Editor’s Note: It’s officially summer, and we’re putting on the heat! Whether it’s places to explore to escape the humid temperatures that saturate your bones or tourist industries that need to feel the fires of truth, we’re looking at it all for this series. And today we’re turning to the natural side of summer — yes, we’re talking nature and how Loop Nola is trying to help kids detach from the screens they’ve been set in front of for the pandemic years in order to connect with nature.
Virtual playdates. Virtual game nights. Even virtual weddings. 2020 and 2021 living has forced the world to digitize socialization. But how have children been coping?
Without the ability to interact with other children in an in-person school setting, many children spent hours every day online. Not only has this created a group of internet-dependent kids, but it has also immensely limited the number of outdoor activities children get to engage in. With the rise in the use of technology in general, kids have already been struggling with disengaging from their devices, and the pandemic has only exacerbated that issue.
Non-profit Loop NOLA, located in City Park in New Orleans, Louisiana, has the mission of getting kids outdoors to experience nature and practice team-building activities. Heather West, Program Director of Loop NOLA, describes how late Dan Forman started the organization to help children stay on the right path and find an outlet for their energy in a city vibrant with culture, but not an abundance of outdoor play areas.
“The programming we do helps the children learn how to communicate well with one another in outdoor activities to achieve their goals,” West said. “Loop NOLA’s saying is ‘Everybody belongs outdoors.”
Loop NOLA works with schools throughout Orleans Parish, including children from majority 3rd-12th grades. Many of the children who participate in the activities come from low-income families, and have not necessarily had the opportunity to experience nature in a structured environment. Programming such as the Outdoor Adventure Club for High School students, and monthly larger scale outings that include activities such as fishing, hiking, and indoor rock climbing, have allowed children to experiment with outdoor activities that they may never have been introduced to before.
“Kids get to start working with Loop NOLA in elementary or middle school,” West said. “The programming is designed to be fun, educational and engaging.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly had an impact on all areas of life, and Loop NOLA is unfortunately no exception. According to West, in March of 2020, the organization’s programming came to a screeching halt, and they were forced to become more inventive, especially with the increased use of virtual activities for children. Loop NOLA was over 2500 students strong prior to the pandemic, but has had to adjust their events due to social distancing protocols.
“We did canoe rentals over the summer, along with smaller group activities,” West said. “As the city is opening back up, and with proper social distancing and sanitation, we’ve started a summer camp called Loop Garou, along with putting on a Halloween trick-or-treat event this past year.”
The resilience of Loop NOLA through this global pandemic, along with their continued commitment to offer free and safe outdoor opportunities to many marginalized youth, has allowed them to persevere in 2021. According to West, with national guidelines permitting, a summer trip to North Carolina for some students may be possible.
“Getting outside makes a huge difference for these kids,” West said. “Lots of studies show that being outside lifts your mood, and kids around here could use more time outdoors and the opportunity to learn about the environment. Letting them get out from behind a screen is hugely important.”
According to Loop NOLA’s website, founder Dan Forman created the organization to help incorporate the outdoors into everyday learning, along with encouraging children to learn basic nature skills such as hiking, fishing and rock climbing. Forman’s strong connection to the city of New Orleans kept him working for Loop NOLA until he passed away in 2012. His legacy, and his mission of connecting children to nature, lives on in Loop NOLA and all those who work with the organization.
Shoshi Berk, a Tulane University student in the Digital Civic Engagement class taught by Kelley Crawford and Renee Peck, was inspired to write this article due to her love for nature and her interest in the psychology behind the importance of exploration in children. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.