Britta Gustafson: Guided by Nature |

Britta Gustafson: Guided by Nature

Britta Gustafson
Then Again

Knees tucked into his little sweatshirt, rubbing his hands and warming his fingers with each breath, he squinted in silence as the sun began to cast its growing spotlight over the vibrant landscape from the edge of a sandstone fin at the Devils Garden Campground in Arches, Utah.

“How does it feel watching the sunrise from up here?” I asked, interrupting that moment of dreamy wonder. The dirt smudged, pajama-clad fifth grader innocently puckered his cheeks and gazed off again. He then suddenly answered reflectively, “Like the whole world is right here with me. … Right here!” he added with a vista-sweeping gesture.

Sharing that view with him as the sun continued to highlight the gradual blending of bright orange up into the deep blue hues of morning, his introspective comment made perfect sense. My eyes welled.

As one of the only public schools in the country that offers full immersion outdoor education built into the annual curriculum, fifth graders at Aspen Middle School recently spent their four-day trip in Arches National Park.

Touting the fact that I had been to Arches as an Aspen fourth grader back in my day, I was fortunate enough to be invited to chaperone my daughter’s trip last week.

The anticipation reached its crescendo the morning of our departure for Utah. The classroom buzzed in preparation for the journey and the students’ little bodies shook with excitement as they boarded the school bus. They could barely keep their volume under control, squealing and giggling, unable to keep their hands off each other, hugging and jumping around.

They seemed elated at the foreseen notion of independence and were clearly eager to share the adventure with one another.

The kids in this school system are aware that this nature-based education is something special. With nature as their teacher, they learn to value their environment and themselves without being told a thing. They experience the precarious power of the natural world and gain an appreciation for what it gives and for what it can just as easily take away. Learning resilience and cooperation, they bond as a generation.

Upon arriving at their campsite, they poured from the bus ready to free climb the rock fins and feel the sand between their toes, but survival first. Struggling some and with a little bickering, as strong winds tigged the tents’ fabric from their still small hands, the differences of opinion rang out. But they managed.

With tents finally erect just as the sunset illuminated the rock surfaces with a fiery dance, they moved in, giddy while unpacking and admiring their temporary settlement. Cooking groups prepared the evening meal, as others practiced their fire-making skills just in time to relieve the rapidly on-setting chill. Ending the evening, they provided comfort to one another, huddled shoulder to shoulder around the campfire. The night’s sounds began to bring awareness to the fact that they were far from the comforts of home.

Over the days to come they would laugh and cry, face triumph and even, at times, feel defeated. But in the evenings around the campfire, they expressed gratitude to one another for companionship and camaraderie, gawked at the wonder of all they had seen together and expressed the true nature of who they are. The characteristics of the adults they will one day be began to come into focus.

Guidance at the hands of nature can have a profound effect on children and developing ecological literacy is a vital virtue at this time on earth, particularly for kids at this age.

The notable author, educator and philosopher Oglala Lakota Chief Luther Standing Bear understood this in the late 1800s when he suggested, “Man’s heart, away from nature, becomes hard; (the Lakota) knew that lack of respect for growing, living things soon led to lack of respect for humans, too.”

Those who have advocated for and worked hard to sustain outdoor education programs here also could see into the future enough to understand that preparing the foundation for a lifetime of connectivity to the land, to one another and to one’s self could prove to be the most valuable education of all.

If we wish for the next generation to flourish, then the greatest gift we can give them is an opportunity to touch the earth, play in it, learn to respect its omnipotence and fall in love with this planet before we ask them to save it. Allow them the space to learn about each other and provide a setting for introspection so they grow up to be competent, altruistic and compassionate adults.

Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind; after all, if we always agree what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at


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