Field notes by J. Cantrell, photos courtesy of the Missouri Dept. of Conservation

Our community has lost several outdoor youth and scouting camps in recent times. Watching the Girl Scout Camp Mintahama recently succumb to modern changes in views is an added worry for me. I could address volumes on the benefits of scouting and youth camps. If I just singled out one ingredient that makes a camp work so well as an exciting experience for kids, it would be a hiking or nature trail.

I’m a naturalist of simple pleasures. Comfort on a hike is often centered on quality socks, dependable hiking boots and a walking stick. If I’m unfamiliar with the trail or have not trekked the area recently, I will carry a trail map. I’m likely to laminate the topo (topography) map for multi-day outings and slide the stable map inside a backpack sleeve for trail reference. I know carrying drinking water and having a strategy for potential aquatic sources are important considerations despite the length of a venture. Most other preparations depend on the specifics of the trip, except one final step most often overlooked by newbies and avid trekkers. The last important item on any checklist is to notify someone of your destination and the expected return time. All of these steps are important in role modeling before youth.

Trip planning and investigating hiking gear and camping equipment builds responsibility for school-age youth. This early summer is a suitable time to introduce Girl and Boy Scouts, church camps and other youth to these hobbies and explorations. I can easily recite school subjects and learning skills covered in these types of outdoor activities, including mathematics and a variety of sciences.

I occasionally instruct nature journaling throughout the year to general public groups and to teachers that may fortify an outdoor adventurer with an outlet for the language and fine arts. As a lifelong trekker, I think most outdoors-oriented folks will agree with me there are deeper connections and greater educational values to exploring nature that may not be easily labeled with scholastic terms.

Character education and self-assurance are intertwined with outdoor activities. Naturalists and outdoor education leaders realize there will be minor inconveniences on a hiking path, for example. Those small obstacles or perhaps an annoyance on the map will become a teaching moment if the walker (student) has an open mind. I have learned from my childhood outdoor leadership scores of valuable lessons of which I apply today.

In turn, today I have the youth (or even adult volunteers) concentrate on the present moment. Discoveries of colorful birds never seen before, water striders skating on the surface of water, exploring earth stars (a favorite discovery of mine!) and the lifeforms dwelling on a fallen log are just a few treasures to behold in the moment. The smallest of upbeat or pleasing stimuli can open the brain’s positive channel ways. The advantages range from stress relief and health improvements to increased attention spans, all from simple outdoor exercise and positively living in the moment on the trail. So whenever possible, I encourage my students and volunteers to listen, to really slow down and listen. I hope they see items and events through the eyes of peer hikers ahead or behind them, to imagine a view from a blue jay’s perch or from a collared lizard’s location. The empathy of different views may build character in the solitude of the trail. On a personal note, to me, seeing this realization in a student is thrilling to witness.

So whenever possible, let’s support outdoor education. Keep your senses open to your surroundings and tuned to the stimulating sights, nature sounds and lessons laid out before us. Outdoor experiences give us all growth opportunities. We will continue to grow on the inside if we remember our scout and youth leaders teaching us respect for the land and each other.

Learning to live in the moment is a wonderful lesson to start this beautiful Ozark June. I hope to catch you on a favorite trail of mine! – Jeff