Therapeutic, educational or recreational programming that promotes a deep and meaningful connection with nature is frequently used by social workers and allied professionals to mitigate risk and promote resilience in children. This paper addresses the bias found among those who support these programs which devalues the urban/developed environments in which most at-risk populations reside in favour of pristine/natural settings. Combining the philosophy of deep ecology and principles of social justice with findings from the study of risk and resilience, it will be shown that outdoor experience-based programming (OEP) contributes best to healthy outcomes in at-risk populations when programming provides participants an appreciation for the complexity and challenges they face living in the familiar environments they call home.
The link between outdoor experience-based programming (OEP) and positive outcomes among participants whom are members of at-risk populations has been shown in a number of studies (Burns, 1999; Cooley, 1998), though results are methodologically problematic and met frequently with calls for further research (Davis-Berman & Berman, 1999; Ewert, McCormick & Voight, 2001; Neill & Heubeck, 1998). Despite this, there is enthusiastic support for these programs from professionals, communities and even children themselves (see Gillis & Ringer, 1999; Hirsch, 1999; McGowan, 1997). OEP includes a wide spectrum of activities that are offered to at-risk children from wilderness adventure and therapeutic recreation to environmental awareness, education and activism to promote social and environmental policy reform. Unfortunately, a review of the research on OEP shows that nature based programming does not sustain long-term change in individual participants and that the most positive outcomes result from the challenge of hands-on experience and constructive social interactions rather than immersion in nature, increased environmental awareness, or meaningful engagement in social action. Neither an appreciation for the intrinsic value of others and their communities, nor the growth of a sustained empathy for a biocentric (nature-centred) perspective has been shown to result directly from programming taking place out of doors. Nature as setting is often valued more by the facilitators of these programs than the participants (Witman, 1993).
In this paper, I deconstruct this problem in an effort to provide a more theoretically sound argument for OEP that shows how programming can mitigate risk and produce more enduring socially just and environmentally sensitive outcomes. Drawing on the literature concerned with the philosophy of deep ecology and social justice and studies of risk and resilience I will show that the utilitarian view of nature underlying OEP reinforces an understanding of nature as “other” than that which participants experience as their environment. My goal is to challenges the way OEP emphasizes contact with pristine, unpopulated nature. The “natural” but populated environments in which at-risk children live (whether urban or rural) are made to seem different and dysfunctional when compared with the settings in which OEP takes place. The result has been further marginalization of the environment the child identifies as home. Furthermore, lessons learned from time spent in pristine nature cannot be transferred from this alien setting to the child’s own populated home context after programming is complete without the prolonged assistance of professional helpers. These helpers are needed to create continuity and integration of the lessons learned during OEP. Discussion of this role during and after programming is particularly germane to social workers. As a profession, we are frequently part of these programs as administrators and facilitators, and more than any other discipline have historically been concerned with a focus on the person-in-environment (Ungar, 2002a; Wakefield, 1996;).
Specifically, my argument is two-fold. First, we require a more deeply ecological and socially just orientation to programming in order to address our commonality with nature which transcends the dichotomous thinking that emphasizes only those similarities found between humans and the natural pristine world. We need instead to construct a view of nature as being all around us, even in urban environments. Second, we know from years of study by social workers of the person-in-environment and the literature on risk and resilience that growth and adaptation must necessarily take place in one’s own environment (human and natural) to be effective. Lessons a child learns outside that which is familiar may be valuable, but are seldom adequate to cope with the immediate health challenges he or she faces day-to-day in the real world setting in which he or she lives.
There are a vast range of programs that use the environment as a form of intervention and education. These programs can be roughly divided into outdoor wilderness adventure, whether for therapeutic or recreational purposes, and environmental education. In wilderness programs, the goal is to place participants in a fun and challenging environment to help them mobilize their individual and collective resources to foster personal growth. At the other end of the continuum, environmental education emphasizes the engagement of participants in a more intimate connection with the natural world in order to foster understanding of the environment as a separate realm from human activity. Randolph Haluza-Delay (1999) makes a similar distinction between what he terms adventure education and environmental education:
Adventure education is the intentional use of challenge or adventure components to serve an educational purpose. However, the purpose is generally to promote personal or interpersonal growth. Much of environmental education is experiential, involving outdoor experiences, issue investigation, role playing, service learning, and more. In environmental education, the emphasis is only partly on the intrapersonal and social development. The aim of environmental education is to impact knowledge about the environment with the hope of making change. (p. 129)
In between the two poles of wilderness adventure and environmental education are programs that are based upon different blends of environmental awareness, the promotion of social justice or meaningful community involvement and personal development. A middle ground of sorts is evident in outdoor survival programs where the goal is to live in a sustainable and harmonious relationship with nature in order to survive.
