As many individuals know along the North Shore of Minnesota, spending time outdoors is beneficial not only to your physical health but to your mental health.
The health benefits are even more evident in younger individuals.
According to the Minnesota Department of Education, exposing children to the outdoors and outdoor-related lessons at an early age can increase feelings of well-being, sustained attention, and concentration. In addition, being outside can benefit children who may have experienced trauma or other life stressors.
Kindergarten through fifth-grade students at Cook County ISD 166 have been enjoying some of these benefits. The 2022-23 school year was the first year that students from kindergarten thru fifth grade could enjoy and participate in an outdoor environmental education class.
“The class focuses on familiarizing and giving kids a basic working knowledge of how to safely explore and interact with the outdoors,” said Mike Theismann, the outdoor environmental education teacher at ISD 166.
Theismann said the students participate in active-based games and exploration-related lessons. “We had some time indoors, but 90% of the time, unless the weather doesn’t allow, we’re outside in the school forest area,” he said.
Some exploration and discovery activities include tree studies, safe interaction with wildlife, and other outdoor safety tips.
Theismann said he has worked in various youth centers and campus recreation programs in Duluth and Superior over the past ten years. He is finishing his Master of Education at the University of Minnesota – Duluth in the environmental education program.
He said that he is using his outdoor experience to help students at ISD 166 “build coping skills and healthy hobbies and friendships.” He added, “I just see a lot of value in it.”
“I’ve seen a lot of excitement and enthusiasm amongst young groups,” Theismann said. He mentioned that multiple middle and high school students have inquired about the outdoor course and wished they had a similar opportunity.
Looking ahead, Theismann would like to expand the program to all ISD 166 students and establish an outdoor club.
Regardless of what lies ahead for Theismann and the outdoor environmental education course, he said if there’s one thing that students can walk away with from his class, it would be “that they develop a love and appreciation for the outdoors.”
WTIP’s Kalli Hawkins spoke with Mike Theismann, the outdoor environmental education teacher at ISD 166, about the new course. Audio from the interview is below.