Coyote's Corner

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Unplugging in Professor Valley

by Bridget Petersen

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How do CFI students create a Sense of Place?

On the first day of a fall Professor Valley Field Camp, the dawn’s light glows purple and blue on the eastern sky above Fisher Towers, and the cliffs above the Colorado River fire orange with the sun’s first rays. I feel chilled by the early autumn air blowing in from the screen doors of the yurt; it’s been a long summer, and I’m excited to be back in the field teaching students about the Colorado Plateau. Instead of immediately reaching for my phone, I rub my eyes and stare at the morning light spreading slowly across the open landscape.

The calm of fall mornings at Professor Valley.

In a world where technology is invading our lives more rapidly than ever, creating real emotional connections becomes increasingly difficult. To many people, especially our students, unplugging is a foreign and terrifying concept. Not having immediate access to friends, family, news, or social media is something most of us would never choose to do. This reluctance is understandable, this alienation, real. It can be scary to distance yourself from these questions. Disconnection can make one feel left out, behind, or alone. So, how do CFI programs turn this discomfort into a tool for building authentic interpersonal connections?

CFI programs are unapologetically unplugged.

At CFI we intentionally address this journey of unplugging. One of my goals as a naturalist-guide with Canyonlands Field Institute is to help our students transition between two worlds: the world of connectivity with modern society, and the world of disconnectivity in the great outdoors. I aim to ground students within their immediate surroundings, to help establish a ‘home base’ among the sagebrush and sand that students can return to, mentally or physically, during challenging moments throughout their experience. At CFI, we call this ‘home base’ a Sense of Place.

This week, I am looking forward to helping these kids disconnect from their everyday emotional and tumultuous pre-teen lives and connect with wildness. I sit up in bed, listening to the sound of birds down by the creek. I smell the first hints of autumn on the air and imagine the golden cottonwoods and frosty mornings soon to come. The stillness and quiet of our field camp comfort my first-day jitters as I breathe in deep the fresh, cool, clean air.

ntgit students hiking landscape
Slowing down and spending time unplugged is a key component of CFI’s curriculum.

The morning is chilly. I take a moment to stretch and breathe deeply before unzipping my sleeping bag. After the previous night’s Sense of Place activity, I am looking forward to working with our current group of students as they unplug. This transition is one of my favorite aspects of the CFI educational style. Without screens, they talk more face to face, they notice the beauty of camp, and they make observations and discover the natural world on their own terms.

Leading students down the river, through the mountains, or across the desert instills value in experiencing the natural world. While navigating these challenges alongside students, I have seen first-hand how important, necessary, powerful, and life-changing these experiences are. I know, from previous trips, that the week will fly by, and soon the very same students objecting to the confiscation of their phones will share during our closing ceremony about how grateful they were to make a new friend, embrace the world around them, or simply take a week to slow down. In these moments, I am reminded of the importance of practicing real-world connections for a developing brain.

It’s time to unzip my sleeping bag, start a pot of coffee, and plug into the beautiful and provocative surroundings of Professor Valley Field Camp.

Unplugged time in nature is critical for mental health