Unplugging kids

Moultrie Middle School sixth-grader Alicia Brown practices paddling strokes before heading out with her class on a trip from Coastal Expeditions on Shem Creek to Crab Bank. Besides experiencing nature and getting vigorous exercise, outings such as this paddle trip on Shem Creek teach cooperation and team work. All are goals of the Butler Outdoor Education Fund and Coastal Expeditions’ S.C. Outdoor Education Program.

Many lament that today’s kids — with smartphones, computers and TVs with hundreds of channels, combined with parents’ fear for their safety — are too sedentary and aren’t spending unstructured time outdoors, exercising without knowing it and experiencing nature.

This decline in outdoor activity is well-documented. In 2010, the Kaiser Family Foundation’s national survey in 2010 noted that youths ages 8-18 devote a whopping seven hours, 38 minutes per day on “entertainment media.” Add in “media multitasking,” such as watching TV and surfing the web, and that total grows to 10 hours, 45 minutes.

This decline in activity also coincides with the childhood obesity epidemic, and some are seeing the connection, as documented in the Richard Louv book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.”

While many also feel powerless against this tide of technology and sedentary lifestyles, a local pilot project is among three in the nation that hopes to turn it around, or at least try.

The S.C. Outdoor Education Program is the latest of three projects by the New York-based Butler Outdoor Education Fund, created by 75-year-old venture capitalist, avid environmentalist and fitness enthusiast Gilbert Butler.

Dhruvika “Dhru” Patel Amin, the fund’s vice president of finance and administration, says that Butler, who was unavailable for comment, “strongly believes that getting children active and in nature is the first step to environmental conservation and protection.”

Amin said Butler also stresses the tie between those values and vigorous aerobic activity, from paddling and hiking to mountain biking and cross-country skiing.

“This is a mechanism to combat childhood obesity, too,” says Amin.

The basic model of the program is that the foundation sets up individual boards to oversee the programs, which are undertaken by a private local outfitter, and funds the programs in perpetuity through a local nonprofit.

The first program, the Black River Outdoor Education Program in Boonville, N.Y., was founded in March 2008 and takes youngsters on paddling and hiking day trips in the Adirondack mountains. Since its inception, Black River has hosted 38,000 students, according to Amin.

The second, the Maine Outdoor Education Program, was founded in September 2011 and taps into the resources of Baxter State Park in Maine.

This year, the South Carolina program, hosted locally by longtime local private outfitter Coastal Expeditions on Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant, took about 2,300 sixth-graders on four-hour kayaking trips from its headquarters to Crab Bank and back.

As part of the program, at least half of the time must be spent in motion.

Capt. Chris Crolley, owner and operations manager of Coastal Expeditions, has known Butler for nearly a decade, often serving as his personal guide in Charleston during the spring.

“He (Butler) comes to Charleston in April because that’s when it’s the most beautiful place in the world at that time of year. At other times, he’s in other places at (their) height of beauty,” Crolley says. “And he’s a fanatic about getting his exercise, so he bikes, hikes and paddles like crazy ... in the most beautiful places in the world.”

Crolley says Butler also is interested in setting up programs in some of his other favorite places in world, possibly Chile, Argentina, France, Ireland, the Caribbean and “somewhere in Asia.”

“It’s still evolving. It’s not like he’s doing one thing in South Carolina. He wants to run it here first to get the metrics right,” Crolley says.

He eventually will establish follow-up programs for seventh- and eighth-graders in different local ecosystems, including blackwater swamps and barrier islands.

Butler and Crolley first were connected by the Coastal Conservation League, which also has an administrative hand in the S.C. program by using the league’s tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status, by conducting board meetings and, long term, creating related lesson plans for the classroom.

The Conservation League’s Megan Desrosiers says the program is a win-win in terms of public health and protecting the environment.

“This is an experience that can influence their world,” Desrosiers says. “We need to encourage the appreciation and enjoyment of the outdoors, and the best way to experience it is by actively exploring it.”

Moultrie Middle School teacher Deborah Belflower describes the outdoor program as having a “powerful,” multifaceted impact on students.

Besides the exercise and appreciation of the environment, students paddling in tandem kayaks have to learn teamwork.

“They have to paddle together. At first, they go around in circles, and eventually they have to learn to paddle in unison,” says Belflower, adding that other benefits include building self-confidence because many are “out of their element.”

Belflower adds that it helps in their understanding of environmental terms, such as estuary, because they have actively experienced being in one.

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