By Lillian Wangler
It was nearly the end of summer as I led a group of teenagers to the Aurora Reservoir’s swim beach. We kicked off our shoes and started down the short staircase, eager for the water’s chill. One girl came to a standstill.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” she murmured, “I’ve just never walked on sand before and I don’t know what to expect.” She took the final step down and mindfully strode toward the water’s edge.
As the City of Aurora's Generation Wild Program Coordinator, I've witnessed many kids' outdoor firsts. Colorado seems to offer endless opportunities to connect with the outdoors year-round. Not all outdoor recreation activities are equally accessible for the average Coloradoan, though. Barriers such as lack of transportation, experience, and access to equipment can prevent Colorado's children from experiencing all that our state has to offer. The City of Aurora breaks down these barriers and more by providing free and low-cost programming for youth looking to try new things and experience the benefits of getting outside.
The magic of spotting a turtle from a kayak, finally hitting the archery target, or following animal tracks on snowshoes lights children up. Once they've experienced a Generation Wild program, they often eagerly join every opportunity. Sefa, Fane, and Khassim are three siblings who have become regulars. I recently spent an afternoon hike with them learning about what keeps them coming back for more.
"It's important for kids to be in fresh air and learn new things," seventh-grader Sefa told me. He had a list of knowledge gained from Generation Wild activities. "Because I went to the ice-skating program and practiced, I was more comfortable when I went ice skating this week with my whole grade. I got to use those skills again. "
His younger sister, Fane, nodded along. "I feel so excited for these programs because I get to see and do new things. I can take what I learned home so that I can explore and learn more." The three began swapping facts they've learned about wildlife, pollution, and the benefits of exercise.
"When you’re outside, there's peace and quiet. You can relax and no one will distract you," Khassim reported. "Being outside gives my brain a break." In third grade, Khassim intuitively knows what recent studies are uncovering: time outdoors can help significantly reduce kids’ stress and anxiety levels, boost mood and self-esteem, and reduce depression and feelings of isolation.
I tried to ask the kids about their favorite program or activity, but there wasn't much clarity to be found. Instead, I was met with three children talking over each other to describe everything we've done together over months; stories of hiking, fishing, sketching birds, biking, and seeing wildlife swirled around me.
This is the magic that keeps me as excited about the programs. Their irresistible enthusiasm and delight in nature's small wonders inspire me to help every child to connect and engage with the outdoors meaningfully. I believe wholeheartedly in the Generation Wild slogan, "Kids grow better outside."
If you're hoping to grow better outside, Fane offered some advice. "Enjoy nature. Smell the air. Smell all the trees’ different scents. And don’t give up."