The first time I witnessed one of my students being bullied was during the winter of 2002.
Fresh out of college, I had just begun my first job as a naturalist with an outdoor environmental education program in South Carolina. One of my students, Amanda* was very tall for her age, overweight and noticeably uncomfortable in her own skin. And she was picked on constantly by Mark* who was half her size and very popular among this group of sixth graders.
While estimates vary, we can surmise that about 50 percent of adolescents have been picked on at one time or another, some more than others.
Sure, I had seen bullying before -- who hasn't? But this was my first time being the adult in the room (or in this case, the woods). I did my best to keep Mark occupied and away from Amanda during meals or on forest hikes. I tried to pair Amanda with nicer kids when we did group activities like searching for macro-invertebrates by the pond. Throughout the week, I led these students on hikes, taught them lessons in ecology, and had a blast singing songs and roasting marshmallows around a campfire. And while the bullying wasn't constant, it was always there, lingering in the background.
One day, as we were walking through the forest, Amanda slipped on some wet leaves and hit the dirt. As I watched her go down, my heart sank. I wasn't afraid that she might break an ankle, but I was petrified by my own expectation that all the other kids would soon begin pointing and laughing. I gritted my teeth, racked my brain for ways I could distract these kids and diffuse the situation -- maybe, I could shout, "look, a bear" and wave my arm in any direction that wasn't Amanda's.
But, before I could settle on a course of action, Mark was standing by Amanda's side. Oh, no. What was he going to do? He wouldn't kick her while she was down. Would he?
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and began making my way towards Amanda. I was in charge. I had to protect her from this humiliation. But to my utter disbelief, Mark stood by Amanda, put out his hand and said, Llet me help you up." And he did. Amanda was just as surprised as me, and while she tried to hold back a smile, she could not. The other students followed Mark's lead. Not one of them laughed. One kid even brushed the leaves off Amanda's back and asked her if she was OK.
It's National Bullying Prevention Month and I am wondering what role nature might play in helping to ease this age-old adolescent torment. Back in 2002, I was just relieved to make it through the week. But in retrospect I am asking myself -- what changed for these kids during that week in the woods? Did Amanda gain confidence from being outdoors? Was Mark humbled by nature as so many of us are?
New research is finding that bullying may be reduced or even eliminated when kids play in natural environments. I remember reading Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, a number of years ago and being surprised by the finding that kids play differently depending upon the ground under their feet. Standing on asphalt led to hierarchical and competitive play. The same study found that when kids played on softer ground, like grass, the nature of their interactions with each other changed; their play was creative and more egalitarian.
A few years ago, Sierra Club sent teenagers from two of Los Angeles' notorious high schools on a camping trip to Yosemite National Park. Crenshaw and Dorsey high school students are rivals -- sports, gangs, you name it; they don't get along. But by the end of their camping trip, these students were the best of friends. What happened?
I know for myself, when I stand among the trees or the mountains, I feel a sense of smallness, an understanding that I am but one person among many people, among many mammals, among many species who inhabit this vast and beautiful planet for just a moment in time. I am not the center of the universe. If I were a victim of bullying or a bully myself, perhaps this understanding might change by perspective, too.
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the students.