Wilderness Skills Institute's Mentor Resources - Deep Nature Connection in our Youth

The Value

There is a growing body of evidence that for proper brain development and metal health youth need to have consistent time spent nature. Research show that with an increase in time spent out doors our youth have in decrease in the the cases and severity of obesity, ADHD, mental Illness, and prescribed and illicit drug use. There is also evidence of a increase in resiliency and problem solving skills.

Since Richard Louv has brought the value of connecting kids to nature to the forefront with his book Last Child in the Woods there has been ample research to show the benefits of connecting to nature. But what is truly important to us is what we see in our own students.  Youth of any age that enter our programs tend to not be sure how to play, are awkward crossing creeks, have a tendency to say "I am board", demand that there is only one right way of doing things, tend to want to be first, last to want to help out, etc.  After a few weeks of 6 hours per day 5 days per week in the backcountry mostly just following  our core routines  the students are calmer, walk taller, engage better with people both their own age and older, are much more agile in their movements,  ask much better questions,  have higher quality of problems and fewer problems, and smile and laugh much more.  Parents say they are much nicer people, they want to know what we have done, but truly we just let nature do it.

Wilderness Skills Institutes believes that it is necessary for people to first truly connect to a habitat to love that habitat, and only those that love that habitat will properly manage the habitat. What we do at Wilderness Skills Institute is to prepare the next generation of people to be proper stewards of the habitat and the wildlife that make it their homes.

Using Core Routines to Connect Kids to Nature

From Jon Young's Coyote's Guide to Connecting With Nature.

"The Core Routines of Nature Connections are things people do to learn nature’s ways. They aren’t lessons. They aren’t knowledge. They are learning habits. Luckily for us as nature guides, shifting our mental habits into these Core Routines of Nature Connection comes as second nature to all human beings. This way of knowing was not born a few hundred years ago, or even with the rise of civilization thousands of years ago. Rather than informing, our teaching job educates ourselves and those we mentor to discover what the Haudenosaunee people call our “original instructions.” Humans evolved with original instructions
designed for dynamic awareness of nature. If we can inspire practice of these Core Routines, remembering our original instructions will happen on its own."

The mentors at Wilderness Skills Camps model the following core routines and guide the students everyday to make the core routines a habit. Northern California's Bay Area has a wealth of natural beauty and is a wonderful place for observing plant and animal life at close range.

Sit spot

The idea is simple: guide people to find a special place in nature and then become comfortable with just being there, still and quiet. In this place, the lessons of nature will seep in. Sit Spot will become personal because it feels private and intimate; the place where they meet their curiosity; the place where they feel wonder; the place where they get eye-to-eye with a diversity of life-forms and weather-patterns; the place where they face their fears — of bugs, of being alone, of the dark — and grow through them; and the place where they
meet nature as their home.

Story Telling

Story telling knits the society together. The men would go out for a day of tracking and hunting, while grandmothers and children might harvest berries, root vegetables, or bark to make thread and cloth. Around the fire at night they would gather and report the stories of their days. This exchange of stories seems to be very important to humans.

Expanding Our Senses

For nature connection, we use only one golden rule: notice everything. Get down in the dirt and feel it. Widen to Owl Eyes (a name we like to give to peripheral vision) and detect movement. Hear the far-off cry of the hawk and the wind in the trees. Smell the scent carried in the warm breeze. Feel the direction of sun. Taste the safe wild edibles. At every opportunity, we alert our students to expand their senses until doing so becomes routine, a practice, a habit, a discipline, and finally, a brain pattern.

Questioning and Tracking

Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? Like peering through a window into wildlife, tracking animals can be endlessly fascinating. By capturing imagination and empathy, it demands whole-brain intelligence and concentration. Getting down on all fours and staring at the footprints of animals offers a particular abundance of opportunity for imprinting search images. Like reading, studying the sign and following the trails of animals, develops powers of pattern recognition that stay with you for the rest of your life.


Animal Forms

Animal Forms in a Nutshell: Physically, mentally, and emotionally imitate any and all animals in their movements, behaviors, and personalities. A Long Tradition of Imitation This potent routine might seem a bit different from the others, more akin to dance
than mental gymnastics. What we call Animal Forms simply imitates the physical and mental actions of animals, birds, and to some extent even grass, wind and water. This kind of practice can be found in cultures across the globe. For instance, think of
the many martial arts from Asia based on imitation of animals, such as crane, tiger, or turtle. Also, many indigenous cultures conducted imitative dances and dramas, often with accompanying masks and costumes. The Hawaiian Hula, an ancient and modern dance form, brilliantly demonstrates such animal and nature dances. Cave paintings in Europe and old European stories indicate that the ancestors of Europeans did the same.

