Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Winter Safety Tips

Winter is a great time for kids to be outdoors. Snow allows for all sorts of activities that are not possible in the summertime. However, winter conditions also introduce new risks. Here are some winter precautions you can take to safely enjoy winter with your children.

1) Apply sun protection. Even in chilly temperatures, the Sun’s ultraviolet rays can cause sunburns. Snow also reflects the rays, making it even more important to protect all exposed skin. Pediatricians recommend applying a broad-spectrum UVA and UVB sunscreen with a SPF rating of 30 to 50. Since children will be playing outside in the snow, look for a water resistant version. Reapply every few hours if your children will be spending lots of time outside.

2) Keep skin safe. On the opposite end of the spectrum from burns is freezing. Children lose body heat faster than adults do and thus are at higher risk for frostbite, or the milder frostnip. If a person gets frostbite, the affected area will become very cold and turn white or yellowish gray. Frostbite and frostnip  most commonly occur on fingers, toes, ears, noses, and cheeks. Dress children in warm layers and cover as much skin as possible. Use wool clothes, not cotton, for insulating, and dress them in waterproof outer layers. If you can, bring extra mittens and socks in case your child’s get wet.

3) Avoid slope side obstacles. Sledding, skiing, and snowboarding are staples of outdoor winter recreation. The rush of zooming down a hill can abruptly end if children collide with each other or obstacles. Make sure the hills they are using are away from roadways and that they are clear from rocks and trees. Be sure that children have a properly fitting helmet. Children who snowboard should wear wrist guards too.

4) Stay clear of snowbanks. Snow piled high by plow trucks looks like an amazing place to build a fort to many children. However, digging into those snowbanks can be particularly dangerous with cars and plows passing by. A better option is to pile the snow high in a backyard or park, away from traffic. Shoveling snow to build a fort may take more time, but the structure will be much safer and last longer. Try building a quinzee.

5) Make sure ice is nice. The safest ice is in rinks. If you are planning to skate on frozen natural bodies of water, check to make sure the ice is at least 4 inches thick. Avoid moving water like streams or rivers. Water currents can make ice thickness vary greatly; what is safe in one spot can be too thin in another. Local outdoor recreation retailers can help identify typically dangerous areas and you can use an ice chisel or auger to find out the ice thickness. A helpful rhyme to remember is, “Thick and blue, tried and true; Thin and crispy, way too risky.”

6) Don’t lick the pole. This seems obvious to adults, but children, particularly very young children, experience the world through their mouths. Warn older kids that getting their tongue stuck to a pole can be painful and keep a close eye on toddlers too young to understand. If they do get stuck, use warm, not boiling water to remove.

Winter recreation can be great fun if done safely. For more tips, visit the American Association of Pediatricians  or the National Library of Medicine.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog. This column was written by Sarah Kinney.

Photo by liveslow/iStock.com.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Bio Blitzing: Be a Citizen Scientist

For kids who like nature, science, treasure hunts, and maybe even a little friendly competition, a BioBlitz is an ideal activity, one in which a whole family or even a school can participate. For anyone unfamiliar with the term, a BioBlitz is essentially a 24-hour program to find and identify as many species of plants, animals, microbes, fungi, and other organisms as possible in a given area.

Usually a scientific or environmental organization plans the event. It puts out a call for volunteer scientists, families, students, teachers, and other community members and sorts them into teams to discover, count, map, and learn about the living things in the targeted area. These events give scientists and the public an opportunity to do fieldwork together and highlight the biodiversity of an area. Often, food, music, games, and other social activities are scheduled as well.

