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home : education : schools June 20, 2018

6/5/2018 12:40:00 PM
Teens trade phones for backpacks and river rapids
IEE students take to the river for a rafting expedition.  photo courtesy Samra Spear
+ click to enlarge
IEE students take to the river for a rafting expedition. photo courtesy Samra Spear

By T. Lee Brown

Research shows that social media and phone overuse is becoming a problem-especially for kids and teens. Bullying, anxiety, depression, and suicide are among the growing fears of parents and educators. How can teens help themselves feel better? How can adults help?

Spending time in nature reduces anxiety and combats depression in people of all ages. One program at Sisters High School takes nature immersion to a whole new level. IEE, or Interdisciplinary Environmental Expedition, brings about half of the school's juniors into the great outdoors regularly, culminating in rigorous backpacking and river rafting trips.

Students gain far more than thrills. They learn English, science, math, arts, and physical fitness. By reflecting on their adventures afterward, they integrate their new knowledge into their lives. They are guided by teachers including Samra Spear, who says, "I am passionate about helping motivate students to choose outdoor activities as a way to develop a healthy sense of self-confidence, inner peace, and sense of place."

The Nugget asked students Cole Blakelock, Abigail Busick, Errin Hongel, and Nancy Montecinos to share their stories and insights. The conversation was edited for length and clarity.

What have you gained from IEE?

Nancy: Respecting nature has been a big thing. Being outdoors has helped me capture more of what we're learning, instead of sitting in a classroom all day for eight hours. It's really pushed me out of my comfort zone.

Abigail: IEE has taught me a lot about how to appreciate nature more, the beauty of it and how self-healing it is. How it's pure and fun and stuff. It changes me-I never want to litter or anything like that. I'm more appreciative of all the plants.

Cole: The great thing about IEE is it integrates English, science, and of course the environment, all together. So we'll be out in the middle of nowhere, sketching or writing something, and you get all of these emotions from the place that you are, and that influences what you draw or write. I think that's a really powerful thing to have in school.

Errin: I think IEE really pushes our personal limits. On the outdoor challenge day there's a lot of running and stuff; a lot of times we tell ourselves, 'I can't do this.' But then IEE's like, 'No, you can! You don't get a choice.' I think that helps us grow.

Has IEE changed your relationship to your digital devices?

Errin: On the backpacking trip we aren't allowed to physically bring our phones. I noticed the first day I kept reaching into my pockets to find out the time or who was texting me, but as it got farther into the trip, that need fell away. Like once we realized we don't need that to be happy, we can just be out in nature.

How long did it take to realize?

Errin: It just took a few hours.

Wow, that's quick. How about after the trip?

Nancy: For me, it really did change. Like I deleted some apps that I realized I spent a lot of my time on. It's helped me stay on track with my homework. But also, I realized not being on our phones helped us connect a little more because we were with groups. It showed me that if I put my phone away, I can connect more with people.

Errin: I've noticed that before IEE I was like, 'No, I can't go out without my phone!' but after the backpacking trip, I got home and realized like this isn't something I need to always have with me. A lot of kids-we have streaks on Snapchat, and something I've done a lot more lately is just not caring so much. I can leave my phone in my locker during the day. It's not as influential on me anymore, because there's a lot bigger things.

What's bigger than a Snapstreak?

Errin: What's bigger is the actual connection you can feel with nature when you're out in it. We went to this big waterfall, and during that time it was a complete feeling of peace. You don't get that from refreshing your feed. (Laughter.)

Do you have any advice for parents and teachers?

Abigail: Understand that like your phone is a major way to stay connected with your friends and your family in different states or countries.

Errin: If I could tell them one thing, I would tell them: Put your phone away and go see what the world is like without seeing it through a screen.

Part Two in a series. Tell us about your experiences with digital devices, social media, and time in nature. We can quote you anonymously or under your real name. Email freelance writer .

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