If you’re an inner-city kid, the outdoors can feel very far away. Plus, in your neighborhood, it might not be considered a very cool thing to be interested in. Those are the first challenges that NFL tight end Cooper Helfet, 29 (who has played for the Seattle Seahawks and the Oakland Raiders) has to overcome with this nonprofit, The Nature Project.
The California-based program’s mission is “to provide underserved youth a transformative outdoor experience alongside athletes and mentors passionate about the outdoors.”
But it’s an uphill battle for most kids in America, who are accustomed to playing inside more and more each year. Yet science is overwhelmingly proving that being in nature is good for young bodies (and brains). In fact we’re wired for it.
How The Nature Project Got Its Start
The idea for The Nature Project came to San Francisco native Helfet, who grew up playing outside, when he took a few 49er buddies on off-season adventures. Most had never spent serious time in the outdoors.
"I would take Marshawn Lynch or Golden Tate paddleboarding or hiking -- the stuff I liked to do," Helfet, who had just returned from climbing Mt. Whitney), tells ASN. “They would get these childish looks on their faces. I realized that they'd never experienced this kind of stuff growing up. And I thought, I think I can push the needle forward for other kids too.”
Can Outdoor Time Be as Cool as Screen Time?
Turns out kids and teens, who already emulate professional athletes, are more than willing to put down the video games to hang anywhere in nature – a park, the beach, a mountain – with professional athletes.
The Nature Project, which officially kicked off last year, is on track to serve 1,000 kids during eight sessions by the end of 2018. And interactions vary. For example, Helflet hosted the first TNP program at IslandWood, a 501c3 environmental learning center on stunning Bainbridge Island, Washington.
His diverse crew also staged an event at San Francisco’s famous Chrissy Field. Another TNP session took place in Golden Gate National Recreation Area north of San Francisco. More than 80 kids from the YMCA met mentors Marshawn Lynch, Marcus Peters, Josh Johnson, Jalen Richard, Nick Bowden and Tareq Azim.
The Nature Project curriculum matches 7 to 10 kids per professional athlete, Helfet says, so it feels very intimate. Often the two-hour jam starts with an object from nature: a woodchip.
Each child writes down a dream on the woodchip. A rope encircles the group, and kids have to reach for their “woodchip dreams” through an activity that requires holding each other up.
“We use these simple ways to teach perseverance, communication, and effort,” Helfet says.
Making Nature a Natural Choice for Every Kid
Nature is the backdrop that takes TNP kids out of their element.
“If we can get them in a setting with nothing man-made in sight, among their favorite athletes, we can start to instill the gratitude, peace, and hope that nature provides naturally,” Helfet tells ASN. “If we can transfer our skill sets as athletes, motivating kids to play in an open space at home, we’ve done our job.”
Helfet plans to expand The Nature Project with other stars and friends from mainstream sports like the NBA, as well as more female athletes. He hopes to pass along a little joy that he took for granted during a childhood spent outside.
“With access to Marin County, we spent as much time outside as possible, from golfing and boating to hiking, mountain biking, and skateboarding,” he says. “I just didn’t think being in nature was out of the norm.”
With The Nature Project, Helfet's legacy may be as basic as making the outdoors a cooler, more natural choice for inner-city kids.
More Outdoor Content From ASN