In New England, organizations like Mass AudubonThe Nature Conservancy, and others hold BioBlitz events. This past July, The Nature Conservancy held one at the Green Hills Preserve in North Conway, N.H., where volunteers worked with scientists and local experts to catch moths by moonlight, look for rare birds, track black bears and coyotes, and search for frogs and turtles. There were four science blitzes in all: moths, birding, macroinvertebrates and plants.
The Rhode Island Natural History Survey has been holding an annual R.I. BioBlitz since 2000. Their first year, they had just 33 volunteers who observed 663 species in an urban park in Providence. Today, more than 100 volunteer naturalists come out to survey a different parcel every year. This year the event was held at Rocky Point in Warwick, and in 2015 it is slated to be held in Little Compton.
The nonprofit's executive director, Dr. David Gregg, says BioBlitzes draw people in for a number of reasons, from parents who want to spend time outdoors with their kids to environmental experts who want to meet like-minded people in interesting places. 
"It's a social event," says Gregg. "We have several families who come every year. Maybe it's a parent who has gotten their kid interested in what they are [interested in], or their kids just like to run around with nets." 
As for the expert naturalists, it's a chance to catch up with colleagues and spread the world about their sometimes-esoteric specialties in something like fungi or insects.
"A BioBlitz serves a number of purposes," Gregg says. "It's a good way to explore your own natural history, your likes and dislikes. You can meet people who are passionate about what you're interested in." 
Of course, the research done over the 24-hour period is a boon to the area. "You can't afford to have an expert on everything," says Gregg. "A long-term goal is to encourage and develop a community of amateurs who can contribute."
Among the many benefits to participating is the hands-on experience of learning exactly what scientists do in the field, including making observations, recording data, understanding classification, and mapping findings.
A BioBlitz can be as grandiose as the project undertaken by National Geographic, which is working with the National Park Service to conduct a BioBlitz in a different national park each year during the decade leading up to the U.S. National Park Service Centennial in 2016, or as humble as documenting the plants and animals in your local park.
While next year's National Geographic/National Park Service BioBlitz, to be held in the Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, might be a bit far away to volunteer for, be assured there are plenty of other BioBlitz events families can join closer to home. Or, you could organize one yourself. On the National Geographic website, videos and tutorials explain how to get started. ″
Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog. This column was written by Kim Foley MacKinnon.

Photo courtesy of RINHS. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Summer Fun at Echo Lake Camp: A 5-Year-Old’s View

Although winter is just approaching, I’m thinking ahead to next summer—and you may want to soon. Most of AMC's camps start registration in January. Our daughter, who recently turned 5, is already clamoring for us to return to Echo Lake Camp. With its waterfront location, volunteer-led hikes throughout Acadia National Park, and comfortable camp living, it’s a great place for families.

Last summer was our first visit, since children must be 4 years old to attend. The camp made an outdoorsy vacation easy, with meals provided, hikes at varying levels offered daily, and fun contests in which our daughter won prizes. (In one competition, she was asked to imitate a loon—and did so pretty well, since we could hear them each night from our tent.) I even sang with her in the talent show.

More than two months after our one-week stay, I looked through some photos with her and asked what she remembered about camp. Here are some of her reflections, with a few explanatory notes from me in brackets.

Camp Life
“I liked all the sweet food.” [Dessert was served after both lunch and dinner daily, unheard of in our house.] “I liked all the food—not just the sweet food.”

“I liked swimming in the lake with my water wings. I swam from the dock to the other dock in the water.” [She really improved in one week of daily swimming. I think she was inspired in part by the older kids.]

“I loved to camp in the tent. I fell on the side” [out of her bed while sleeping, onto the wooden platform of the tent] “and almost fell into the forest and almost rolled into the water.” [This is a dramatic retelling. The tent wall was actually quite sturdy and she was in no danger of reaching the lake.]

“I liked going on the hikes. It was really fun. I liked hiking Cadillac because I got a popsicle at the top. The hikes were kind of hard.” [We went on the easier level of hike, usually about 2 or 3 miles but with up to about 1,000 feet of elevation gain, and one day went on a nature walk that was even gentler.] “I liked the hike leaders.”

“I loved the views. I liked to scramble on all the rocks, but we couldn’t go too far away from our group. I saw boats even though we were up high.”

“I had to drink lots of water so I wouldn’t have to stop” [hiking]. “We went to the bathroom in the woods. Sometimes Mom would let me have special treats if I did a good job on the hike, like raisin boxes.”

“I loved the popovers” [at Jordan Pond House]. “We got them with jam and butter. We went around Jordan Pond and saw the two Bubbles” [two rounded granite hills at the north end of Jordan Pond, which make for an easy family hike].

“We saw caves from the ocean floor” [on the nature walk, when we learned about the geological history of the area]. “I loved that.”

