"Mister Chris ... are there piranhas in the river?" a wary camper asks me. We are kayaking down the Allegheny River, Pittsburgh's downtown rising up to our left, the Steelers' Heinz Field lining the river to our right. I am leading 18 Pittsburgh public school fifth- and sixth-graders on a kayak trip as part of the city's innovative Summer Dreamers Academy, a literacy-themed summer camp
for middle-school students.
For the vast majority of campers, this is the first time they have been on the river, though many of them live within walking distance of it on Pittsburgh's North Side. And before this day is finished, the wary camper will know firsthand there are no piranhas in the river — after capsizing her kayak.
Direct learning experiences like this were common throughout the five-week summer program, as many of the urban youth participating were interacting with their environment in new, and often scary ways. Kayaking, rock climbing, bike riding, fishing and geocaching were among the many activities offered by Venture Outdoors
(VO), one of more than 25 providers who partnered with the city to offer a unique range of engaging afternoon activities for campers to choose from.
And despite what you may think, this camper walked away from it all with a big smile on her face.
Venture Outdoors, the largest single provider of afternoon activities for the Summer Dreamers Academy
, has embraced an increasingly popular approach to educating low-income and urban youth - encouraging interaction with the outdoors. An important cultural attitude that outdoor and environmental education can foster, says VO's Program Director Jon Lucadamo, is "connectedness to place."
"Kids are not connected to the places they live," Lucadamo says, describing what he sees as one of the main contributors to poor academic achievement found particularly in urban school districts — a problem further exacerbated by limited summer learning opportunities
. More than that, Lucadamo maintains, it's also about "creating healthy lifestyles" and helping people understand and care for their environment.
One of the many challenges to this though, is "breaking through the cultural barriers" of misunderstanding and disengagement that characterizes the relationship between many urban residents and their environment. Particularly in a city known for its history of environmental degradation, many residents' attitudes toward the environment are still based on outdated information and a general fear of what's unknown. The hope is that exposing kids to their environment in an engaging, fun and confidence-building way will not only change their own behaviors and attitudes, but also those of their friends and families.
If my campers were any indication, Lucadamo's approach is indeed making an impact — all of my campers, despite many complaints and excuses, eventually learned how to kayak and how to ride a bike. With miles of biking trails and three major rivers within walking distance of their communities, they now how the skills to confidently interact with their natural surroundings.
Overcoming fears and breaking out of one's comfort zone can be powerful learning experiences.
As a team leader for Venture Outdoors, spending two hours a day for five weeks with the same group of campers, I had a unique opportunity to see these theories at work. Though our time together was certainly not free of disruptions, there was a noticeable difference in campers' interactions amongst each other and their relationship to the outdoors by the end of camp.
I taught several students how to ride a bike for the first time, how to use a GPS unit and read a map and how to bait a hook. But more importantly, they learned skills that will serve them throughout their lives: how to be leaders, how to control themselves, how to work as a team (as many proudly told me before they left). And at least one learned that there are no piranhas in the Allegheny River.