The Outdoor Spirit: learning a kid's perspective

Posted: Friday, April 08, 2011

Upon arriving in Alaska, my mother innocently asked me "Are the kids in Alaska different from the kids in Wisconsin?" Having obtained a degree in elementary education and therefore having spent extensive amounts of time with "Wisconsin children," my mother assumed that I would be an authoritative voice on the subject. I hope I'll not let my mother down by saying that having spent a mere five weeks working with the children of Alaska and a measly four years with children from Wisconsin, makes me anything but an expert.

Photo Courtesy Kenai National Wildlife Refuge
Photo Courtesy Kenai National Wildlife Refuge
Students participating in a relay race during the refuge's Snowshoeing Through History second- and third-grade program.

Despite my lack of life experiences, I am no stranger to observing young people. In so doing, I have, in hopefully making my mother proud, seen differences and similarities in children from both areas of the U.S.

Not to disappoint anyone, but I won't take sides with whose children are smarter, better behaved or better looking. I would like to reflect on the interests and experiences that are both different, yet also similar in the children of the Kenai Peninsula and those of the Madison and Oshkosh areas of Wisconsin.

I must make a confession before I dive into the meat of this article. I am lucky. I get to spend my time with children at a wildlife refuge learning about the ways of nature. While living, learning and working with young people in Wisconsin, I never had such a unique opportunity. We were confined to classrooms, which were confined in schools. Needless to say, I may be biased towards Alaskan children, as it is abundantly more joyful to spend a day outside than cooped up indoors all day. In my attempt to compare the actions, thoughts and words of the children in question, let's pretend that Wisconsin children spend the majority of their time outside, rather than indoors, like the kids I work with everyday here at the refuge.

First off, kids are awesome. As I noted earlier, their sense of wonder, adventure and discovery has never ceased to amaze me and, more times than not, made me laugh out loud.

The awesomeness of children is exponentially increased when they're outside. The natural world, as defined by me and many others before me, is a place of wonder, discovery and adventure. When the two are paired, the world stops spinning. As I see it, they are made for each other. Kids find no trouble in proving my thesis correct. Seemingly normal occurrences, even by Wisconsin standards, such as a chickadee in the bird feeder or a squirrel climbing a tree, unleashes an avalanche of "oohs" and the high pitched, "It's a Squirrel!" followed by another young observer, "And it's got something in its hands!" To which I must stop talking about the anatomy of the lynx or the hunting strategies of a wolf pack and reassure them that, yes, birds feed out of the bird feeder and the squirrel is just carrying a spruce cone.

This interaction between children and nature transcends boundaries. Children here in Alaska are awed by the squirrel in a tree, while children I worked with in Wisconsin, despite being in a traditional classroom, find equal interest and react with quite the same enthusiasm to a squirrel walking on a power line.

Kids from both Alaska and Wisconsin know what hunting and fishing are and what going on a hike means. The difference lies in the doing of these activities. I think I'm fair in saying that the majority of Alaskan kids who come to the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge have hunted, fished or gone on a hike at some point in their life. Counter this to the children I worked with in Wisconsin, who know what these activities are by watching a commercial on TV. Because of their inexperience with the outdoors, they don't understand why many people put themselves through harsh weather, early mornings and lots of money to spend a large part of their life outdoors.

I may have made some rather general assumptions and am clearly omitting many nature lovers who live in the great state of Wisconsin. Most folks from Wisconsin are not yuppie city slickers, and I can attest to what I thought was a rather high outdoor spirit -- that is until I came here.

The point I'm making is this: the local culture here on the Kenai, which is centered on outdoor activities, is obvious in the vocabulary and experiences of the children who grow up here.

All the kids I have worked with, both here and in Wisconsin, speak English, interrupt me when I'm talking, love to touch everything in sight, talk incessantly with their friends and find the natural world to be fascinating. The difference between them is a reflection of the difference in local cultures. Fishing, hunting and anything outdoors is the center of popular culture here in Soldotna. In contrast, the Green Bay Packers, "hunting" white-tailed deer, and eating cheese are the foci of a Wisconsin resident's world. The values and experiences of our young people are a reflection of a community's culture.

I honestly feel that all children find interest, beauty and wonder in the natural world. I leave you now with a short story: Two weeks ago, a group of fifteen students and I were witness to the mating rituals of the spruce grouse. Please put aside any prejudices and stereotypes that may cloud your mind around this animal. The point is that young minds bore witness to one of nature's most fundamental, real and awe-inspiring moments. I know this because for 10 minutes, and the first time all day, all fifteen kids were silent.

Ryan Banks hails from Wisconsin. He is currently an intern with the environmental education program at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. He likes cheese and is looking forward to the salmon run. For more detailed information about the Refuge, you can check the refuge website at or on Facebook at

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