“I loved all the rocks” [by the water’s edge]. “The ocean was a little too wavy because it was windy. There were so many bubbles” [in the spray when the waves crashed against the rocks] “you could see if there were pictures in them, like you do with clouds. The rocks sounded like thunder” [on a cobble beach, where basketball-sized stones were tumbled in the waves].

The Only Negative
“There were not enough kids my age, because school started for those kids but not for me.” [We went the very last week of August.] “Me and” [a 7-year-old girl from the next tent] “went on the same hike. I played with her. I wish she was with me right now.”


Here are some more resources for your summer planning:

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog, written by Heather Stephenson.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Be an Animal Detective: How to find clues and identify wildlife

So, you and your kids can tell the difference between dog tracks and coyote tracks, and you know bear scat is nothing like deer scat, and that owl pellets aren’t actually the same thing as owl droppings (a common misconception). 

Maybe it’s time for a new challenge. 

Next time you’re outdoors with your family, whether it’s in the back woods or just in a neighborhood park, take some time to look for other, less obvious signs of animals. There are several clues animals leave behind that go unnoticed because we aren’t looking for them. 

Nancy Ritger, AMC huts and Cardigan Lodge program manager, who’s often out in the backcountry, offers some tips for figuring out what animals may have recently been in the area, from scouring the ground for nibbled acorns (signs of rodents like squirrels) to examining fences for snagged fur or hair (signs of fox or deer). If you can find and follow an obvious animal trail in the woods, look for broken twigs and fur stuck in branches along the path, which can offer hints as to what animal uses that route. 

Ritger says to keep an eye out for leaves and shrubs animals might have been “browsing” or eating. “Hares can snip off leaves because they have sharp incisors, so there’ll be a sharp cut, while deer and moose, lacking incisors, shred the leaves.” 

If bears are known to have been in the vicinity, looking for claw marks on trees is an obvious start, but Ritger says beech trees are especially enticing for bears. “If the tree is big enough, bears will climb up and pull the branches toward themselves to eat the nuts,” she said. Besides claw marks and scat, look up higher for broken branches where the bear might have been snacking. 

Other signs to look for in trees are woodpecker holes. Ritger said Pileated woodpeckers leave deep rectangular holes, which they drill to look for carpenter ants. Downy woodpeckers leave smaller, rounder holes, in a hunt for bark beetles and larvae. Trees also can hold signs of other animals. Moose sometimes rub against trees to dislodge ticks, while male deer often rub their antlers on them to shed antler velvet. Both activities result in missing bark. 

If you’re wondering how to tell if a wild animal or just someone’s pet dog has been roaming through the neighborhood, Ritger said behavioral clues are a good indication. “Pets are fed and not necessarily interested in food in the wild,” she said. “They’re reacting to smell, running around, not hunting.” A fox or coyote, on the other hand, is looking for sustenance to survive and doesn’t have time to play since it’s conserving its energy. 

The National Wildlife Federation offers several suggestions for animal activities for kids. One that can be especially rewarding for children is to look for animal homes. Birds’ nests, beehives, spider webs, beaver dams, tree hollows, and burrowed holes in the ground are relatively easy to spot and identify. And as you and your family look for animal signs, remind your kids that while animals may leave traces behind them, your goal should be to leave none.

Read more about identifying animal clues:

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog. This column was written by Kim Foley MacKinnon.

Photographs by Nicky Pizzo.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Bore Your Kids

Many parents dread hearing their child say, “I’m bored.”

However, letting your children be bored can actually help them become active. It sounds counter intuitive, but by allowing them “bored” time, you can boost their creativity, independence, and ability to take safe risks.

“Children who experience a lack of programmed activity are given an opportunity to demonstrate creativity, problem solving, and to develop motivational skills that may help them later in life,” writes Dr. Michael Ungar in Psychology Today

Children need unstructured play in their structured schedules. Set aside time when nothing is planned, then empower your children to control their activities. Kids can’t stand being bored, so they naturally will begin to create games and stories. 

Here is how to bore your kids: 

1) Send them outside. Whether it is exploring the woods, a backyard, or ants on a sidewalk, it is easy for children to make an adventure out of their outdoor exploration. The outdoors offers them countless opportunities to touch and explore the world in an unstructured manner.

