rate of childhood diabetes, and a troubling increase in antidepressant prescriptions for children.

Instinctively, as adolescents, Shawn and I both gravitated away from our Ataris and Diff’rent Strokes episodes to spend time roaming the outdoors in our respective homes of Idaho and Connecticut. We followed our outdoor passions into high school and through college. Time in the wilderness—backpacking and rock climbing—helped me work through the aftershocks of an abusive childhood, while Shawn healed parts of himself in mountains and rivers. We both eventually took up sports that would move us swiftly through the woods (mountain biking, skiing). We also both landed in Alaska, in our twenties. We met, became friends, and then accidentally met again while booting up to go backcountry skiing on Berthoud Pass in Grand County. A year later, we married. A year after that came kids—first Scout, then his brother, Hatcher, and much later, Hollis, our now five-year-old daughter. By the mere manner in which we lived, we grew our brood into little outdoorsfolk. We’ve raised all three on backpacking trips in Utah, ski trips in Wyoming and rafting trips in Idaho. We chose our home specifically because it abuts dozens of miles of mountain-bike trails. Both boys ride all summer and ski race in winter.

So it should have come as no surprise when Scout announced his idea to lead his friends on a multi-day, multi-sport wander through our woodsy neighborhood. Without hesitation, I called the other parents and got things going. We’d set them loose on a few parental conditions: We’d be privy to their exact route through the national forest (plus their at-any-moment location, via GPS tracking). We could, if we wanted, drop in on them at any time (to check progress/safety). We could camp not with them, but near them if we got too nervous. And we could rescue them—no questions asked—if something bad or unexpected happened.

Then it was time to go—and for me, a journalist, to start asking questions. They ran along the lines of: Was this the right time to set our child off on what was, effectively, an unsupervised “wilderness” adventure? And: Could this amount of “nature immersion” be too much for a pack of 13-year-olds? And: What is a good amount of childhood nature immersion? I knew from experience my answers to these questions. I wanted to see what this new information would reveal about them.

For weeks before the big trip, Scout had been planning. He’d chosen the route, located his gear, made a meal list and bought his “grub.”  Then the big day came. He and three other boys met at Scout’s pal Garrett’s house, on the south side of Gross Reservoir. They loaded their big packs into a parent’s car (to be dropped at their first campsite) and filled their Camelbaks with water, rain shells and snacks. Then they pedaled off at Mach speed down a gravel road with a half dozen steep switchbacks. Driving this later, I felt the linings of my artery walls thicken from the stress of seeing what they’d ridden. It’s good I didn’t know then that one of the boys, Bill, was on a bike effectively without brakes. Every boy would fishtail around the corners, with edges of road that dropped precipitously into ponderosa-stuffed hillsides. But Bill would fishtail, use his feet for brakes, fishtail some more and purposely crash when he needed a full stop. They made it down to the dam across Gross Reservoir with only minor scrapes and bruises, however, and were just beginning to plug up their first steep climb when Scout got a flat tire.

Lesson number one that he should have known before embarking on his first hike-a-bike: Tires flat out, often, and one should always carry a patch kit. Scout had none, so he was pushing his bike up the long, dusty hill when a ranger spotted him. Scout’s sweet, the ranger was too, and soon he’d loaded Scout’s bike into the back of his pickup. They passed the rest of the crew, including Bill, whose bike was so small his knees bashed his handlebars with each pedal revolution and, soon enough, everyone congregated at reservoir overlook, where Scout made a slightly painful decision to use his cellphone to call in a rescue.

“It wasn’t a rescue, Mom, it was an assist,” he says, standing over me as I write this. But Shawn and I drove to the overlook and fixed his tire. The boys then carried on, creaking up steep fire roads for several hours. By early evening they’d climbed to the top of a steep pass, bombed down, face planted in a huge puddle, but made it to their first campsite, roughly 10 miles from where they’d started. All was good—great, even—until Kevin, Bill’s dad, under the auspices of bringing Bill’s food—but really because he wanted to sleep out—arrived at the boy’s camp, without Bill’s food. Gotta say it: Nice one, Kevin. Double nice that you forgot Bill’s food.

This was a problem, because the boys, who had planned the meals on their own, had grossly underestimated the amount of calories it would take to do a long, elevation-gobbling, overland expedition. Each had already plowed through most of his snacks, and their various dinners were fairly lean on calories. Now they had to share their grub with Bill and his dad.

But Bruce Palmer, Admissions Director at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), says mistakes—and having to deal with them—are part of what makes outdoor experiences fruitful. He says that Lander, Wyoming-based NOLS educated 26,000 people in 2016, with 4,500 of those doing the group’s extended (three weeks or longer) expeditions. Some 20 to 25 percent were kids under the age of 18. Palmer says that one of the most effective ways these trips help build leadership is “by giving kids opportunities to challenge themselves and deal with adversity when it happens.” In fact, NOLS has created a video series it characterizes as “low moments,” in which “nothing went right, but, retrospectively, that’s when a student learned the most,” says Palmer.

“There’s also the environmental piece,” he added, “where they go into the outdoor world, and see how small they are. It’s huge for young people to learn at a young age, because it shows them where they sit in the world.” Of course Scout and his pals’ campsite was a far cry from the pristine wilderness areas in which NOLS holds its courses. But Palmer says Scout and his friends still benefitted. They divided their food—including Scout’s bag of rice, uncooked sausages and raw potatoes—scorched it over an open fire, ate, set up tents, told stories and fell asleep under the stars.

