On a chilly April morning, a school bus pulled up to the Alicia Sanchez Elementary School in Lafayette with some unusual cargo. It wasn’t full of children. It was, in fact, emptied of its seats and lined instead with a floor of padding covered in red carpet and walls layered in plywood over a reinforced steel frame and covered in hundreds of rock climbing holds.
For the second time, The Women’s Wilderness Institute’s bouldering bus was coming to the school to bring to a group of students what many of them couldn’t otherwise get to — a chance to try bouldering, the low-level, ropes-free version of climbing.
With the Flatirons still visible on the horizon, it’s tough to imagine that any outdoor sports are out of reach for these kids, but fewer than half of the 20 fourth graders who circle up in the gym that morning raise their hands when asked if they’ve climbed before — and some of them are counting climbing on playgrounds. Most of them list off outdoor activities closer to home as their favorites — walking, climbing trees, biking, swimming, fishing, doing cartwheels. When Meghan Mosher, field staff for The Women’s Wilderness Institute, asks if anyone has bouldered in a bus, their eyes widen.
A boy walks up to a stuffed mountain goat brought along as a prop for talking about the adaptations that allow an animal to survive in the high alpine environment, and asks, “What kind of cow is this?” “That’s no cow at all,” says Molly Daley, Colorado Mountain Club’s Youth Education Program coordinator and lead instructor.
The Colorado Mountain Club and The Women’s Wilderness Institute have partnered to teach kids a course called “The Science of Climbing,” which gives them a chance to learn about the biology of what makes a good climber, mountain goats and humans included.
“The Science of Climbing helps kids understand the real world applications of science, and how science applies to their everyday lives,” says Shari Leach, executive director of The Women’s Wilderness Institute. “You could do the Science of Kickball as well, and talk about angles, force, vectors, etc. But climbing is a more individual sport, which allows each student to connect with it personally and very directly.”
The class meets Colorado state education standards for both science and physical education.
“It’s been amazing for us to see how much the girls in the classes enjoy the climbing, particularly when they get to try it without any boys around,” Leach says. “The girls are also pushed to be more engaged in the science portion of the program without any boys in the room. We believe the Science of Climbing program is a very hands on way to meet STEM goals and objectives, and to inspire girls to think outside of existing social and cultural norms in the areas of science as well as physical body standards.”
Engaging a younger generation in the outdoors is an issue conservationists and outdoors enthusiasts have been working to address all the way to the highest levels of government. In October, Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell announced plans to create opportunities for 10 million young people to play outdoors and provide nature-based educational opportunities to 10 million K-12 students. If this group of fourth graders follows the trends of the Millennial generation, currently ages 18 to 33, despite caring about the planet, they’ll grow up disconnected from their natural world.
According to The Outdoor Foundation outdoor industry advocacy group, participation rates in outdoor activities rose in 2011 — a change the organization attributed to nationwide efforts to reconnect youth in the outdoors — and remained stable through 2012, but participation numbers are still lower than they were in 2006.
“Research dictates that building the critical connection to nature at an early age is vital to he enjoyment of the outdoors later in life,” reads the 2012 Outdoor Recreation Participation Report.
“And, youth report spending time with family and friends as a top reason why they enjoy the outdoors. So, to engage youth, entire families and whole communities must emphasize the importance of the outdoors as a lifestyle choice.”
Outdoor organizations have also been working to welcome changing demographics in younger generations — 71 percent of youth and young adult participants were Caucasian in 2012, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. At Sanchez Elementary, 70 percent of the students are Hispanic.
“Looking forward, a growth strategy focused on today’s youth and future generations of outdoor participants will be critical to reconnecting Americans with nature and healthier lifestyles,” says a 2013 report from the Outdoor Industry Association.
Both The Women’s Wilderness Institute and the Colorado Mountain Club have existing infrastructure for getting kids outside. The Women’s Wilderness Institute runs summer camps for girls that offer varying levels of commitments to time in the great outdoors, from rock climbing day camps to overnight backpacking trips, and offers a program specifically for Latina girls. The Colorado Mountain Club’s youth education programs include after school programs, such as climbing clubs, at Jefferson County schools and use the American Mountaineering Center in Golden as a base for summer camps and courses.
“One of the goals for the year was to engage more Boulder County schools,” Daley says. “We wanted to kind of make it a little bit unique, and bring the science of climbing to Title I schools and schools that may not be able to get to the climbing wall at the American Mountaineering Center.”
Title I provides monetary assistance to improve learning opportunities at high-povery schools. Sanchez is one of eight schools in Boulder County classified as Title I.
“Because this program has focused on Title I schools in Boulder County, it’s giving the chance to climb for the first time to many of the students we’re serving,” Leach says.
