• Kasey Schelling

Outdoor Learning: A Gateway to Community Building and Self-Empowerment


“I learn more from these children than I could ever possibly teach them.”

- Bianca Acosta, Lead Summer Instructor at The Kiva Center

(Last day of Westwood Summer Camp, August 2018)

Flashback to this summer at the Westwood kids camp at Garfield Lake Park in Denver. Fifty joyful children gathered each week to spend entire days outdoors exploring, making friends, creating art, swimming, and dreaming. This free summer camp (thanks to a GOCO: Generation Wild grant) was offered to neighborhood residents aged 5-15 through a collaboration among Denver Parks and Rec, The Kiva Center, and Lincoln Hills Cares, members of My Outdoor Colorado. Thanks to this opportunity, kids got to thrive in a safe community of peers and positive role models.

If you are an adult reading this, you may hold dear in your memory those classic childhood summers of leaving the house in the morning to run around the neighborhood, build forts, play kickball, and jump in the pool. Around sunset, you would return home dirty, hungry and satisfied from a day of adventure.

Nowadays, a different phenomenon is occurring. With the current demands of our economy, middle and lower-class families generally require parents to work full-time to support the cost of living a simple lifestyle. With both parents out of the house in a country that is no longer deemed as “safe” as it once was, many children spend increasing amounts of time indoors to remain secure and protected.

At the beginning of summer, when urban students in Westwood were asked “Do you feel it’s important to spend time outdoors?”, only 27% responded yes.

An ultimate consequence of a summer spent indoors is that rather than socializing with peers and gaining a sense of connection to the world around them, many children end up by default resorting to the indulgences of our generation: TV and video games.

In fact, at the beginning of summer, when urban students in Westwood were asked “Do you feel it’s important to spend time outdoors?”, only 27% responded yes.

Fortunately, when given the opportunity to spend time outdoors in community, children really can and do flourish. At the Westwood summer camp, Bianca Acosta and Montse Corona (lead and assistant summer instructors with The Kiva Center) shared that they were ‘astounded by how seamlessly this group of kids formed strong friendships within the first week’. On the second day of camp when they saw them laughing and playing together, they were nearly certain that they had known each other for a long time.

Surprisingly, although these children reside in the same neighborhood, the majority of them had never met before camp.

Bianca, native of Mexico and elementary school teacher, has a passion for working with children that is contagious. She believes that children are born with everything they need to succeed in this world, and as educators, it is not our job to “fill them with knowledge”, but rather to draw out the wisdom they already have within.

After immigrating from Mexico as a teenager, she gained a tremendous amount of strength to adapt to a new culture, learn a second language, and part from her home that she holds so dear in her heart. She takes pride in her roots, and knows that the people of Mexico have so much to share with the world.

Yet she sees that many chicano kids of today struggle to see that they are an asset to their communities. It can be difficult to feel proud of your origins when;

1) you feel disconnected from them, and

2) they are not celebrated by society at large.

In the same survey that was conducted at the beginning of the summer, when students were asked if they felt that they could make a difference in their community, only 14% of them responded “yes”.

Bianca spent the summer encouraging kids to believe in themselves and support one another. She told them stories of her life, the traditions of her ancestors, and inspiring people of the world. Through these stories, she hoped for kids to gain a strong sense of connection to and appreciation for their roots. She provided campers with tools to channel their inner genius into artwork that they proudly shared with the community.

When the same students were asked if they felt that they could make a difference in their community, the percentage of those who responded yes jumped from 14% at the beginning of the summer to 100% at the end of the summer.

On the very last day of camp, Rosemary (one of the campers) was in tears as she gifted Bianca and Montse a handmade art piece on a cross-section of wood. She shared with them that they would always have a special place in her heart - the relationship that they had built was unforgettable.

The kids then demonstrated their artwork, including an original choreographed piece inspired by traditional Aztec dancing, a mural, and a puppet show.

To culminate a summer full of friendship and adventure, the children were given another survey to reflect upon their experience. As opposed to the beginning of the summer when very few kids saw the value in spending time outdoors, when they were asked again if they felt it was important to spend time outdoors, 100% of them said yes.

And astoundingly, when the same students were asked if they felt that they could make a difference in their community, the percentage of those who responded yes jumped from 14% at the beginning of the summer to 100% at the end of the summer.

To Bianca and Montse: Thank you for respecting and guiding children to recognize their own brilliance. Your compassion and ongoing love for learning is positively influencing kids towards a brighter path in life.

(From Left: Bianca, Rosemary (student), Bianca, and Michelle (Bianca's daughter and student))


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