A boy on his first fishing adventure notices how the wind makes unique patterns on the water; a girl on a hike is fascinated by plants she never knew existed; a father helps his son focus the binoculars on a red-shouldered hawk soaring overhead. Exercising the mind goes along with exercising the body when children – and adults – get outside.
These outdoor adventures are made possible thanks to the North Carolina Wildlife Federation’s conservation-based experiential education program, Great Outdoors University (GoU). Established in 2012, the program works to combat a trend that has seen children’s unstructured free time dwindle to seven minutes a day and screen time in front of a television, computer or video game increase to eight hours a day.
A hike or fishing trip can provide memories that last a lifetime, but having fun isn’t the only benefit of getting outdoors. Children who spend time outdoors can reduce their risks of obesity, diabetes, depression, suicidal thoughts and low self-esteem.
“Children today are facing a nature deficit,” according to Mary Bures, the director of GoU. “They’re not getting outdoors enough. They’d rather be on cell phones or playing video games.”
An opportunity like GoU can motivate children to be more active and spur them to explore the outdoors.
GoU provides children with guided opportunities to discover nature, through meaningful outdoor experiences that foster a passion for continued learning. Through GoU programs, children experience a positive environment to explore, be creative, learn new skills, and build self-confidence while forming a lasting connection to nature.
Many children who participate in GoU end up completely changing their attitudes about nature. GoU helps them experience a peacefulness that can only be found outdoors. While other programs exist with similar goals, many kids cannot afford the tuition or have transportation required by those programs. With GoU, all children have the opportunity to participate.
“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel with GoU, we want to bridge gaps that exist,” Bures said. “Our goal is to provide all kids with an opportunity to experience the natural world, and enjoy the unique benefits it provides.”
GoU works with community groups, Boys and Girls Clubs, churches, schools and other organizations to offer the program free to all participants.
And it’s not just for kids. GoU also has initiatives for parents to get involved as well.
“We have Family Fun Days, and GoU provides all of the materials needed for the experience. For example, there was a father who had never fished before, and the program offered him a chance to fish with his son,” Bures explained. “Participants often say that their day with GoU was the best day of their life.”
Among the benefits that can come from being exposed to the outdoors are improved cognitive and physical health. But the simple joy of forming a connection with the world around us is equally important.
Two particular examples of witnessing that link stand out to Mary:
- “In one of our programs, there was a group of boys who were fishing for the first time. They cast their lines, and one boy said in amazement, ‘Wow, look at the wind on the water! … And the grass over there blowing in the wind!’ It was wonderful to see that he appreciated the beauty of nature.”
- “Another time, a young girl on a GoU hike fell in love with the plants and flowers. Each time she turned around, she would say, ‘Look at this beautiful flower, what is this one called?’ I told her parents she should have a future in botany. She uncovered her passions that day and was absorbing every ounce that she could.”
The outdoor experience also brings learning – and can even add context to school lessons – in a much more exciting environment than a typical classroom.
“Students see real-world examples of what they’re learning in school when they are out in nature,” Bures confirmed. “They’ll point out things like a decomposing log, a mushroom or predator-prey relationships. They make connections that they were previously unable to comprehend because they had not seen anything like it before.”
Great Outdoors University’s Message
“Taking time to connect with the natural world and all that it has to offer is important for people of all ages,” Bures stressed.
“There is so much to be gained. If people don’t have the opportunity to truly see, appreciate and better understand nature and their part in the natural world, then there is no way they’re going to care for it. And if they do not care about it, the sacred beauty around us is at risk,” she said. “The people who look after our earth understand the beauty and wonders that are out there and our interconnectedness with each other. Once we are exposed to that, there is no way we can turn our backs on it.”
“Over time, people start to forget about the natural wonders that we are a part of. They cease to see the wonders small and large with their eyes and heart. GoU reenergizes the passion for what our world has to offer. We want to spread the message that there is beauty in our natural world, and we must recognize it and support it.”
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina encourages North Carolinians to lead active lives that include plenty of outdoor time. Learn more about our Get Outside, North Carolina! – GO NC! – initiative on our website.