Building forts, picking berries and floating stick boats can be pleasant childhood experiences that lead to fond memories and a lifelong appreciation of nature. However, children today are far less likely than past generations to spend time playing outside, and a growing body of research says children are paying a high price for it. Childhood obesity, inattentiveness, diminished creativity and depression are just a few of the problems associated with “nature deficit disorder” states author Richard Louv (Last Child in the Woods, Algonquin Books, 2005). To address this issue and get teens involved in being part of the solution, Utah State University Extension 4-H and Thanksgiving Point, a private not for profit that includes a working farm and botanic garden partnered to engage teens as teachers.
In November of 2011, over 100 teens from across the state of Utah spent the weekend at Thanksgiving Point to learn and grow as part of the Utah 4-H TRY Team training. TRY stands for Teens Reaching Youth. It is a youth leadership program, designed to empower teens to reach out to other kids in their community by leading hands on activities. The 4-H TRY teams received in-depth training in one of 2 areas: “Health and Nutrition from the Garden” or “Getting Kids Outside.” In addition to the subject matter content, training on how to effectively teach youth was provided. Following training, teams sign a contract committing to teach at least six hours of instruction to a minimum of 15 youth during the year.
The training kicked off with early morning garlic planting in the onsite 4-H Junior Master Gardener garden, followed by a full day of hands on activities. As the day progressed, teens were involved in learning how to teach about the new USDA guidelines for MyPlate and practiced cooking skills in the kitchen by making their own sweet potato fries. To encourage eating more leafy greens, they also made “Popeye Smoothies” with a variety of fruits and spinach. Teens learned about seeds and what garden plants will need to sprout and grow. Following each activity, they discussed how to use these lessons to reach other kids in their community.
Later in the day, participants were challenged to consider the reasons why kids don’t get outside. They participated in activities teaching them how to create memorable experiences that get kids exploring and investigating nature. Time was spent in the Nature Explore Classroom, a living exhibit in the Children’s’ Discovery Garden designed to foster exploration through a series of outdoor play spaces. The Classroom includes places to climb, crawl, and build forts. A tote of tarps, poles, and assorted supplies served as a catalyst for kids to building forts and brain storming games and ideas for crafting their own experience to use back home. At the end of the day, participants picked up a compilation of teaching aids to assist them when they returned to their local community.
Throughout the early spring and summer, teens were involved in teaching at afterschool programs, creating a family night experience at the local community center, teaching and planting in a community garden and leading summer day camps that encouraged kids to eat healthy and get outside. The 4-H TRY program has proven to be a successful model in urban communities and was quite effective at building capacity to engage kids in new projects in rural communities. This program empowered teens to contribute in their community and provide them with the opportunity to develop valuable life skills. The youth they served were enriched by the content taught to them and by the relationships they built with the teens they now see as role models.
Meet contributing author, Dave Francis
Dave Francis has worked for Utah State University Extension 4-H since 2001. He is currently an Extension Associate Professor with responsibilities for 4-H Science in the Utah State 4-H Office. Responsibilities include working with Extension partner Thanksgiving Point, a museum complex that includes a working farm, dinosaur museum, and botanical gardens. He works with a variety of 4-H programs to promote STEM through robotics, afterschool programs, science camps, 4-H TRY (Teens Reaching Youth), and 4-H Aggie Adventures for kids. He has a B.S. in Environmental Studies, (environmental education emphasis) and a M.S. in Agriculture Systems, Technology and Education (Extension Education emphasis).