Starting March 3, students at the Margaret L. Hopkin Middle School can go on outdoor adventures with their peers after school. The group meets on Thursdays, and each week they’ll bus to a new location to learn from community experts.
“In this generation, even though they’re so connected by technology, they’re really disconnected,” said Stefanie Biron, the school-based therapist at the middle school who started the group. “Every year I hear more about anxiety and more about depression [from students] and not a lot about interests or activities. Part of my goal in this group, and all our after-school groups, is to do things outside and get people working together.”
On March 3 the group went to Courthouse Wash to explore with two park rangers. This week, they’ll go geocaching, an activity that involves searching for hidden objects with GPS coordinates. The group will also learn about art with Samantha Zimmerman, the 2022 Community Artist in the Parks; have a yoga day with Angela Houghton, a local yoga instructor; and spend an afternoon exploring petroglyph panels to learn about local archaeology.
The program was created in partnership with Kristina Young, an assistant professor in extension at the University of Utah, and the BEACON Afterschool Program. Biron said student interest is high, and each after-school adventure will be limited only by the physical space on the bus.
In her work as a therapist, Biron is “really involved in getting people to learn something new,” she said, both to give people new interests and hobbies, and also to encourage people to work with each other and build connections. That’s what she hopes the after-school adventure group will give to the students: a space to learn, to meet other students, and to build their confidence.
“It’s a beautiful thing to watch a group of students go from being really nervous the first day to feeling really confident about a new skill, or about getting to know each other in a different way,” she said.
Biron pointed out that most of the middle school students in Moab have known each other since elementary school, so putting students outside of their normal routines can help them get to know each other in a different dynamic. The outdoor structure of the group will “create more opportunity for students to be themselves,” she said.
There are countless studies researching how outdoor activities can improve mental health—in 2020, the American Psychological Association wrote that exposure to nature has been linked to benefits such as “improved attention, lower stress, better mood, reduced risk of psychiatric disorders and upticks in empathy and cooperation.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in 2019 that mental health among adolescents is a growing concern—that year, one in three high school students reported experiencing “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness,” a 40% increase from 2009.
“What I notice when I bring the kids outside, especially middle schoolers, is that they are still in touch with that curious part of themselves,” Biron said. “I think [this group] is an opportunity to allow that curiosity, and that desire we all have as humans to learn and try things and be present in our lives … we’re not trying to contrive an experience. It’s about providing an avenue for the kids to have an experience, and then roll with whatever comes up.”
Exposing the students to adults in the community who are doing interesting and creative things is an important aspect of the group too, Biron said.
“It’s really easy to get in our circle and have our people, and we forget that Moab actually has a really diverse set of people who are doing really cool and interesting things,” she said. “I always try, with all my groups, to have this community aspect … It’s really cool for kids to see what other adults do, and how they make a living. I think there’s something really powerful about that.”
The group, for 7th and 8th graders, meets every Thursday after school until about 4:45 p.m.—the last outing will be on April 7. Any interested students or parents interested in getting their child involved can contact Stefanie Biron at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 435-719-4709.