By Chris Case
When you ’re 16 years old, you don’t spend much time thinking about the consequences or rewards of playing outside. For some kids it’s just natural and habitual— they play outside until they’re called in for dinner. For others, it couldn’t be more foreign or inaccessible—they might play video games until dinner is served.
It’s hard not to have heard of an initiative or symposium focusing on getting kids active and outdoors these days, even in the leanest state in the country, Colorado. Surrounded by an abundance of land and beautiful landscapes, parks and prairies, Coloradans seem like they should be immune to the epidemic of obesity. But a full 13 percent of kids in Colorado are obese. The average American kid spends a paltry 30 minutes per week outside in unstructured play, the caldron of discovery.
There’s been so much discussion about this issue—due in large part to the popularity and acclaim for Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods, in which he popularized the term “nature deficit disorder”—that Colorado’s Lt. Governor, Barbara O’Brien, has even published a “Colorado Kids’ Outdoor Bill of Rights,” listing the things all Colorado kids should have the opportunity to do before they grow up.
It’s as if 16 year-old Erin Youngkin wrote it.
Ahead of the Times
Erin is different. She plays outside and thinks about how that makes her feel; she sets goals for herself, often loftier than the goals of folks twice her age; she has a plan, inspirations and idols; and she’s a member of many classes of the Colorado Mountain Club’s Youth Education Program (YEP).
It isn’t often that you can say the CMC is ahead of the times. The club may not have the reputation for being trendy or cuttingedge. And that’s never been a bad thing. The thing is, for a decade the club has been ahead of the times when it comes to getting kids outside. And it makes sense.“Using the power of nature to awaken a child’s senses, curiosity, and desire to learn is a powerful, inexpensive tool to educate our children,” said Katie Blackett, the club’s CEO, during the last forum stop of the Lt. Governor’s statewide tour.
Since 1999, YEP has reached 50,000 students from kindergarten to twelfth grade. The goals have remained the same: get kids outside for the health of the mountains and themselves; foster an appreciation for environments and academics, living, and learning.“With YEP, I have been teaching little kids to climb, and seeing them get to the topis really cool,” Erin says. “I discovered rock climbing on my own. The first time I tried it, I hated it. Then I came to YEP and I really liked it. It was the people.”
She lists rock climbing, skiing, biking, and hiking as her favorite activities. Her answer to the question of how often she gets to do these things will probably strike a chord with most club members: “Not enough. I spend a lot of time thinking about the outdoors. Winter is better because I get to ski every weekend. Summers are different. But, not enough…”
The outdoors is more than just a playground for this Heritage High School student. She has higher aspirations. Coincidentally, they involve high places. “I have a dream to climb the Seven Summits, to be on top of the world. Not a lot of people do it or think about it. It would be a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
Originally, Erin wanted to be the first person with diabetes to lay claim to having climbed the highest peaks on the Earth’s seven continents. Alas, someone beat her to it. Still, she wants to see the world, climb high, and experience her dream. But, why not start by climbing the fourteeners? “The fourteeners would be training… climbing the seven summits would mean I get to see the seven continents.”
Her passion for the outdoors is just one small facet of this teenager. She lists Gandhi as her inspiration; hopes to work with Doctors Without Borders; wishes for nothing more than to help people. “Gandhi had a dream and went after it, nonviolently, and helped other people. That’s what I aspire to do.”
After five years of summer classes and school programs—spending the past two summers in the Instructor-in-Training program of YEP—is Erin getting too mature for her years? She looks over the Colorado Kids’ Outdoor Bill of Rights, something that she is only vaguely familiar with. She’s done everything on the list already, except visit a working farm. But she has a suggestion as to what she would add. “If I was to add one it would be ‘play in the snow and build a snowman.’” Still sounds like a kid to me, albeit a humble and mature one.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2010 Issue (1005) of Trail & Timberline.