The emphasis in OEP, a term that includes programs at both ends of the continuum, is on the challenge of survival and the transferability of the lessons learned to other environments and other relationships, both with nature and with people. Research on program effectiveness has focussed mostly on how contact with pristine nature can act as a pathway to health. The more profound question of how a meaningful engagement with one’s own environment can stimulate psychological, social and spiritual growth in child participants has not been well studied. This is unfortunate as Kurt Hahn, the founding architect of outdoor adventure programming, emphasized that compassion for others (human and nonhuman beings) be embedded in the philosophy of outdoor adventure education and challenge programs (Richards, 1999). Studies which have addressed this issue have tended to show that health is bolstered when a secure attachment to place and community is nurtured in participants during programming (Autry, 2001; Hirsch, 1999; Neill & Heubeck, 1998; Raffan, 1993). Engaging youth meaningfully in their community is often achieved through campaigns to improve the livability of urban or rural environments. Arguably, it is access to and the interplay with one’s environment that creates or contests growth (Knox, 1998).
The bulk of OEP uses nature as a backdrop, a setting, a challenge, friend or foe, or a not so benign amusement park. A few programs explore nature as a source of spiritual communion, a space to reflect and re-create one’s self. In both instances, the most frequent emphasis is on nature as it is encountered beyond the places familiar to participants, their home communities. OEP promotes an awareness of nature in ways that reflect an understanding of ecology grounded in a modernist orientation that emphasizes causal relationships (immediate consequences for one’s actions), objectivity (nature as observable, measurable) and the dominance of human rationality (nature as a resource that can be managed). Murray Bookchin (1980) has critically named this approach “environmentalism,” the functional use of nature in ways that the environment is preserved to ensure both the survival and prosperity of humans. Such a view is epitomized by boot camps for young offenders which place them in nature in order to isolate and provide treatment. To such programs, natural settings are surrogate jails that become part of a philosophy of control and discipline substituting lessons from nature for formal therapy. Such an approach makes nature a source of well-being for human benefit, encouraging an exploitive view of that which is deemed “other.”
Ecophilosophers like Warwick Fox (1989) have rightly criticized this psychologizing of nature for its shallow regard for the environment. As deep ecology shows, a better way to understand our connection with the environment is to transcend the dichotomous thinking that makes humans and the natural world appear as two separate realities, one more useful to the other. Deep ecologists like Norwegian Arne Naess (1989; Naess & Jickling, 2000) have developed a complex, just and spiritual approach to ecology that is less deterministic, non-hierarchical, and tolerant of chaos. Deep ecologists seek a transcendence of our identity as humans, rooted in an understanding that nature exists without reference to fulfilment of human needs.
Programming for at-risk children and youth that seeks to bolster their ability to cope with adversity would be more effective, based on the reasoning of deep ecologists, if nature is more than just a backdrop. In an ontological sense, nature needs to be appreciated as a dynamic being which is ever striving for it’s own renewal. Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (1987) calls this drive towards survival autopoiesis. Whether we treat nature as individual elements, or as a Gaia-like whole, there is much to be gained from transcending the individual ‘self’ in preference for the more universal and actualized ‘Self’ which transcends distinctions between humans and nature. This expansiveness contributes to an empathic attunement for others that is frequently missing in the way deviant, delinquent and disordered children and youth engage with aspects of their environments, human or otherwise. As Bookchin (1980) has argued through his historical account of our separation from nature, it is this same experience of a connection with nature that returns us to a more equitable, less alienated social existence with one another.
