Meet the Trail Community: Environmental Educator
Khavin Debbs has loved being in nature since he was a boy. Now, as an educator with Seattle-based outdoor preschool Tiny Trees, he's helping spark that love in the next generation.
For WTA's 50th Anniversary, we're highlighting trail users across Washington state. Hear what hiking means to them, and the future of their on-trail pursuits.
Nature speaks to Khavin Debbs’ soul. Since his early years in Sacramento, where he spent hours playing and meditating in his parents’ yard to his current career with outdoor preschool Tiny Trees, he’s always prioritized being in nature. He recharges there, and having a career that lets him share the wonder of nature with the next generation is, as he puts it, “a marriage of everything I’ve ever wanted to do. It is awesome.”
Getting himself outside
Khavin has always explored the natural environment, mostly on self-motivated, self-guided outings, starting as a kid in suburban Sacramento.
“My parents were older so they weren’t going camping much, and there weren’t that many hiking trails around. My formative years I spent mostly in natural spaces like my yard or the park down the street.”
His family had a big backyard, which is where Khavin began exploring the natural world.
“There was an intuition pulling me outside and I listened to it. I really enjoyed martial arts and in the summers I would spend hours outside alone, practicing my moves or meditating. The essence of who I am needs to be outside. It brings me a sense of peace and calm that nothing else can.”
To enhance his natural space, Khavin started going to the drugstore around the corner and bought plants starts, cultivating the family yard he loved to spend time in.
“I was in suburbia but still able to use our yard to feed what I needed, which was to be outside and be in communion in nature.”
But he was soon encouraged to explore past the property line. As his martial arts training continued, he began practicing moves with a bo staff -- a long stick used for combat.
“I would do these moves where I would stick it into the ground over and over, and it made all these holes in the yard. My parents were like, ‘Can you not?’ "
So he started looking for other places he could spend time outside. He set out for the local park.
“A lot of my need to get outside was satisfied by just finding spaces near where I lived. I wasn’t brought up going hiking or camping, but getting outside was something I needed. So having those local parks nearby was essential -– we have to have those spaces in neighborhoods.”
Making an Environmental Educator
When he wasn’t at the park or at school, Khavin spent lots of time with his extended family. He’s an only child, but he got along well with his younger cousins.
“I’ve always connected with children, and sometime during high school I thought, ‘Maybe I should just do this as a career.’”
So he got an associate’s degree and a Montessori teaching credential and taught for five years at Mustard Seed, an emergency school for kids who are homeless or in a period of transition. It was through Mustard Seed that he saw the power of nature to inspire.
Khavin feels more in sync with the universe when he can hear water and birds, or see stars, and he wanted to share that feeling of oneness and peace with the kids he worked with at Mustard Seed, so he planned a trip up to Lake Tahoe.
“We went camping. And this little girl who was 10 years old, she had never been out into the forest with the big redwoods. She was in awe, like, ‘This is beautiful!’ She’d never been outside the city before. And I thought if I could help elicit this response in kids as my job –- that would be amazing.”
In the meantime, his 20s were winding down and he was looking for a change of scenery. He came to Washington for the 2012 Sasquatch! music festival and spent a day in Seattle. He loved it, and easily saw himself living in Seattle. So in 2013, he packed up his car and headed north. Reflecting on the move, he says he feels more comfortable in Washington’s outdoorsy population.
“There are some people in California who hike and get outside, but up here, there are way more. When I got up here I thought ‘These are my people.’ I felt like I was coming home. It was nice to be somewhere with more people who shared my love of being outside.”
And it’s easy to get out here. Khavin loves that you can drive to a nearby park and go on a hike. Seward Park is his favorite spot, but as he said on our walk at Carkeek, there are plenty of opportunities to get a workout at most local parks.
“The hike from the education center to the beach is a good walk. Even for a grownup that’s a good little trek.”
Getting an outdoor education
That good little trek is is what the Tiny Trees students work towards each year of school as part of their education in a natural setting. In preparation for the longer walk, they go on listening walks each day. Khavin and I take a minute to listen the way the preschoolers do.
“What do you hear?”
“A creek gurgling along … wind … and an airplane!”
I mention the airplane jokingly, but Khavin says that it’s important to notice that, too. Tiny Trees encourages kids to see how intermingled humans are with the natural world, and how where we build our habitat affects other habitats.
“We tend to divorce ourselves from nature when in actuality we’re so intertwined and intermingled in it. The environment is everything and everyone around us. So at Tiny Trees we don’t tell them to put the stick down on walks like this. Instead it’s ‘Pick the stick up, what’s on the stick? What was next to the stick when you picked it up? Don’t hit your friend with the stick, but check it out and see how it fits with the rest of your world.”
Fostering that connection to the natural world helps kids pay closer attention to the natural world. Being in tune with the airplane passing overhead or the cars driving by the park helps emphasize humanity’s impact on the natural world.
“If people live separated from the natural world for much of their day to day life, they don’t see the long-term effects of what we’re doing.”
Khavin is hopeful that Tiny Trees can encourage the next generation to be better stewards of the environment.
“We can literally change the world. We hear a lot of fire and brimstone when it comes to the environment. Lots of people think it’s too late, but it’s not too late. It’s never too late. But it starts with being in a space like this and learning how beautiful and sacred it is. If we can instill a sense of wonder, and keep that light going, throughout adolescence and into adulthood, I think things will look up.”
Outdoor Preschool: But What If It Rains? This is the question Khavin hears most when he’s interacting with parents. And he assures them, Tiny Trees did consider the eventuality of rain for an outdoor preschool in the Northwest. The kids have full body rainsuits and insulated boots, and, as one of the teachers likes to say, children are not soluble; the kids continue exploring and learning even in Seattle’s sometimes nasty winter weather.
Are you the leader of a group of kids you'd like to get outside? WTA's Outdoor Leadership Training Program trains leaders, rents outdoor gear to groups who have gone through our program, and teaches skills like overnight camping and backpacking so you can better explore the outdoors near you.