2) Understand limits. The most important part of unstructured play is knowing what your child can handle. Younger children won’t be able to handle as much unstructured play as older children. Extroverted children might need friends to be creative with, while introverts might be happy studying a bug for hours. Children are different and you don’t want to overwhelm them with too much boredom at once.

3) Don’t give instructions. Let your child come up with what they want to do. Avoid directing their activities. 

4) Break the rules. Encourage kids to invent alternatives to the official rules of games. They can decide which rules they want to follow or if they want to invent a new game altogether. Working together without adult interference teaches children teamwork, leadership, and negotiating skills. 

5) Invent a new purpose. Give children access to toys, tools, or objects like boxes, pots, or pans. Suggest they try using these for purposes other than those for which they were designed. Discovery and exploration foster creativity. 

6) Make believe. In their boredom, your children may want to escape to a new world. Perhaps they will begin to see playground equipment as a castle or want to build a fort  or house for wildlife

7) Let them fall. Cuts, scrapes, and bruises are a natural part of growing up, and a learning process for children. Climbing trees , jumping from high places, running the “wrong” way up a slide, or sword fighting with dead branches can break your children’s boredom. Allowing them to experiment can teach them that they can control their own safety. 

8) Don’t be the hero. Resist jumping up to help your kid the second they ask. Evaluate whether they actually do need help with something or if they just want you to do it for them. Let them help themselves if they can. Unstructured play will foster independence, but not if your children are relying on you to entertain them. 

Before you let your children run free, teach your kids about good and bad risk. Children have different amounts of risk they can handle. Factors like age and experience can play a role in their risk-management abilities. Where you live can also pose different risk factors, for example if you live near a busy street or in a more rural setting. Teach them about potential dangers they might face.

For example, a good risk might be letting your child walk to a neighborhood friend’s house and a bad risk might be letting your child swim unsupervised. For younger children, maybe they can walk alone, but you could stand and watch them from home until they reach their destination. It is also helpful to explain how you decide to take risks as you encounter them in everyday life. 

After unstructured play is done, listen to your children describe their adventures. I’m sure they’ll have a lot to share. 

Learn More

Photo by iStock

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an AMC Outdoors blog. This post was written by Sarah Kinney. 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Thru-Hiking Family

On August 31, the Kallin family—parents Dave and Emily and children Nathan and Maddy—reached the summit of Katahdin. The clouds that cloaked the peak’s long shoulders let them see only a few feet in front of them; there would be none of the spectacular views they might expect from Maine’s tallest mountain on a clear day. Moisture soaked their jackets and slicked the rocky trail they still needed to descend. None of that dampened the celebration, however. 

All four had just walked the entire length of the Appalachian Trail (AT)—2,185.3 miles in 154 days—starting at Springer Mountain in Georgia on March 31. A thru-hike is an accomplishment for anyone, but it is a special accomplishment for a family with young children. 

During the family’s five-month thru-hike, Nathan, age 9, and Maddy, who turned 8 on the trail, finished second and fourth grade by doing homework on the trail and answering questions from teachers and classmates on the blog that their dad updated regularly. 

As is true with most AT thru-hikers, each member of the Kallin family earned a trail name. Maddy acquired hers on the first day after doing a cartwheel. She remained Cartwheel throughout the hike. Nathan took the name Mouse a few days into the trip, but changed to RobinHood after he fashioned a bow and arrow from materials he found along the trail. Dave became known as All In, and Emily was Mama Bear, a name that is apparently unavoidable if you’re a mother hiking with children on the trail. 

After completing their trek, the Kallins returned to their home in Portland, Maine, on Labor Day. Nathan and Maddy started school the next day. I caught up with the family after they’d been back home about three weeks and asked them to talk about their experiences, what they’d loved, what they’d learned. 

Where did you get the idea for hiking the Appalachian Trail as a family? 

Dave: In 2002, before we were married, Emily and I hiked the AT north to south, starting in Maine and finishing in Georgia. On that hike, we met a family of four from Idaho. Their children on that hike were similar in age to ours now, 6 and 8. We were inspired by them, and thought we’d like to do the same someday. 

We tried to locate the Idaho family for years afterward, without success. Then our family was interviewed by NPR on the trail this year at Harper’s Ferry. Friends of theirs recognized them from our description on the radio and they got in touch with us. Their kids are in college now; it’s been great to hear how well their kids are doing. It makes us think that these hikes are still pivotal moments in your lives, years later. 