In order to achieve this transcendence of dualism among participants in OEP, we must deconstruct our understanding of nature as pristine environment which places it beyond the everyday world most people experience. The one exception is Aboriginal people’s or those whose lives are intimately tied to the wilderness or a particular piece of land. For those people like the Innu of Labrador, a nomadic people forcibly settled on reserves in the 1960s, their relationship with natural ecosystems is still intimate and the otherness they experience is found in alien urban environments (Innu Nation, 1995). For non-Aboriginals who form the bulk of OEP participants there is the need to recognize that there is as much “nature” among the weeds growing at the edges of a concrete schoolyard as there is in an old growth forest (see Naess & Jickling, 2000). Arguably, awareness of the natural world must necessarily begin and end for the child in his or her home environment if that environment and the community which is found within it is to be valued. This valuing of place and people, and the relative power of the social discourses that describe each as either whole or imperfect, is at the root of a social justice orientation to social intervention (Ife, 1997; Pease & Fook, 1999)
Support for this need to see nature as more than a setting useful for programming comes from OEP participants themselves who report fear at the thought of returning home and worry how they will survive with the new skills they nurture during programming when back in old environments (Burns, 1999; Ferguson, 1999). In the process of fostering ecological awareness, we mistakenly use pristine nature as a setting, rather than fostering an understanding of transcendence in participants that would help them to embrace nature as a teacher of lessons they need in every environment. The sheer differentness of the pristine and unpopulated makes lessons learned during OEP difficult to apply to the challenges participants face when back home. Building a shelter and preparing food over an open fire may bolster self-esteem in the wilderness. However, there are few opportunities to display the same talents upon which this self-esteem is based in urban settings. Even more overtly spiritual approaches that have addressed this shortcoming are problematic. As Michael McGowan (1997) notes in regard to such programs, “Participants may encounter spirituality and ethics while negotiating programmatic obstacles but fail to see the relevance of these experiences to more mundane contexts” (p.15).
We know from studies of OEP that deep and prolonged immersion in nature can bolster positive outcomes synonymous with resilience among participants (Davis-Berman & Berman, 1999; Ewert, McCormick & Voight, 2001; Ferguson, 1999; Gillis & Ringer, 1999; Neill & Heubeck, 1998; Russell, 2000), but that change does not endure when participants return home. Consistently, participants in OEP report that the deeper their engagement with nature, the more they experience self-efficacy, meaningful involvement in their community, a coherent personal identity, spirituality, social skills, problem-solving skills and an understanding of social justice, among other aspects of personal and social growth. These results, though not studied at great length among OEP participants, are synonymous with factors that promote well-being and resilience in at-risk populations (Author, in press; Fraser & Galinsky, 1997; Kaplan, 1999; Masten, 2001; Ungar 2002b). Parallels can be drawn between the outcomes attributed to OEP and a variety of interventions found to nurture resilience in at-risk populations. However, the problem of the relatively short duration of the changes participants make may be related to the insufficient length of time immersion is practically feasible. It’s not that OEP can’t work, it hasn’t yet done so well because we have misunderstood how health is maintained among at-risk populations. Studies of resilience have shown us that adaptive behaviours occur in specific contexts (the person-in-environment perspective of social workers supports this point) and may not necessarily generalize to different relationships and situations. Valuable lessons learned from nature, even the more spiritual growth one experiences as one develops empathy for the intrinsic worth of all things human and natural, are difficult lessons to bring home when their only application has been to challenges faced in foreign contexts.
Given the potential for OEP to protect against risk, it seems surprising that the changes participant experience in their attitudes and behaviours do not endure. Gary Ferguson’s (1999) inside look at wilderness adventure programs for troubled teens offers us a hint at why this is so. He examines a program that tries to bring the lessons learned from living in the wilds of Utah, a place known by the Paiute people for its mystical power, to bear on the lives of youth from very un-magical places like cities in the American Midwest. He challenges us to move beyond seeing “wilderness mostly as some kind of tonic: sedative, blood pressure medicine, speed” (p.3) and instead tells us that experience in nature helps these youth make the connection between their behaviour, attitudes and immediate well-being: “You can’t manipulate the wind or the rain or the mountain, or talk your way out of the coming of darkness” (p. 25).
