Communing With Nature 2

with the Cottonwood Institute

In Colorado, we know that nature is a powerhouse for enhancing our own wellbeing. Apart from being active in natural settings, people are using nature as an antidote for our sedentary lifestyles; people are grounding to combat electromagnetic fields and doctors are writing nature prescriptions. In fact, journals like Science Daily report that a mere 20 minutes of exposure to nature lowers stress hormone levels.

Nonetheless, there’s still a large percentage of the population for whom the nature-wellness connection doesn’t yet click; and as the saying goes, you cannot force a horse to drink, you can only lead it to water.

The Cottonwood Institute endeavors to help middle and high schoolers establish their relationship with nature to promote a more environmentally-minded population. As Cottonwood founder, Ford Church clarified, “Our youth spend 90% of their time indoors and over 50 hours a week in front of screens. They’re simultaneously disconnected from nature and bombarded with environmental issues, and this overwhelming combination is causing psychological disengagement.”

The Cottonwood Institute uses environmental education to foster students’ connections to nature. For many students, this connection usually starts with a simple yet powerful exercise called Sit Spot: at the beginning and end of each sojourn into nature, they are asked to go sit in a spot that somehow calls to them. They use their senses to observe their surroundings: see an ant battle and hovering clouds, hear the wind and rustling branches, smell the various flora and fauna, and touch the dirt, rocks, and crunching leaves around them.

Church shared that students respond very well to this humble aspect of the program, which speaks volumes about how they’re being overloaded in their daily lives.

Church conceived the idea for the Cottonwood Institute in graduate school when he realized that before we ask kids to care about the environment, they must have a connection to nature. In tandem with exercises like Sit Spot, the Cottonwood Institute’s courses fuse environmental education with service learning.

“This class was so much more than camping,” says middle schooler and CAP program student Robert Marquez. “It provided my friends and me with an opportunity to talk about real-world issues that are affecting us right now…I will continue to try to be educated and have discussions about the environment with people, so we can work together in the future to make the world a better place.”

Likewise, Church explained that because the Cottonwood Institute is primarily focused on viewing the youth as changemakers, one-third of its activities are aimed at connection to the outdoors (i.e. hiking, camping), and the rest is about connecting with the community, using service learning to empower students by bolstering each individual’s inherent talents and skills.

Because the Cottonwood Institute is mindful of the mental health connection, students are also exposed to solutions that lead to discussions about environmental concerns. They learn about local organizations that promote sustainable agriculture such as urban farms, greenhouses, and edible insect farms like Rocky Mountain Micro Ranch, which leads to talks about feeding 7.53 billion humans. They even meet ambassador wolves from Mission Wolf, after which they partake in educational conversations about removing top predators from their ecosystems.

The exciting 2020 programming is expanding to include Colorado-specific projects about topics like fire ecology, where students will meet with firefighters and learn what healthy forests look like.

With an ultimate goal for students to incorporate sustainability into any career they enter into, Cottonwood is not only positively changing the present, but doing their best to ensure that the future is just as bright for generations to come.