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Hawaii Spring Break: How Teens Benefit from Their Time in Nature
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Hawaii Spring Break: How Teens Benefit from Their Time in Nature

One of the key missions of the Akahiao Nature Institute in Hawaii is simple. The staff gives students plenty of time outdoors to connect with nature. On the Huehue ranch the teens see how people on the islands lived long ago – both the challenges and the benefits of having the environment be your guide.

During the new Hawaii Spring Break program, the students learn about environmental stewardship on the ranch. They harvest food to make a meal and even get a glimpse into how people used the stars to navigate through the ocean to the islands.

Julie Rogers is the executive director of the nature institute and is passionate about helping students see the role they play in the environment. She says we’re all stewards of the land and that being amid the mountains, trees and plants can help students figure out their own identity.

Rustic Pathways, Hawaii 2019 © Steve Boyle

“We can let nature lead us to who we are. It’s the teacher,” Rogers said.

Rogers has found this firsthand not only during her time at the ranch but also on her other journeys. She has had a number of experiences that have helped her teach students about environmentally-friendly practices.

One of her key experiences happened back in 2015 when she participated in a couple legs of a worldwide voyage. She was a passenger on a Polynesian double-hulled canoe that had a crew using traditional navigation techniques. They only had the stars, sun and wind to direct them during a three-year circumnavigation of the globe.

Rogers says the voyage explored the ways native Hawaiians and Polynesians traveled. It also taught lessons about sustainability since the passengers had to rely on what they packed for food, along with fishing. These are lessons Rogers took home to Hawaii.

“Our island is just a bigger version of a canoe, and the earth is a bigger version of an island,” Rogers said. “So if lessons from the canoe can be applied to an island, then the island can also be a practice ground for what’s happening on the planet Earth.”

She and her team bring such perspectives to the students who come to the ranch.

Taking Care of the Land

Teens get to know the ranch by starting with a hike. They explore the landscape of the 166-acre site, which is one of Hawaii’s oldest and largest ecological sanctuaries.

Afterwards, they have tea with Julie’s husband Jeff Fuchs. He was the first westerner to travel the ancient Tea Horse Road over the Himalayas by foot. The 3,100 mile hike took seven months.

Later he journeyed across the Route of Salt through the eastern Himalayas. He also lived for a decade in a Tibetan community in northwestern Yunnan province in China. He documented Himalayan trade routes, the local culture and their interest in tea, and has written a book and created a documentary called The Tea Explorer.

Amid this background, the students will have more than your average cup of tea.

“We’re a coffee culture where we pick up to-go coffee, and we don’t really have a time to sit down with each other and have a conversation,” Rogers said. “So we’re trying to bring back that tea culture where we sit together and then share whatever is going on and give each other our time and presence.”

Later when the students are settled at the ranch, they work on a service project on the land. Projects may include removing unwanted plant species, adding native flora or working on a fence that protects plants from wild pigs.

Rustic Pathways, Hawaii 2019 © Steve Boyle

Nick Makris, who traveled to Hawaii with Rustic Pathways in 2021, loved this aspect of his Hawaii program.

“Whenever we did service work, I honestly found it to be a lot of fun. Doing service gave us time to make a difference, and when we got into the groove of it, it didn’t really even feel like we were working,” Makris said.

During the service project Rogers says they discuss changing the framework of how communities handle plant life. She says they don’t automatically get rid of anything that’s not native. They see if non-native and native plants can coexist and go forward from there.

“We don’t like to say, ‘Oh, we’re just going to get rid of these plants that are not good for the environment.’ We like to think of them as introduced species that we’ve learned to live with. So we’re utilizing the invasive species and learning from them and then trying to bring back the native plants while having these introduced plants,” Rogers said.

In addition, the students spend time in the “food forest” where they pick ingredients for a meal. The crops there range from taro and cassava to papayas, greens and avocados.

Rustic Pathways, Hawaii 2019 © Steve Boyle

The importance of such moments in nature can’t be underestimated. Studies show the benefits of outdoor time for teens and how much it has been missing in recent years.

Why Time in Nature is So Important for Teens

A study by the University of Michigan found the average teen spends about seven minutes a day outside in unstructured activities. Meanwhile, the average daily screen time for teens has surpassed eight hours a day.

During the early days of the pandemic, things were even worse for many teens. A study by North Carolina State University found many teens went outside once a week or less during those days.

Despite these trends, teens do recognize the benefits of being in nature. Another University of Michigan study found that 88% of teens said they wanted to spend more time outside. When they were in nature, teens reported benefits, ranging from helping them “feel calm” to reducing anxiety and stress.

Hawaii’s Big Island may be one of the best places to get this experience. It’s the youngest and largest island in the chain and is nearly twice as big as all of the other Hawaiian islands combined.

On the island you can travel through eight climate zones, from the lush valleys and the snow-capped mountain of Mauna Kea to the beaches. Along the way, students take part in many adventure activities.

Getting Your Feet Wet

The students leave the ranch to take part in a number of once-in-a-lifetime spring break experiences. This includes snorkeling amid the manta rays. Lights are used to attract plankton that the manta rays eat.

“This kind of snorkeling is something you don’t see anywhere else. It’s at night, and you float while manta rays come and feed right under you. It’s spectacular,” Rogers said.

The students also go surfing and hike up the dormant volcano Mauna Kea, which is the highest point in Hawaii. Rogers says the diversity of landscapes in the same region of the island is why she loves living there.

Rustic Pathways, Hawaii 2019 © Steve Boyle

“We’ve got the mountains, the ocean, and depending on what elevation you are, you get different climate zones as well,” Rogers said. “So where we’re at the ranch we’re kind of high up, so it’s pretty cool. But if you go down for like twenty minutes, then it’s like super hot tropical weather, and so I find that’s really neat.”

For students, that means they can pack months-worth of activities in a relatively short spring break. To see the whole itinerary, view our Hawaii Spring Break program page.

About the Author

Mary Rogelstad

Content Writer