But the participants in the program Ferguson examines are, for the most part, not Paiute children. They are from a different environment and in the end, Ferguson can only tell us about the fear and hesitation they experience when returning home. Home will be different. Home is not like the wilderness, and brings with it other challenges and other demands for adaptation. There is a bias on the part of OEP facilitators that the problem behaviours evident in the lives of at-risk children in their home environments are maladaptive, rather than adaptative responses to environments that lack opportunities and health-promoting resources. This bias blames the children themselves for the lack of social justice, recreation, violence-free homes, self-esteem, meaningful involvement with their community, hopefulness, and educational or vocational opportunities that are not made available to them. That we fail to see self-abusing and dangerous behaviours of problem youth as reasonable adaptations to harsh or sterile urban and rural environments ignores the most powerful lesson nature teaches: one must adapt to survive. Ferguson is on the right track, but for OEP to be effective, it must first be relevant to the populated anthropocentric (human centred) ecologies most at-risk youth experience. These youth frequently survive in these socially unjust and resource poor environments by establishing their own ways of coping, the intelligibility of their actions seldom understood by those in power.
We can address this problem of relevance by making that which is alien more familiar. We can do this in one of two ways. First, we can extend the period of immersion in pristine nature so it is sufficiently profound that participants gain extensive experience adapting their new skills to different situations and then provide them guides to help them apply these skills back in their home environments. Alternately, we can teach participants to appreciate and learn from the environments in which they are already immersed and with which they feel connected day-to-day.
A more deeply ecological approach to OEP is reflexive whether taking place outside the child’s front door or miles away in an unfamiliar natural preserve. As program participants better understand and appreciate their environment and their place in it there is the potential to learn about the intrinsic worth of others, to respect diversity, to experience social justice and understand relationships of power and one’s place in these. These lessons are learned through the study of the human-in-nature aspects of our lives (which includes, as one component, human-to-human interaction). In other words, the diversity of plant and animal life found in even a small area of tidal wash can show us much about the complexity of ecosystems, human and nonhuman.
Unfortunately, lessons learned too far afield do not seem to translate well when brought home. As we have seen, the effectiveness of OEP breaks down. A deeply ecological approach to intervention through OEP needs to shift the focus of programming from nature as something other worldly, toward an awareness that we are all immersed in nature of one kind or another, whether we are traditional Innu living on the land, or the high-rise urban dweller. The hard work of translating experience and values from one context to the next is avoided when programming is respectful of where at-risk children live and the urgency they experience to adapt. These different kinds of relationships between OEP and resilience may be represented by two contrasting models. Figure One summarizes what the bulk of the OEP literature describes as effective programming, framed within a risk and resilience perspective. Programs that have conceptualized their work this way have not produced enduring results. Figure Two shows a second model that incorporates a deeply ecological perspective, emphasizing nature as constructed space that is engaged with through a praxis of experience and reflection, culminating in resilience, environmental awareness and more socially just relationships between those marginalized and those who control resources. Two distinguishing characteristics of these different models are discussed at length below: the environment as a constructed space and the importance of appreciating each unique environment for what it can teach us. Each informs programming objectives for successful OEP.
Programming objective one: Understanding environment as constructed space
There is an implicit epistemological error made in understanding pristine wilderness as different from the concrete jungles in which many of us live. Such thought constructs a great chain of being that makes one species’ habitat, the human’s, beyond the laws of nature. As Frank Tester (1994) explains: “the environment, with which we must be concerned in the 1990s and beyond, is not merely a biological fact . Rather, in all its forms–from the shop floor to the nearby waste incinerator and to the broad sweep of forests and mountains–the environment is a socially-constructed and historically-constituted reality, which is manipulated within a set of values and assumptions that we desperately need to question” (p.91). From a Judeo-Christian perspective the wilderness in which Jesus wanders or Mount Sinai where Moses receives the Ten Commandments are stories that imbue nature with the essence of the divine. But our relation to those spaces has left our own homes as human places that are thought of as incomplete, or spoiled. These constructions devalue the experience of those who live in these spaces, especially the most vulnerable.
