At the core of my passion for the environment is the reverence and wonder I hold for the natural world. Since as far back as I can remember, I loved exploring the outdoors.
Much of my childhood was spent outside climbing trees, catching insects, and searching for critters under rocks. Equipped with my red wagon, empty specimen jars, a BB gun, and snacks for the journey, I could spend all day outside.
I was a fearless adventurer, yet I was always respectful of plants and animals.
Over the years, I’ve caught countless fireflies, toads, lizards, snakes, and turtles. I would keep them for a short period, study them, but then release them back to the wild where they belonged. Through these experiences I gained compassion for all life.
As a child, if I wasn’t outside I was indoors watching a nature documentary, building something out of Legos, or conducting a scientific study with one of my many children’s laboratory sets.
I was taught to ask questions – to question the world around me and always seek to broaden my understanding.
My inquisitive nature and thirst for knowledge has carried me far and I know it will continue to carry me further in the future.
Catching Toads or Playing Angry Birds
Playing outdoors has been part of our evolutionary history and part of childhood development since… uhm, forever.
Children today, however, are growing up in a different world than I did. They have computers, cell phones, and after school activities that occupy them from the time they leave the classroom until they go to sleep.
Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, documents the decline of children’s exposure to nature and how it harms society.
Seeing ourselves as divorced from nature is not going to be to our benefit. If future generations are going to make the necessary decisions needed to conserve the natural world, they are going to have to know nature.
Of the time that children currently spend outside, almost all of it is through highly organized activities – team sports. Running around chasing a ball is not the same as chasing a butterfly.
Go Outside, Bring a Kid
I recently had the opportunity to take a break from schoolwork and spend the afternoon with Indiana University’s Sierra Club Inspiring Connections Outdoors (ICO) chapter and a group of kids from the local Boys & Girls Club.
The Sierra Club’s Inspiring Connections Outdoors seeks to “provide safe and fun wilderness trips for people with limited access to the outdoors. Volunteer leaders collaborate with community partners to get outdoors with people — especially youth — who may not have access on their own to safely discover the wonders of the natural world.”
My afternoon with the kids from the Boys & Girls Club was a blast.
We got to get out on the water and paddle, hike, and then roast hotdogs over a fire and make smores.
Many of the kids had never been in a canoe or kayak. It was a ton of fun to help them learn how to maneuver their boats. Once they caught on and the fear of capsizing disappeared, they zigzagged back and forth through the lake inlet we were paddling.
I loved watching and studying how the young boys and girls viewed nature. How they interacted with it. They climbed on things, ran, jumped, and connected with the world around them. When is the last time you did that?
As the sun was setting, we moved to the campfire for dinner where the kids gathered sticks and roasted hotdogs. These kids made dinner for themselves and you could see how proud they were – yes, hotdogs come fully cooked and they only need to be heated through but there was a definite sense of accomplishment and self-reliance gained around that campfire.
For desert, we made smores. Smores. A campfire smore is something special. Trying to get a marshmallow perfectly toasted, without turning it into a flaming torch and a charcoal blob milliseconds later, is a bit of skill – in my opinion, a necessary skill for all children to learn.
Manly Green Leaders
I found out about Indiana University’s Inspiring Connections Outdoors chapter from my friend Scott Breen, someone I consider to be a Manly Green Leader. Scott founded Indiana’s chapter of ICO but this was not the first time he founded a collegiate organization.
While in undergrad at Georgetown, Mr. Breen started Georgetown Conservation Corps, an organization that aimed to work with community partners to address issues related to environmental justice. It is through this organization that he first became aware of and began working with ICO.
I wanted to know more about my friend Scott, his work with ICO, and his background so I asked him the following questions.
Q: Why did you found IU’s chapter of Inspiring Connections Outdoors?
I founded the Bloomington chapter of ICO because I felt like there wasn’t enough interaction between Indiana University students and the local community on environmental issues. I also felt IU students didn’t get out enough to the natural resources so close to campus and that IU students have a lot to offer local youth in terms of being able to engage kids and, with IU environmental science students, teach kids about environmental science.
After talking with the head of the Bloomington chapter of Sierra Club, National ICO folks, our faculty advisor, and other students who came on as leaders, we developed our unique model.
We established the Bloomington chapter of ICO and then the Sierra Club Inspiring Connections Outdoors at Indiana University (ICOatIU) to support it. That way we can get IU funds as well as accept tax-deductible donations like all ICO groups via The Sierra Club Foundation. The environmental education series is the value add.
Our community partners say they can take the kids outside but providing this high quality programming is really attractive to them. I think it also makes what we are doing more valuable since I think the youth will feel a greater connection to the outdoors if they have some understanding of the processes underlying what they are seeing rather than passively taking it in.
The hope is that because the environmental education series relates to the outing, the youth will make connections between what they are learning and what they are seeing, this will lead to a greater appreciation of nature, which will in turn lead to them spending more time outside and perhaps pursuing a STEM career and seeking out environmental science courses at school.
Q: What is your most memorable outdoor experience as a child?
This is an easy one!
My most memorable outdoor experience as a child was the 12-day canoe trip I did in Quetico Provincial Park (this is the Canadian side of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness) in summer 2003 at 13 years old. I think it challenged me mentally, socially, and physically.
It was good being away from screens and even my watch. I learned to be more present. Socially, I feel like nothing makes people closer or get to know each other better than being in the outdoors because all you’re doing is hiking next to someone or canoeing in the same boat with someone and you get to talking for hours about whatever.
Physically, I was never a big kid but on this trip I portaged a canoe and carried heavy packs. I think it also led to my appreciation of the natural environment. That [appreciation] remained latent until I saw the environmental studies minor at Georgetown and knew I had to pursue it.
Q: How has your relationship with nature shaped you as a person? Your career path?
I went to Georgetown thinking I would study government and economics. I did as I majored in political economy. However, I also pursued an environmental studies minor. [My course work] led to the realization of how critical understanding public policy and economics are in addressing environmental issues.
I loved applying [public policy and economics] to the environmental context because there are so many competing interests to account for. That led to my going to [Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs] with the JD/MPA because I wanted to apply these other disciplines to the environmental area and felt there was no other place to do that.
Now entering NOAA’s Attorney Honors Program in the fall, I feel like I’ll be in the interdisciplinary area I want to be in and on the right side of environmental law.
Where Will The Trail Take You?
Nature and how we interact with the natural world shapes us in many ways.
A childhood outdoor trip shaped Scott Breen’s future. Growing up, my time in nature led me to where I am today.
There are many paths in life, some more proverbial than others.
Take pause and soak in the natural beauty around you. Clear your mind from distractions. Connect with not only nature but also yourself.
Take a hike… and take a kid with you and help shape their future.
How has the natural world shaped your life?
Do you have a memorable outdoor experience?