Muddy Sneakers: Connecting Kids With Nature

| By Ruby Compton |

“Will my shoes actually get muddy?” is the most often asked question to instructors of the non-profit organization Muddy Sneakers when staff first introduce the outdoor science education program to students. While honest in intention, this frequently asked question reflects a larger trend of society’s growing disconnect from nature. With a newly opened second office in the Piedmont, the Western North Carolina-based organization, Muddy Sneakers, works to bridge this gap, deepen the connection between children and nature, inspire curiosity, and stimulate learning while gaining a greater understanding of the long-term impact of studying environmental education.

Photos: Capturing Western North Carolina Photography


Upon reading Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods,” Cedar Mountain residents and conservationists Aleen Steinberg and Sandy Schenck discovered a common desire to ensure the next generation would care about the natural resources available in their communities. Though Western North Carolina is home to many summer camps that draw people from all over the world to the mountains, Sandy and Aleen recognized that many children who grew up minutes away from thousands of acres of public lands hardly knew the trails or understood the forest ecology. Thus, Muddy Sneakers was born in Transylvania County with Brevard Elementary and Pisgah Forest Elementary, both venturing into nearby DuPont State Recreational Forest with trained naturalists for their first program days in the spring of 2008.

Muddy Sneakers offers high-quality science education programming to public school fifth grade students. Traveling in groups of no more than twelve, students spend six full school days using nearby protected lands as outdoor classrooms, while learning the state’s core science curriculum experientially through hands-on education. Now in its ninth season, the Western North Carolina field office currently serves approximately 1,800 public school students at 28 schools across seven counties and eight school districts in North Carolina and three schools in upstate South Carolina.

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction has strongly encouraged schools to seek out cost-effective, standards-based, ‘non-formal’ education opportunities that will improve students’ environmental literacy and science aptitude. In partnership with public schools, Muddy Sneakers designed a curriculum hallmarked by deep integration with the current North Carolina Essential Standards for Science for 5th grade students. Each school has the opportunity to tailor their experience to fit the specific needs of their teachers and students. With a significant increase in ‘STEM’ (science, technology, engineering, and math) prioritization across the Carolinas, Muddy Sneakers answers with an innovative, cost-effective, and results-driven program that provides repeated experiential learning opportunities during the traditional school day, and offers a library of classroom activities to teachers to further connect the field and classroom experiences.


In July 2016, Muddy Sneakers was awarded a one-time state appropriation to test the portability of the program and to support the establishment of an additional field office in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. Working on a tight timeline set by the state, a new Program Director was recruited, office space secured in Salisbury, and field instructors hired. On January 27, 2017, the first group of Piedmont students at Aquadale Elementary went on an expedition to begin the next significant phase in the organization’s rapid growth from its humble beginnings in Transylvania County. This expansion meant the program doubled in less than twelve months, adding 15 schools and 1,000 students in the Piedmont, along with an additional 300 new students in WNC across three new school districts – Rutherford, Buncombe, and Mitchell Counties.

When asked about her experience bringing Muddy Sneakers to a new program area, Piedmont Program Director Elise Tellez said, “The students in the Piedmont have been beyond excited to be spending multiple days outside learning science, exploring, and discovering natural areas right in their own counties that were unknown to them.”

At its core, Muddy Sneakers addresses a significant need for students to connect with the natural world during a key developmental stage (ages 10-12). Students learn of nature’s wonders as they directly correlate it with their science instruction, and ideally build a connection to the landscapes that define their region. Though there have been improvements in test scores across districts, Muddy Sneakers recognizes this work as powerful mitigation for the far greater consequence of a childhood lacking in natural experiences.

After author Richard Louv titled this phenomenon “Nature Deficit Disorder,” he and a suite of other researchers documented that a childhood void of natural experiences is reflected in challenges ranging from a lack of wonder, compromised problem solving capabilities, weak socialization skills, and most common is unhappiness, often related to lack of connectivity or sense of place. Muddy Sneakers counters this common trend of disconnect in younger generations by providing a program that offers outdoor exposure, leadership experiences, group learning, and scientific thinking for a holistic experience, unlike anything else students will receive in their traditional public school education. Louv’s recent quote of endorsement of the program echoes these sentiments: “There is brilliance in the Muddy Sneakers name and philosophy. The organization commits itself to serving the science education needs of public schools – turning the classroom inside out. The result is an innovative model for conservation education that fosters sense of place, a love of inquiry and something much more valuable: childhood wonder.”


What about the students concerned with their shoes getting muddy, whose hesitancy seemed to outweigh their curiosity about nature? Over the course of each school year, Muddy Sneakers repeatedly sees remarkable improvement in students’ excitement for their science curriculum, overall physical fitness, and general confidence with spending full days outside. One Asheville student recently reported, “On the last Muddy Sneakers expedition, I was very curious and amazed. I held millipedes, termites, cockroaches, and a centipede. That was exhilarating. My heart rate sped to one thousand or more.”

Students, teachers, and instructors tell incredible stories of impact, yet data drives decisions. The organization made it a priority to create its own complimentary but independent measurement tool, and applied private funding towards a two-year research partnership with NC State University (NCSU). This partnership will produce the nation’s first ever elementary-specific measurement tool to evaluate environmental literacy – defined as an understanding of how people and societies relate to one another and to the natural world in a sustainable way.

That project began in August 2015 and will conclude in August 2017, after which the organization expects to enter a second phase of research specifically focused on Transylvania County with the same team of university scholars from across related disciplines. There is a major national movement afoot to better measure students’ environmental literacy, in hopes of further progressing the integration of environmental science education into traditional public school curriculum. Muddy Sneakers sees this partnership as a critical step forward for providing data to back up the otherwise anecdotal outcomes that have been observed.

The organization’s Board of Directors and administration continues to dedicate significant energy toward building sustainable, annual funding through further development of the ‘community’ portion of the organization’s three-part, cost-share strategy. Participating schools raise one third of the programming cost, the local community is asked to contribute one third, and Muddy Sneakers raises the final third through outside grants, foundation requests, and fundraiser events. With this model, it is truly in the hands of the towns, teachers, parents, businesses, and land managers as to whether Muddy Sneakers will take hold in an area. As the program expands into new regions, there is a hope that towns and districts will take ownership of the program, get connected as educators and volunteers, and be proud that they, too, are a “Muddy Sneakers Community.”

Back in the classroom, many of the students, now in shoes marked with mud from recent trail exploration, may be asked by their teachers to write a reflection on their experience. One teacher shared this writing from a student about a visit to a local state park with Muddy Sneakers, “I had an excellent time learning in the woods with my friends and I can’t wait to come back on the weekend and bring my family.”

Ruby Compton is the Western North Carolina Program Director for Muddy Sneakers.

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker