Teaching Kids & Getting Them Outdoors: It's Part of Our Heritage

The following post by Melissa Sotelo of Environmental Learning for Kids (ELK) comes at a timely moment. Today President Obama announces the "Every Kid in a Park Initiative," which aims to bring every child in the nation into the parks and public lands. It includes free admission for one full year for all fourth grade kids and their families into the National Parks.  HECHO supports this initiative!

Sotelo fish anatomy
Through experiences in the great outdoors, kids learn the value of water and land as a shared resource that is accessible and cared for by all.
— Melissa Sotelo

One of my favorite memories is the faces of the first kids who showed up to learn from me about fish and fishing. I was a high school student, teaching younger kids – most from urban areas – about fish. Before they even learned how to cast their nets, we taught them about fish anatomy, how to handle a fish and other “classroom” lessons. Seeing the wide-eyed faces of those kids and hearing their questions reinforced why I was there. I can be a part of shaping policy that affects our land, air and water, and that will ensure these kids have years of outdoor experience to look forward to.

Nelson Henderson, a Canadian farmer, once said, “The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”

By teaching kids how to fish, hunt, and build and extinguish campfires, we give them a true appreciation for our water and land, even in those places they may never visit. That is one reason why access to our vast system of public land is so important. Through experiences in the great outdoors, kids learn the value of water and land as a shared resource that is accessible and cared for by all. In the western United States, where public lands is more plentiful, Latino culture has been around for generations, and deep-rooted connections to the land and water are intertwined with our culture.

Sharing the knowledge and experience from generations past about the value of clean water and clean air will ensure that future generations can benefit from and enjoy shared lands.


Last month, I participated in the Colorado Latino Forum Policy Summit workshop In Our Ancestors Footsteps: Intergenerational approaches to Latino Environmentalism, which featured panelists discussing the issues Latinos face in terms of conservation and preservation. They addressed what we can expect to face in the future, what we can do to help, and other issues related to our land and water.

In part, we discussed that Latinos have not been as involved as we would like in decisions about public land because the processes have not been accessible. New planning leaders in Tres Rios and South Park, where there are Latino communities, are asking Latinos for their input. For HECHO, being involved in these decisions is key to having a voice for the land that we’ve lived on for generations [see this discussion of the Antiquities Act from Rod Torrez here].

Sharing our experience is not just important for us. Critical to the planning is our perspective, and the deep knowledge we have comes from our experience – and that of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.


These conversations embody what it means to be a Latino conservationist.  We are working to protect our land, educating youth, maintaining and expanding access to outdoor recreation, increasing science education, and facilitating career exploration for all youth. By doing this, we affect families and communities for many generations and in many areas of the country, without expecting anything in return.

Growing up as an urban Latina youth, I didn’t have access to outdoor recreation except for my mother taking me to the park when I was very young.  When I joined Environmental Learning for Kids at the age of fifteen, doors of opportunity opened in areas I have not been exposed to, and never would have recognized as a passion. Soon I began teaching to others. Through those youth, I remembered my first time experiencing the outdoors in a new way.

As Latinos, we need to keep finding ways to get our kids outdoors and to remind our youth that our heritage on public land runs deep. Our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents have a strong tradition of fishing, camping and hunting. From programs that teach kids to fish to organizations like HECHO that help to tell our stories to policymakers, we must ensure that our heritage is honored and protected.

Melissa Sotelo is a youth educator at Environmental Learning for Kids (ELK), a nonprofit organization that opens new doors of opportunity through youth mentoring, education and leadership development. A Denver native, she is committed to developing a further understanding and an increased awareness to diversity, cultural immersion, and political and economic differences.