Each construction of place is discursive, our experience of the place resulting from the meaning and language which attaches to each locality. If we are to influence the lives of at-risk children for the long-term, then we would do better to change our construction of populated areas as being non-natural. Fox (1989) explains that deep ecology stresses that all life forms “are the products of distinct evolutionary pathways and ecological relationships means that, at any given point in time, they should be thought of as more or less perfect (complete) examples of their own kind ” (p.200). There is a need to further ecologize OEP in order to challenge the anthropocentricism that has made us construct nature as that which we find in pristine forms alone, rather than nature as we actually experience it under our feet and throughout our daily interactions. We too are part of nature just as the smog we breath is not just corrupted air. It may be different (and highly undesirable) but holds much in common with the morning fog over an ocean coastline. That we prefer to breath the latter raises issues of social justice and access to a clean environment. It needn’t construct our urban communities as inferior. Children who experience nature as a pristine “other” may not benefit from what is learned in those environments unless the connection between the familiar and the alien is understood as part of a cohesive web of life. The smog we abhor is an aspect of who we are, and though reviled, is the outcome of our own attempts to adapt. We remain every bit a part of nature just as greenhouse gases are composed of “natural” elements. Like Fox, following Naess’ lead, we need to advocate a “this-worldly realization of as expansive a sense of self as possible” (p. 224).
In practice this means there is much for children who are not part of pristine environments to learn from the environment at their front door: they can become aware of their own litter and landfills, their ecological footprints (Wackernagel & Rees, 1996) and the resources required to sustain their lifestyle, and the cycles of food, water and energy that bring them these resources. The lessons we choose to teach in a nature which is “out there” can just as effectively be taught in the immediacy of the urban school yard. Conceptually, the child who understands the hardiness of a weed surviving in a crack of cement might have far more appreciation for his or her own adaptive qualities. Arguably, it is easier to sustain an understanding of commonality between the human and nonhuman when there is “considerable personal involvement” (Fox, 1989, p. 249). Removing at-risk children from their homes we miss the opportunities close at hand. If OEP is to stimulate protection against risk, OEP in pristine nature must complement what we are doing closer to home.
Guenter Amesberger (1998) from the European Institute for Outdoor Adventure Education and Experiential Learning says that therapeutically oriented Adventure therapy can address many of the problems facing youth today, but that no therapy can substitute for good political decisions that affect children’s day-to-day lives. Similarly, critics of resilience research correctly note that we can place too much emphasis on the child and his or her responsibility to adapt (Abrams, 2002; Author, in press). If we study health outcomes without understanding the context in which they emerge we will fail to realize the gritty realities that some children experience and the intelligibility of how they navigate the turning points in their lives. Therefore, if we try to protect children from risk by exposing them to pristine nature, the responsibility for awareness and adaptation in the populated spaces they live rests squarely on the shoulders of the children who must live immersed in toxic social and natural environments. In the process we may exacerbate a child’s capacity to cope as formerly adaptive behaviours are changed without attention paid to how to integrate new ways of coping (more appropriate to “other” worldly contexts found in pristine nature) back into their home environments.
OEP activities in pristine nature can still be useful, but require that continuity between these experiences and home lives be fostered. Take for example Amesberger’s (1998) program that he describes as follows:
When we work with clients in the outdoors we do not teach about nature, we encourage people to get in touch with nature. This requires getting in touch with themselves. To get there we follow some principles including: (a) slowing down the speed of everyday life, (b) deepening the impressions of our sense organs, (c) reducing our sense organs, for example using unsighted activities, (d) starting an inner dialogue identifying what attracts me and what rejects, repels or disgusts me, (e) starting the dialogue with the outer nature, (f) body and nature awareness exercises with a focus on “grounding” (depending on clinical diagnosis), (g) inner rhythm, breathing rhythm and rhythm in nature, (h) focusing on breathing in and release and breathing out. (p.26)
Each of these activities would stimulate characteristics associated with resilient children, from self-reflection, to self-efficacy. Add to these inner-focussed activities enactive characteristics such as problem-solving, secure attachments, and recreational and educational pursuits, and one can argue that the young person who learns these things through OEP will simultaneously enhance his or her survival in the urban wilderness when skills are successfully brought home. For this transfer to occur, however, we must understand the commonality between the discourses of the urban jungle and untouched nature.