The students through observation get in to their heads how the animals walk, run, eat, dance, and then in games the staff have the students model those animal forms.



Wander through the landscape without time, destination, agenda, or future purpose; be present in the moment; and go off-trail wherever curiosity leads. Hmmm …an educational activity without purpose? A walk in nature without a destination or intent? Are we serious?

Unstructured Time Yes, we feel so serious about this routine, that most of our programs have a built-in “wander” or “walkabout” for about half of our time out in the field. We call this “The 50-50 Principle.” We plan our whole day to follow a structure, but count on fifty-percent of the time in the excitement of the moment, involving timeless, unstructured Wandering. There is nothing to accomplish, nowhere to go. By just being present in the moment, curiosity gently leads us wherever we go.


Exploring Field Guides

We a extensive naturalist library for the students to browse through field guides as treasure-chests of knowledge that fill up the
vacuum of your curiosity about nature.

When people want scientific information, how can we help them find it for themselves? Teaching them to Explore Field Guides makes them life-long, self-sufficient citizen-scientists of the natural world.



Orient to the compass directions, and perceive the landscape from a bird’s eye view. Draw maps to locate features of the landscape or tell stories that map your explorations. A natural routine familiar to anyone who’s ever driven in a big city, mapping orients us and shows us the gaps in what we notice. It creates a need for people to know what bird that was by the swamp, or where that creek goes. It also brings the landscape to life as the diversity of natural signposts emerges through the connections between birds and berry bushes, between coyote scat and vole-filled meadows, between bodies of water and the daily movements of animals.



Stories can be told to a journal. With young children this might be done through drawing or art, or dictating to you, the writer. Again, we share many tricks for this which may depend on your skills and the skills objectives of your program.

Older youth journal tracks they find in the field, or write about Sit Spot experiences, keeping weekly “Field Inventories,”


Listening for Bird Language

Be still and listen. Quiet down and crane your ears and eyes to notice the vocal signals and body language of birds and other animals, including humans. What message do you hear in their voice?


Survival Living

Student interact with the natural world around as if their entire subsistence depended on it, including all the basic human needs: shelter, water, fire, food, tools, and clothing. Nothing gives us more meaningful relationships with nature than really putting ourselves out in the elements and living off the land. It creates the ultimate need to learn.  


Imagining Mind’s Eye

Use and strengthen your imagination as much as possible, imprinting images in your mind to gather from the experience of all five senses.

This routine develops our imagination and our ability to re-experience events with our eyes closed. To teach “nature literacy,” then see with the Mind’s Eye, we must go one step beyond plain reading into reading with the intent to “learn by heart.” Not only visual images, but also smells, flavors, sounds, and textures imprint in magnificent detail in people’s brain patterns when they rely on their nature literacy for
survival. Routinely imagining with our Mind’s Eye allows our sensory experiences to really sink in. This skill provides us with the dynamic memory required for field biology and bird watching and is the evidence of a well-developed “naturalist

Put Food on the Table

Be it farming, ranching, fishing, hunting, or foraging for you to truly beconnected to nature to nature you must use your own two hands and skills to put meat and bread on the table.



How is “Thanksgiving” a routine for nature awareness? If we all find in yourself a grateful heart and express gratitude for any and all aspects of nature and life, if we begin every episode with thanksgiving and give nods of thanks as you go about your day, then we will redevelop the connections that our ancestors had to have to survive.

Taking a moment to see the grace in elements of the natural world— frogs, rain, berries, or the sun—deepens our relationships with each one. Thanksgiving reinforces the interdependence of all living things and their ground of being, and reminds us of our kinship with nature.

When we say “Thanksgiving,” we mean remembering and expressing gratitude for the things around us that support our lives that make it possible for us to be alive, every day. It is a general sharing of appreciation for things common to all humans, as well as those specific to each of our lives.

 “When we get piled upon one another in large cities, we shall become corrupt as in Europe, and go to eating one another as they do there” 

wrote Thomas Jefferson to Uriah Forest


Nature inspires creativity in a child by demanding visualization and full use of senses. Given a chance, a child will bring the confusion of the world to the woods, wash it in the creek, turn it over to see what lives on the unseen side of the confusion. Nature can frighten a child, too, and this fright serves a purpose. In nature, a child finds freedom, fantasy, and privacy; a place distant from the adult world, a separate peace.
Richard Louv

Last Child in the Woods

Education Quotes

Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life.

John Muir

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