Getting Outside with Paul Belanger
So Paul, tell us about yourself – My role at Global Travel Alliance is to be the Director of Gtrek. Gtrek is the science, adventure, and culture/language division of Global Travel Alliance. My title means that I am the go to person on staff for everything related to a Gtrek trip. HOWEVER, like many good companies I am but one cog in the wheel of an amazing company and there is no way that I can deliver a truly unique and exceptional trip without the help of many others on staff. But if you add my background in outdoor and environmental education with the fact that I live in the mountains of western Montana, and lead an active outdoor lifestyle, and that I have a beard most of the year, probably had something to do with my job title as well. Regardless, I am very proud to work for a great company and am fortunate enough to partner with many great teachers on developing and leading programs that get kids outside playing, learning, and growing.
Why do you focus on education? One of the great things about my work is that I get to build a program that reflects one of my greatest passions in life – sharing the outdoors with young people. My passion comes from a rock solid belief that in order to really understand how to best care for our planet, home communities, and those places that are near and dear to us, we must spend time in those places. Just like great friendships that build on shared experiences, our relationship with the natural world is built on outdoor experiences. This can be in a local city park or a National Park like Yellowstone or some other great international destination like Costa Rica or Belize. This relationship can be engendered along many paths – playing, recreating, painting/drawing, studying and observation, or just sitting under a tree and reading a book. The point is, GET OUTSIDE!
What part of your job is a challenge? What’s tough is that with young people today, getting outside requires a more deliberate effort. I grew up without video games, cable/satellite T.V., or an over-abundance of extracurricular activities – athletic or otherwise. If I was bored after school or during summer break, the best entertainment was outside in the Ohio hardwood forests or along the creek that ran through my neighborhood. These moments are still very important to me. Going back even further in our Nation’s history, many kids grew up on farms where being part of the landscape around them was not only important, it was essential. The farmers and ranchers I know today have some of the strongest conservation ethics out there, which don’t come from woo-woo environmental rhetoric but rather from working and being out on the land they care about. While living in a ranching community along the Montana Rocky Mountain Front, one rancher summed up this point quite well when he said, “I am not raising cattle – I am growing grass”.
I know many teachers and parents that share my concern and understand the importance of getting kids outside. This is not a judgment – just a reality. I am a parent too who lives less than a mile from thousands of acres of wilderness and I struggle with feeling that my kids are not “out there” enough, despite the fact that we camp, hike, ski, and float the rivers near my home regularly.
So how does Gtrek educate students? Providing opportunities for young people to experience some of our planet’s special natural places like Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and Costa Rica, I like to believe I am helping teachers and parents overcome some of the barriers that young people face when trying to “get outside”. This would provide many benefits for students! More and more studies are coming out that demonstrate the importance of outdoor and environmental education. Students develop stronger social and personal skills. They demonstrate better performance in school and a greater enthusiasm for learning. Getting outside also helps build important critical thinking and leadership skills. The list goes on. The sole purpose of Gtrek is to help bring these benefits to your children and students. Let me and my team be your partner in this worthwhile endeavor!
Any more advice about getting outside? A great resource to learn more about some of the issues I brought up is “Last Child in the Woods,” by Richard Louv. This book has spawned resurgence in efforts to get kids outside. Linked to this book is the online resource called the Children and Nature Network. Visit www.childrenandnature.org