April 18, 2007 | By: Carol Lea Spence
LEXINGTON, KY.

Question: If a teen hikes in the forest, does he make a sound? Answer: Not by the end of the hike. He’s too tired.

At least that’s what happens when Greg Whitis and Carol Jones lead students from the gifted and talented program at McCreary County Middle School on hikes in the woods. Whitis, the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension agricultural and natural resources agent in McCreary County, and Jones, a resource teacher, came up with the idea of a monthly hike, believing it would be a healthy physical activity that was not only educational, but would also introduce the students to the natural wealth in their county.

“We try to point things out on the trail. We tried to point out the wildflowers. We found a morel mushroom, or dry land fish – showed them that. Back on the trail here, pretty good ways, is an old home site, old rock fence, old fireplace that’s still standing, and we talked about those things,” Whitis said at the end of the latest outing, a six-mile hike past waterfalls and a centuries-old graveyard. 

Every month the students join Whitis, Jones and other adult leaders for hikes on trails around the county. The majority of the trails are on public land, in either the Daniel Boone Natural Forest or Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. The program started in February and will continue through November or December, with a hiatus during June and July when school is not in session. This provides students with the opportunity to experience the changing environment as the seasons progress.

“It seems to give the kids an opportunity to learn about their heritage and environment and introduce them to related things – agriculture, different geologic formations,” Jones said.

But it turns out young people at this age gain more than just information from the experience. They reap a plethora of physical, mental and social benefits from, what looks on the surface to be, a simple walk in the woods. That was the reasoning behind the decision by the UK Health Education through Extension Leadership initiative, to fund the nine hikes. Lori Rice, HEEL program coordinator, said they saw multiple benefits arising from the activity.

“One of those is obviously the health benefit of regular physical activity,” she said. “Another is the opportunity that it provides to get the kids outdoors to experience nature.”

Exploring the natural world can be rife with sensory experiences, which benefit a young person on several levels, said Carole Gnatuk, UK child development specialist.

“Being in nature has a calming effect,” she said. “You take deep breaths and you smell wonderful, earthy smells. And you touch interesting textures.” 

“But those sensory experiences can be really rewarding for children’s brain development because they stimulate all the neurons that create concepts and ideas,” she continued.

Young people at this age are in the midst of a significant surge in brain development, Gnatuk said. She believes that exposing children to the type of sensory experiences they would get on a forest hike helps in building neuron pathways they will draw on for the rest of their lives.

“It’s a good time to be exposing these kids between 9 and 14 years old to all these experiences, because they’re particularly programmed in their brains to absorb these new things,” she said. 

Doug Burnham, HEEL health specialist, says activities like the McCreary County hikes help a young person’s social development, as well. At an age when young people can be pulled into negative peer activity, these types of healthy group activities make the social development concerning relationships with their peers a little easier. 

And it goes a step further. When young people’s social skills have developed so that they feel comfortable in a social situation, the stress or anxiety that most adolescents go through is reduced, Burnham said. This, in turn, makes them physically healthier, because without stress their bodies can deal with nutrients in more efficient ways.

“They are learning how to deal with and manage all those social stressors,” he said. “It does help them to be overall healthier people – physically healthier, mentally healthier. That’s the real plus.”

The seventh-graders from McCreary County Middle School, though, aren’t thinking about how they’re benefiting from the activity. For many of them, the monthly outings are condensed into one simple emotion expressed by an enthusiastic Cody Stonehill: ”It is awesome!”

“They’re in my office every day,” said Carol Jones, referring to her students. “’When are we going back?’ and ‘I never knew that we had these things in our county. I’ve never seen these things before.’ It’s just amazing to watch their excitement and enthusiasm.”

“Another advantage of this age is that memory is so much better developed. They have so much more to build upon for appreciating these natural experiences,” Gnatuk said. “Imagine that children could sit down on a log in the forest and just spend time listening and smelling and touching and hearing it…. So if it’s a well-planned experience there could actually be time for quietness and communion in a sense.”

“A kid made the comment on the trail early on that they had never been to a place like this before and how beautiful it was and how nice it was to be out in a place like this,” Whitis said.

Contact: 

Greg Whitis, 606-376-2524, Carole Gnatuk, 859-257-5083, Doug Burnham, 859-257-4785, Lori Rice, 859-257-2968, ext. 80925