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Environmental Exploration and Youth Development

Originally appears in the Winter 2012-2013 issue

While you probably know that hands-on environmental education (EE) during one’s formative years leads to a firmer grasp of science concepts, a deep appreciation of the natural world and a lifelong commitment to stewardship, you may not realize is that it also serves as a powerful context for the promotion of positive youth development. When youth programs incorporate environmental education and outdoor exploration, the entire natural world becomes a learning laboratory, and youth become stewards not only of their natural surroundings but also of their communities and own lives.

Positive Youth Development is a comprehensive framework outlining the supports and qualities all young people need in order to become successful adults.  The Search Institute, a 50-year-old organization specializing in research on youth development principles and practices, has identified forty “Developmental Assets” as the building blocks of Positive Youth Development.[i]  These Assets are both internal (such as positive values, commitment to learning, and a positive sense of self) and external (boundaries and expectations, empowerment, and constructive use of time). The level of attainment of these Assets during childhood and adolescence dictates the level of success one achieves later in life, according to the Search Institute.

At Solar Youth, we believe that environmental exploration and education is an invaluable context in which to provide opportunities for youth to obtain Assets. EE provides a setting for physical activity in the outdoors, away from TV, video games and other routines and daily comforts, which instill in youth a sense of wonder and adventure. Outdoor exploration often requires extensive teamwork, requiring youth to learn how to communicate and work together in a group.  While learning concrete skills like planting trees and gardens and setting up tents and building campfires, youth build multiple competencies and develop a sense of mastery. And the beauty and peace of the outdoors is a wonderful environment for youth to feel safe and contemplate the lessons they learn and how they apply them to build better futures for themselves.

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Jack Phillips is the Director of External Relations at Solar Youth in New Haven, Connecticut. He oversees fund development, communications and government relations. Jack previously held fundraising roles at organizations focused on human rights, youth, homelessness, education, leadership development and refugees. Hallie Martenson has been a youth worker in New Haven for the past three years. She currently coordinates Solar Youth’s Leaders in Training program for 7th and 8th graders and facilitates the Advancing Youth Development course for the Youth Development Training and Research Center throughout the state of Connecticut.

Founded in 2000, Solar Youth, Inc. provides opportunities for young people from New Haven, Connecticut’s low-income neighborhoods to develop a positive sense of self and connection and commitment to others through programs that incorporate environmental exploration, leadership and community service. Learn about their programs at