Boulder outdoor education program emphasizes environmental stewardship and emotional intelligence

By Andrea Tinning

Outdoor education is growing in popularity among families who choose to opt out of traditional school for their children. Chances are, if you’re reading this article, you’ve already looked into the psychological and interpersonal benefits of integrating nature into your child’s learning. In Boulder, Colorado, the Kiva Center is one organization that is making strides to empower a new generation of ecological stewards and emotionally mature children.

A student harvests peppers on the farm.
Harvesting Peppers

As a homeschool supplement, the Kiva Center was founded by Kasey Schelling and Garrett Braun to connect children with nature in order to plant the seeds for a more connected world. Specifically by guiding students towards a connection to the earth, eachother, and themselves.

“Our first priority is to cultivate relationships of trust among the group so that kids feel safe to confide in us (the mentors) and each other,” Schelling said. “We believe that children will be most equipped to be their best selves when they are given the space for self reflection in order to get to know themselves more deeply. Nature connection helps us tap into our true inner-nature.”

Everyday at the Kiva Center follows a similar structure. Students arrive at the farm in Longmont and circle around a fire overlooking a lake to the east and the mountains behind them. Together, students greet each other and mentors lead them in a song. From there, the day is filled with service projects such as growing herbs in the community garden, art projects that might make traditional school teachers flinch such as whittling, council where students are able to express their feelings in a safe community environment, and plenty of outdoor play on the farm.

Unlike a classroom that hosts thirty bodies in one small room, the outdoors has the ability to hold children in all facets of learning, not just the intellectual, individualistic, goal-oriented ones,” Schelling said. “I have noticed that a larger variety of kids are able to get their needs met in this setting; if they need to move, they have the space to do so. If they need to learn through sitting and writing, they can still do so by grabbing a clipboard and writing while they are outside. They can search for insects, climb a tree, and get fresh air- all of which are boosting their immune systems, reducing stress, and promoting overall well-being.”

Caught a Field Mouse

One parent, April Rollins, has enrolled her children at The Kiva Center for the past three years. After sitting in for an entire day, she said what stood out the most was the rhythm of the day and the outdoor aspect of the school’s curriculum made the difference in her child’s social connection that other enrichment programs did not.

I've recognized she was challenged in group settings, but because they play so many games, and they're outside connecting with animals and nature, her confidence in group settings has skyrocketed,” Rollins said.

Rollins is not alone in her observation. Research published in Frontiers in Psychology from a study among nearly 300 students indicates that outdoor education has an ability to improve a student’s focus, behavior, mental health, and communication ability. In addition, a 2014 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association revealed that these days teens feel stress at an intensity that rivals adults, in no small part due to the pressure faced in school.

Co-founder Garrett Braun said that experiencing this in his own life created a desire to normalize outdoor education for a new generation and the idea for the Kiva Center came naturally. The results were beyond what he expected.

“Early on, one of the really profound moments for me was when a mother came towards the end of the day at pickup and pulled me aside with tears in her eyes. She said it was the first time her son had ever felt like he belonged somewhere, that there was a group of people that really cared about him, after they had tried so many different programs,” Braun said. “When that happened, it really sunk in that we're doing something special we're doing something that creates a new space that isn't everyone's everyday experience.”

The joy of a harvest

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