Engaging an Attention Span of 12 Minutes

This month, I have been researching outdoor education opportunities to do after my CLM internship.  I decided that I should first get my feet wet in the field by assisting Park Ranger Julie on a trip to Headwaters Forest Reserve for students from a local elementary school.  The two major goals of the outdoor education program that I had recently applied for echoed in my head as the school bus arrived:  first, help the kids relate to each other and, second, help the kids respect their environment.  The bus parked and out poured forty excited, talking, running, climbing kids.  One girl came up to me and told me that a person’s attention span is their age, plus two.  At the age of 10, her attention span was 12 minutes.  She asked my age.  23 years old.  My attention span is 25 minutes, she told me.  Several kids told me that I look like I am 16.  Maybe my attention is really 18 minutes. Accomplishing the goals might be easier said than done considering those stats.

Amid all the chaos, Ranger Julie managed to corral the kids together and focus their attention as she told them about Headwaters.  She has 12 minutes, I thought.  Our lessons along the trail lasted this amount of time or less, as well.  Underneath the canopy of old growth redwood trees, I would pick up a feathery needle cast and explain that it was a clue that redwoods were near.  I showed them the hilt shape of the base of a fern leaflet, a clue that it was a sword fern.  I would pluck a redwood sorrel leaf, hand it to the kids, and then instruct them to rip it in a half, hand it to their neighbor, thank nature for the gift, and then eat it.  Savor the sour taste.  Despite my attempts, though, I struggled to maintain their focus for even 2 minutes, let alone 12.  By the end of the day, the constant complaints from the kids made the three mile hike seem more like a forced death march.  My lessons were drowned out by endless, scattered, children chatter.

Were the goals of the hike met?  Perhaps not to the extent that I expected, and the experience taught me how little I know about teaching kids about the outdoors.  However, I did eavesdrop on a conversation between two students, Shawna and Cole, and noticed how much they related to each other as the conversation passed back and forth easily between them. Their 12 minute attention spans were fully engaged.  At the end of the hike, Shawna approached me and, in her hand, was a piece of redwood feather.  “This is from a redwood tree, right?” She respectfully returned it to the forest floor.  On a small scale, perhaps, the goals were met after all.


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