Deep ecology supports an understanding of nature independent of human activity, as well as the interdependency of humans and nature. It can offer helping professionals an ecologically based philosophy (an ecosophy) useful for understanding diversity and intrinsic worth, both lynchpins of a progressive practice (Ife, 1997). From this biocentric perspective, concern for the environment is not the sole concern of those living close to pristine territory (witness national “Buy Nothing” and “Bike to work” campaigns that are urban in focus). OEP has unintentionally (and intentionally) promoted the idea that environment and one’s relationship with it takes place outside populated and familiar territories. In so doing, nature as teacher or source of spiritual communion is realized in spaces other than those in which most at-risk children live. Naess criticized this kind of environmental myopia which he called Shallow Ecology. As Alan Drengson (2000) explains, “While the Shallow Ecology Movement is anthropocentric (humans first) and considers only human interests, the Deep Ecology Movement is based on platform principles that emphasize the need to respect he intrinsic worth of all beings, humans included, and to treasure all forms of biological and cultural diversity” (p.68-69). For inner city or even rural youths who are exposed to wilderness challenge, the relevance of the experience to their everyday lives and environments may not at first be obvious to them. As Graham Ellis-Smith (1998) reminds us “it is time for us to rediscover our connection, our ‘indigenous heart, ’ our ‘dreaming’” that takes place when we connect with nature (p. 84). This is an important goal, but one difficult to convince children to do unless they can experience the connection in the everyday.
Much of what we do with children has instead followed the lead of outdoor educators like Steve Van Matre (1979), author of Sunship Earth , a now classic resource book for outdoor learning. Van Matre argues that the city environment is insufficient to understand the natural processes that sustain us:
Cities tend to overwhelm their residents, to dominate their perceptual fields and thus lead them to believe that cities do, in reality, dominate the unseen processes which support them. The immensity and seeming permanence of our cities tends to instill such a distorted perception. The danger is that those of us who live in cities may begin to see squares of asphalt and concrete as the reality of life and view green contours and fresh streams as ancient shadows, without substance or meaning, without value to our future.(p.xvii)
Van Matre encourages us to leave behind the urban and acclimatize to the natural to make our place in the world much more clear. This goal would be a good one if not for the fact that for the child who has no immediate cultural claim to these places, these programs fail to teach the child to appreciate his or her own backyard ecology.
What’s more, there is evidence that it is not contact with nature that is the catalyst for change during these outdoor experiences. As Allison Stringer and Leo McAvoy (1992) found during a qualitative study with two groups of participants in different outdoor programs, it was the unusualness of the new environment that evoked spiritual thoughts related to one’s place in the world and the time taken away from congested lives: “It might be surmised, therefore, that the operative factor for some participants was being in a different environment, free from normal constraints on time and energy, as opposed to being necessarily in a wilderness environment” (p.17). Such findings would suggest that our overemphasis on taking children to the outdoors beyond their communities is missing the mark. Children need to develop the skills to break free of the constraints upon them in the very environments in which they struggle.
Interventions might be better understood as comprehensive values education, to borrow Clifford Knapp’s (1999) description of his outdoor experiential nature-based programming. Knapp’s approach, more in line with what is being suggested here, encourages participants to ask deep ethical questions that help them to see what they have in common with nature, whether outside their front doors, or beyond. Knapp Interventions might be better understood as comprehensive values education, to borrow Clifford Knapp’s (1999) description of his outdoor experiential nature-based programming. Knapp’s approach, more in line with what is being suggested here, encourages participants to ask deep ethical questions that help them to see what they have in common with nature, whether outside their front doors, or beyond. Knapp’s five questions which deal with how we treat each other are based on different principles learned from nature. These questions include: Would I want the same solution applied to me if roles were reversed (the principle of reciprocity)?; Would I want everyone in the world to employ this solution or follow this example (the principle of universality)?; Is the rule applied similarly to other individuals or groups (the principle of equity)?; How would I view the situation if I didn’t have a personal interest in it (the principle of neutrality)?; and What solution would be best for the greatest number (the principle of utility)(p.83)? As at-risk children navigate their way to health and social justice, they must evaluate the various pathways open to them with a similar five questions.