In terms of real wilderness adventure, this was mild. But another expert I consulted says that the intensity of outdoor time doesn’t matter. Florence Williams recently authored The Nature Fix (W.W. Norton, March 2017), and, in her chapter “The Smell of Survival,” she follows a group of teenage Korean “borderline technology addicts,” who have their cellphones taken away and are twice immersed in a forest for two consecutive days. Researchers found that after these trips, the boys had both lowered cortisol levels and significant improvements in measures of self-esteem, and the benefits lasted for weeks. Extrapolating from there, think of kids who grow up immersed in nature, like Colorado kids can. Scout and Hatcher—and a vast majority of their friends who live in our town of Nederland, in the Rocky Mountains—are getting a near-constant nature fix.

According to Williams’s research, this makes them less likely to get addicted to things like video games and other technology. The reasons aren’t so different from what makes time in nature good for adults. As Williams writes, powerful is the combined sensory experience. In nature, all of our senses—sight, sound, smell,  touch, hearing, and even taste—are engaged. And when we’re breathing deeply things that smell good, and  seeing things that bring delight, it’s hard not to feel the pull of a grounded reality, as well as a sensation of awe. And that helps create a better feedback loop than the one created by staring at a smartphone.

Awe is the feeling of “wonder, humility, and trepidation,” writes Williams. “Among certain circles in psychology. . . awe is considered. . .perhaps the sliest Power Emotion of them all.” Basically, awe is something that blows your mind. It has several positive effects, like lowering a hormone in the body in a way that helps heal wounds and fight illness, and releasing the chemical oxytocin, associated with love. Awe reportedly slows the heart rate and promotes curiosity. All things that today’s stress-wracked kids need.

Day two, though, was better. The boys rose early, packed their things and set off hiking. Their goal today was to climb a long, steep ridge called Winiger that sits between the reservoir and our house. With their gear-laden packs, they anticipated it would take several hours. But every boy in the group participates in high school sports. They’re all lean, strong and in great cardiovascular shape. So even with the steep climb it took them less than two hours to reach the top of Winiger Ridge. From there, they could have continued onto camp two, a few miles farther down the trail, but it was so early in the day, and they felt they’d have too many idle hours, even for them. And let’s be realistic, they are teenage boys—idle time leads to trouble. So instead of carrying on, when they came to the trail leading to our house, they turned right and took it.

The boys then proceeded to spend their idle time in our yard. I wasn’t overly thrilled because, honesty: It’s sometimes great to hang at the homefront with one less kid. They were fine for a while, but then started chasing each other with sticks. I guess that’s closer to nature than watching back-to-back episodes of Game of Thrones. Which is why Shawn and I have insisted that the boys do interscholastic sports. But even their sport choices deliver them long periods of time in the outdoors.

Scout competes in cross-country running, Nordic skiing and alpine skiing, while Hatcher mountain bikes competitively and alpine races. Their pediatrician loves that they do these sports for a number of reasons. All are “no cut” teams (unlike traditional ball sports) that remove the stress of making a team and beating out a friend. Trail and dirt sports are also easier on their bodies. “The natural interval training that comes with each is great cross-training,” she says. And exercising in nature, she says, is good for everyone. “The sun, the vitamin D, the fresh air, and the natural release of serotonin are all things that make you feel good in the moment and also have lasting effects. Even 20 to 30 minutes every other day, without their phone on them, would be great for kids who are too attached to their devices and social media.” Kids can get out alone and gain the meditative, calming, problem-solving effects of letting their mind wander, or they can do it with friends and get some good bonding, which is also great for the mind and body.

The takeaway? For those families who have access to outdoor sports, your kids would benefit from trying them. This is easier than you might think, especially with mountain biking.  Groups like Recycle Bicycles and Kids on Bikes help break down barries to bicycles for kids in Colorado. The National Interscholastic Cycling Association—the overseeing body for all high school cycling—supports teams in hundreds of schools across the country. Cross-country running teams also flourish in high schools. Getting at-risk and crime-effected youth into long-distance sports has also proven to be rehabilitating. The Rite of Passage programs for adjudicated youth use them to help young people examine their actions and habits, and to get back on track to being productive members of society.

And now I wanted some of my own rehabilitation—after just a few hours of having Scout and his buddies linger around our home. I gently suggested that they pack up, restock their food and continue on to their campsite for the night. Good boys, they did, and Scout even let Hatcher tag along. They grabbed the singletrack trail across the street from our house and followed it three or four miles to a grassy meadow in the national forest where other wannabe hobos had camped. There, they found a discarded table and chairs and  the rocks of a scattered fire ring. They “repurposed” the furniture and re-circled the ring before “we built a sweet fire, set up tents, kicked back, and started chilling,” says Scout. They also ate more of Scout’s potatoes—“Luckily, I brought some salt and pepper this time, so they weren’t so unbearable.” They then kicked back around the campfire some more, reveling in the highlights of their short trip.

With them gone again, I had some time to consider just how lucky not only I was, but they were, for having the opportunity.

For most of human history, children roamed, without excessive oversight by parents says cultural historian Howard Chudacoff. The older ones protected the small ones, and, for the most part, everyone did fine (or at least survived). They were also building a critical cognitive skills that fall under the rubric of executive function. They were learning, in other words, to make decisions on their own. This helped them develop self-regulation—the ability to control their emotions and behavior, resist impulses and exert self-control and discipline, say researchers. Good executive function helps with more than just survival—it helps kids stay in school, avoid drugs, and have a better chance at a meaningful life. The simple act of outdoor, unsupervised, free play can be life-changing for children.

Soon the dusk of early June fell, and then darkness. A smattering of stars came into view, then thousands. They boys slept outside their tents, even though the tents were erected. It was just too good, being in the cool mountain air, away from parents and on their own grand adventure, to let even the lightest film of material come between them and the intensity of the moment.      

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