Nurture through Nature

By Jason Gutu, Outdoor Education Coordinator

My entire career was in a wilderness setting before I joined COMPASS Boston 4 years ago, and my first conversation with the Director of Community Services was about the potential of an outdoors program. Throughout my time as a COMPASS Family Specialist providing in-home crisis support, I frequently relied on outdoor activities and accessing natural spaces to help heal damaged relationships. I watched how naturally it built intrigue in both children and adults, how dysregulated children became regulated with such little effort in a natural environment, and even when scared, how often tense shoulders of all ages melted away into exploration and play. I now have the chance to share my experiences with more of COMPASS through the creation of our Outdoors Education program.

The children and families we serve are experiencing many challenges, and gaining access to the outdoors is no different. It is our specialty to make nature accessible. If youth in our program are fearful about the forest, then we work to understand that fear, listen to that fear, and learn together how to embrace new experiences little by little. All the while we continue to provide space for fear to do its job. We help youth differentiate between healthy fears that keep us keen and toxic fears that drown our sense of self. The outdoors commonly elicits stress in both children and adults, but our outdoors activities put stress in its appropriate environment where its purpose can be felt and, more importantly, resolved in the moment through actions – not trapped in the body in the terrifying ways that traumatize. Our “challenge by choice” approach teaches youth how to manage their levels of stress while ensuring more participation. With participation comes some measure of success, and as stress mingles with that joy it creates an engaging excitement, as well as a positive self-image. Some of our biggest accomplishments have been in our smallest adventures by keeping our groups integrated with youth of varying abilities. Time and again, youth have met the challenges before them, whether it is hiking a mountain or climbing two steps up on a ladder.

Our School program has been able to provide simple days for our students immersed in nature. At nearby ponds students learned to canoe, asked questions about the frogs, caught fish in their hands, and tried sneaking up on local wildlife chin-deep in the water. Students willing to jump into the murky, vegetated waters and laugh even in the presence of discomfort have amazed us. Unstructured relaxation under the forest canopy has provided the time and space that our students need to mature, especially when so much of their energies are spent maintaining an on-going vigilance against felt threats to their attachments and security. In the words of childhood expert, Dr. Gabor Maté, which encapsulate the intention of Outdoors Education so well, “We liberate children, not by making them work for our love, but by letting them rest in it.”

So, thank you to all of those at COMPASS who have helped start the Outdoors Education program, and remain committed to helping children and families connect with nature.

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