Take for example the youth who as part of his probation becomes involved in an urban recycling program, which has as a component a three week wilderness therapy and detoxification period. When back in his community, OEP leaders become integral to his reintegration and engage him in community action to understand the connection between urban decay and issues of social justice. In the process, he is encouraged to apply Knapp’s five principles to how he understands both environmental issues, and human relationships. Such an approach would provide a continuum in programming from the community, to the wilderness, and back again. When faced with decisions related to violence, sexuality, drug use, or family conflict, this youth may arguably have learned things about his immediate world (not just an alien pristine natural world) that can help him make different choices for himself. It is not an easy connection to make, but lessons learned about the consequences of a throwaway society are helpful in understanding how at-risk youth become throwaways themselves, frequently winding up in informal street families. Far from dysfunctional, these street families are recycling that which society rejects. Such a profound and empowering discourse is possible when what is learned from the child’s environment is relevant to the risks the child faces day-to-day.
We know this to be true for large numbers of Aboriginal children whose cultures identify closely with a natural environment with which they still feel connected (see Sorensen, 2001). For example, among the Innu of Labrador, the land still holds lessons for living and opportunities to return and live on the land are healing even for children born since the community’s forced settlement. As James Raffan (1993) noted after extensive time spent culturally immersed and out on the land with the Dene of northern Canada, those close to the land understand and are connected with it in ways that southerners cannot appreciate.
I would argue that such a connection can exist just as profoundly among urban people’s. In Halifax, construction of an industrial park and bridge in the late 1960s displaced a community of 400 African-Canadians from what had been known as Africville. The residents, who experienced their community as a haven from racism and discrimination, have fought hard since their forced relocation for their right to regain a place on that land, to rebuild the church that was at the centre of the community and to erect a memorial to the people who previously lived and died there. Such profound association with place is not developed through a three week program. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Douglas Kleiber (1991) explain in regard to any experience that actively leads to personal growth through connection with nature: “Involvement in an activity must be deep, sustained, and disciplined to contribute to an emerging sense of self” (p. 94). The adaptive strategies necessary to survive in one environment, and the transferability of these do not occur unless there is a depth of connection fostered through action (see Fox, 1999; Haskell, 1999; McDonald & Shreyer, 1991).
Understanding biocentrically the immediate environment of the at-risk child fits well with the person-in-environment focus that social work has held for the past century (Ungar, 2002a; Wakefield, 1996). OEP offers us an opportunity as social workers, recreation therapists and outdoor educators to expand our mandates and intervene effectively with children who require our services. OEP’s purpose must be, however, to better integrate what is learned from experience in one environment to life in another. Sadly, the young person who experiences the self-efficacy and positive identity that comes from using a chain saw and maintaining a hiking trail, often finds no place for that identity back in the suburbs. How are these skills and these personal qualities to be transformed? How are attachments to others and the daily challenge to be recreated? Clearly we are better at conceiving OEP as distinct moments and less as part of a continuum of service that extends from community to programming and back again. One might even question the value of an experience that says to a child challenge and growth takes place outside his or her community. I have suggested that it is the alien-like qualities of natural environments that prevent long term change in participants.
As Naess (Naess & Jickling, 2000) teaches, spending time examining a weed growing between the cracks in the cement of a city sidewalk can bring us to wonder at the magnificence of our interdependency with nature. Most outdoor education, or adventure programming has taken a different tack. We have chosen to inspire awe of nature through activities like whale watching that have not instilled an enduring biocentric perspective among participants. Such strategies do not serve vulnerable children well. Their needs are more immediate: secure attachments, a meaningful place in their communities, powerful identity, recreation, education, food and social supports. We must construct with them an understanding of nature based upon that which they know best, the places immediately accessible to them. A child who is poorly connected to others will find it difficult to appreciate a mushroom as something with intrinsic value apart from its utility. Empathy for the natural, like empathy for the human, grows from intimate knowledge of the other and experience within those relationships. Despite hopes to the contrary, the woods and oceans of a pristine environment are likely to be manipulated and controlled in a narcissistic urge at self-aggrandizement by at-risk children when constructed as something other than what they know. Programming that reaches too far beyond their experience and capacity accomplishes little that endures. OEP shows great potential to help at-risk children understand both their connection with natural and human environments. Unfortunately, as these examples illustrate, a sense of place begins at home and not out beyond our community’s borders.
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