The Colorado Mountain Club was awarded a grant through the Millennium Trust at The Community Foundation Serving Boulder County to bring the “Science of Climbing” to schools in Boulder County. The Women’s Wilderness Institute was asked to join the project so their “bouldering bus” could provide a place for kids to immediately put some of the science they learn to the test — specifically, that biology is on their side, and anyone can climb.
“It breaks it down a little bit more as opposed to looking at something and just being intimidated by it, kind of breaking it down to why you can use your body and why your body has evolved to have this characteristics that enable you to be a climber,” Daley says. “We’ll do some activities toward the end — having them hang on a straight arm, or a straight arm pushup versus having it bent — and kind of show how their body and their skeleton is really accommodating to climbing, and that gives them a little bit more, ‘Oh, it’s not just about me needing to be super strong or super athletic. It’s something that’s inherent in our evolution,’ and I think that’s cool for kids to be able to see and get a handle on.”
Students, divided by gender (and Daley starts with the girls), circle up around a white board with a ring of photos around two columns: “climbers” and “non-climbers.”
“We’re just going to start talking about the physical adaptations that certain animals have developed and evolved over time to be a climber,” Daley says. “So this is just a little interactivity to get kids thinking about what sorts of animals are climbers.”
Hands fly up, eager to try, and the girls come up one at a time to move animals to their respective columns. A big horn sheep, mountain goat, human and sloth move quickly to the “climbers” column. The non-climber column gets a turtle, pufferfish, cow, pig, hippo and giraffe. And oops, a bunny goes to the climber column and a bear goes to non-climber.
“Do any of you disagree?” Daley asks. Discussion ensues — frogs should move from non-climber column, they’ve got sticky feet that let them climb well. The bear gets moved over, as does a snow leopard — their claws let them climb. Clearly, we’re on to the fact that climbing has something to do with hands, feet or paws.
After a crash course in center of gravity, a series of experiments with various limb sizes as they build their own “climbing animal,” a dose of straight-armed pushups and an introduction to “Nanny,” the taxidermied mountain goat loaned by the Denver Zoo, they’re finally ready to explore the bus.
“Our intention really with having it … was to be able to bring climbing to people who otherwise wouldn’t get to have it,” says Lori Mathews, marketing coordinator for Women’s Wilderness. The bus was built by a current Women’s Wilderness board member while she was living in North Carolina, where there weren’t places to rock climb. After she moved, and the bus fell into disuse, Women’s Wilderness staff were able to fly out to retrieve it and bring it to Boulder. It has visited students at Emerald and Columbine elementary schools, in addition to a previous group of kids at Sanchez.
Once in the bus, the girls look around, part excited and part nervous — which is the report they give to Mosher when she does a verbal checkin on how they’re all feeling.
She covers the basics quickly — hand holds versus foot holds and how to fall. The girls practice tiny falls with shrieks and giggles. Each is instructed on safely spotting and given the rules — always have a spotter, take turns, spread out and keep your feet lower than your head.
One is so eager she jumps onto the wall in purple, sparkly ballet flats rather than wait to borrow a pair of climbing shoes from a bucket of loaners.
They begin tentatively with just a few holds, working a little way up toward the five-foot-tall ceiling on the bus, and toward the end of the session some are climbing all the way onto the ceiling, their bodies horizontal to the ground and their spotters holding “spoon hands” carefully below them. A little girl who has shyly hidden her face beneath the hood of her pale blue coat springs to life on the wall, clambering from one hold to the next.
By the end of the class, they’re talking about feeling awesome, like they’ve just done something kind of hard, and their hands are getting tired — about par for given the course for a bouldering session. Nine take of the 10 of them raise their hands to indicate yes, they want to try this again. A few of the girls buzz with excitement listening to Mosher talk about the camping and hiking programs available through The Women’s Wilderness Institute.
“Can I go?” one girl asks immediately. “Does it cost money?” another inquires.
“It does,” Mosher says, “but there are a lot of scholarships available, and we’ve never had to turn a girl away because of money.”
That’s a promise The Women’s Wilderness Institute has kept through a scholarship program, some 90 percent of which went to Colorado girls in 2012, many of whom were making their first trips into the mountains.
Their annual Gear and Cheer event, which raises money for scholarships for girls ages 8 to 18, takes place at 6 p.m. April 17 at the Rembrandt Yard in Boulder. The silent auction, which includes a bevy of outdoor gear, will also be accompanied by a “100 Days of Summer” initiative, where donors can pay for one day of “summer” — a day of Women’s Wilderness programming — for one girl.
Correction: This story originally reported that "Nanny" the mountain goat was on loan from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. She's actually from the Denver Zoo.