By: Meredith Harbman

When most people think of Venture Outdoors, they think of Kayak Pittsburgh. It’s one of our most visible, common outdoor activities.

But you won’t just find Venture Outdoors on the water. During the summer our staff travels everywhere from Frick Park to Deer Creek Camp, but they also spend a lot of time in school classrooms, at Pittsburgh King and Arlington in particular.

Venture Outdoors partners with Summer Dreamers Academy at these locations. SDA is a summer learning camp that brings high-quality academic and extracurricular learning to Pittsburgh Public Schools from June to August. For six weeks, our Trip Leaders bring hands-on outdoor experiences to third to fifth graders.

Everyone knows that challenging, varied extracurricular experiences are valuable for kids, but there’s something special about the outdoors. You’ve probably heard that 20-minute nature walks can improve your mood, concentration, and memory. This is true. But, it gets better. Researchers from the University of Illinois found that for kids with ADHD, walks in green spaces were “roughly equal to the peak effects of two typical ADHD medications.” Similarly, researchers at Cornell found that, “Among kids experiencing life stressors (like bullying, or a family move), the children who reported the fewest psychological problems were those who had greater access to nature.” Even when researchers controlled for socioeconomic status, this remained true. Simply put, nature helps kids cope. It helps them develop resilience.

One study looked at third graders in particular, evaluating the effects of lessons taught indoors and outdoors on student concentration. The results left nothing to be doubted: student concentration markedly improved after being outside. The researchers observed that after a lesson in nature, teachers had to redirect their students half as often as they did after a classroom lesson. In other words, being outdoors doubles a child’s ability to concentrate once they come back inside; no small difference.

Talia O’Brien, who is working with third and fourth graders at Arlington, is loving the chance to work with kids outdoors. She says, “I believe teaching the importance of nature and exploring the outdoors is extremely beneficial for children. Summer Dreamers Academy gives children the opportunity to get outside and have fun while living in the city, which most people don’t get to do in their busy lives.” She’s absolutely right.

I myself have been on-site at Pittsburgh King several times, and I’ve helped walk the third graders there down to the Allegheny to fish and to play. Honestly, there’s no shocking behavioral change when a kid steps onto the grass or sees the water; there’s no magic formula. They’re just children, thrilled (mostly) to be outside on a sunny afternoon.

But I do think that they’re a little calmer and more attentive when we herd them back inside and remind them to wear close-toed shoes tomorrow, please. I imagine them returning to whatever their homes are like, peaceful or stressful or somewhere in between. As I do, I hope that they have picked up an added element of resilience from their outdoor activities that day. I hope that their young brains log the sun and the grass and produce happier, healthier children who are more equipped to face whatever life tosses them.

So look for those bright yellow Venture Outdoors kayaks on the muddy Allegheny, and come paddle with us if you haven’t before. And if you see a group of children splashing in their tandems, know that these Summer Dreamers are part of a dream Venture Outdoors would love to see come true: to give every child an opportunity to go outside, even if they forget to wear closed-toed shoes.