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Youth learning in nature - a mutually beneficial relationship

By Rebecca Meyer

In the last decade, a lot of attention has been paid to how young people benefit from connecting with nature. One of the main benefits is a sense of well being. A growing body of research demonstrates that exposure to natural spaces – everything from parks to open countryside to gardens and other greenspace – is good for health. What's less well known is that nature benefits from this connection, too.

In a prior blog post I discussed the role and benefits of nature spaces as a setting for positive youth development. One of my mentors, Peter Smerud, executive director of Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center, stated the importance so well. “It is crucial that we provide direct and authentic experiences in the outdoors where children can create an experience, preferably directed by them, that leaves them a memory and a story to tell. It can be of adventure, misfortune, amazement, yet out in a wild natural area provides value development that is critical to the future ethics of that child, which becomes the future ethics of our society.”

But we can’t overlook the fact that nature can benefit when youth are engaged in meaningful scientific and stewardship roles. Some efforts I have been involved to support this endeavor include developing environmental stewardship programs and curricula. They include Building Environmental Youth Leadership, the National 4-H curricula Exploring Your Environment and Driven to Discover: Citizen Science.

I have also blogged about engaging youth in a citizen science program. Our intentions were to involve youth in citizen science opportunities to develop their scientific literacy skills and knowledge and a deeper appreciation for their local landscapes. I worked with colleagues  and experts from the Aquatic Invasive Species detector program and Lake County Soil and Water Conservation District. Youth were involved with mentors through the course of the program.

Youth have natural curiosity. Exploring natural spaces for a scientific purpose helps young people to think of themselves as scientists. When they take part in citizen science projects, they are doing science. Adult leaders can call attention to that, and encourage youth to see themselves in a future science career.

The question youth were exploring in the citizen science program was “are there invasive species present or are they not present?” We didn’t anticipate or expect youth would make new discoveries, but youth from two different groups exploring two different areas of the county each located and identified invasive species that were not known to be in the area. They contributed to a body of knowledge about invasive species.

More recently, I co-presented a session at the first Minnesota Citizen Science Symposium on engaging youth in citizen science. There is growing interest in how we engage and involve youth in these types of efforts. As educator and place-based learning writer David Sobel said, “What’s important is that children have an opportunity to bond with the natural world, to learn to love it, before being asked to heal its wounds.”  It's through this connection to and relation with nature that youth will become important stewards for natural resources.

Nature spaces can be powerful settings in which we can provoke positive youth development, given the right mix of nature elements and programming. What are some of the ways you can imagine youth in playing meaningful roles in environmental stewardship and leadership?

-- Rebecca Meyer, Extension educator

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  1. The Aquatic Invasive Species Detector program is a cooperative effort between the University of Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center and Extension. More info is available at I think this program represents some of our most innovative efforts to involve citizens in meaningful research and stewardship roles. It was wonderful to work with the 4-H program and Lake Co Soil Water Conservation District to engage young scientists in the project.

    1. Thank you, Nate, for this additional information. I echo the sentiment that this is a great program. The training worked really well for our SWCD partner and we found it really effective to engage youth in the project and developing and answering their own scientific questions through their involvement in AIS monitoring. I look forward to sharing this opportunity more broadly with my YD colleagues.

  2. Excellent article. Engaging youth can be your own family, neighbors, not always formal groups. Just take the time to help young people "see" what is around them and often they will be excited and amazed.

    1. Thank you for your comments, Amy. I absolutely agree that engagement does not need to be through formal groups or organized activities. Research by Louise Chawla ( has certainly demonstrated these activities are critical and influential in creating long-term scientific and conservation stewardship behaviors. Drawing from your work with Master Naturalist, for instance, I believe we can be instrumental in these types of efforts though use of engaging apps like iNaturalist ( to observe and understand nature. Extension supported Citizen Science events like the City Nature Challenge or stewardship events like National Public Lands Day may be great opportunities to help families and youth be informally involved in developing that excitement and amazement. I look forward to continuing to work with you and the natural resource educators to extend these opportunities to Extension youth and families.

      What kinds of informal activities do others think can be great for families to build excitement and investment in nature?

    2. I offer these resources from the Children & Nature Network.

    3. Cathy, thank you, for sharing the Children & Nature Network resource for supporting Family Nature Clubs. Additionally, if others are interested, the Children & Nature Network (C&NN) has a wealth of additional resources available. C&NN "curates and summarizes peer-reviewed scientific literature to help build the evidence base for advancing the children and nature movement."

      How do others imagine youth in playing meaningful roles in environmental stewardship and leadership?


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