We started our thru-hike this year on same day as another family we’d met four years earlier on a hike in the White Mountains. That wasn’t something we’d planned—just independent trajectories. It was a happy accident to start within hours of each other. 

[Editor’s note: Emily and Dave’s 2002 thru-hike was their second backpacking trip together! Read more about that trip and see a picture of their Idaho role models in the “Why” section of the Kallin trip blog.

What is it like to be on the trail as a family? 

Emily: People don’t realize that there’s very little downtime on a thru-hike. They may think it’s a relaxing vacation, but there’s not a lot of relaxing about it. We hiked all day—we usually left camp by 7:30 a.m. and would stop for the day between 6:30 and 7:00 p.m.—to keep on track for an end-of-August finish. I put a lot of energy into keeping everyone uninjured and fed. 

What are some things that you remember most from the hike? 

Maddy: When we started, I didn’t think I could hike the whole trail. Once we got to New Hampshire, that’s when I knew I could make it. 

Getting to the top of Katahdin was a high point. Yes, I’d been there before, but I had just completed a two thousand, one hundred eighty-five and one-third mile hike! 

I definitely remember squeezing water out of my socks at night and putting them in my pockets to dry. 

Nathan: I liked hiking with my family. I liked meeting other hikers and hiking with them. Since we’ve been back we’ve Skyped with someone we met in Shenandoah. That was really fun. When I had my downtimes, I wanted to get off the trail. 

In New Hampshire, Maddy had a fever and was really tired. If she didn’t get better, we would have to get off the trail. I didn’t want to get off. I brought her stuffed animal to her, and I tried to make her a stick doll. 

How would you say the trail has affected you as a family? 

Dave: Our experience is that hiking the AT strengthens the trust between us as family members. Organizations like Outward Bound were founded on the premise that spending time together outdoors builds teamwork and community, strengthens relationships. I think there’s something to this. You get the great and the hard all together. You learn what someone’s really like. You forgive the things that annoy you, because they’re there with you. And you appreciate the great things they bring to the family. 

As parents, we got a better sense of the scale of things in our children’s lives. When your kids are in school all day, they’re holding it together in front of authority figures and other kids, and saving their down moments for parents. If we spend an hour and half together at the end of their schoolday and my workday, and they complain for most of it, that’s a high percentage of our time together. But if they complain for an hour and a half on the trail, we’re still together the other twenty-two and a half hours. We got a higher percentage of their good times. 

We also saw something really remarkable in their interactions with other people along the trail. It’s unusual in society for adults to interact with a kid on a peer-to-peer level. In school, kids are age-stratified by grade. Adults don’t always know how to talk with young kids without talking down to them. On the AT, you’re hiking the same trail, doing the same things. It was easy for our children to talk to other hikers about their experiences on the trail. They had hours for long conversations about books, or to listen to someone’s life story, or learn a game or a skill. Both kids matured in the way they interacted with adults. 

How does it feel to be done? What has the transition been like? 

Maddy: It was a bit of a weird transition, but now things are pretty much back to normal. 

Emily: Now that we’re back, I have to keep really busy. After the relentlessness of life on the trail, I get antsy if I’m not doing something. I jumped right back in to our life here, mowing, weeding, cleaning, getting our life back in working order. 

We’ve gone from being together 24 hours a day to having separate lives. But even without the daily closeness, we’re more of a team now. We have more group discussions. That is something that happened on the trail, and it’s carried over at home. 

Dave: Life is much crazier than when we just got up and walked each day. 

It’s been a very different transition than what we had after our hike in 2002. In 2002, we had to ask ourselves what came next. This time, we jumped right back into existing lives. I returned to my job [as a lawyer with Drummond Woodsum], Emily went back to running the family farm, and Nathan and Maddy had school to come back to. It’s crazy how quickly we’ve gotten used to being back in our old lives. 

This past weekend, we went back to Katahdin. The family that we started the trail with was finishing their hike. We saw a lot of the hikers we’d been on the trail with. It had been only three weeks since we were on the summit, but I was already an outsider in that world. It becomes a happy memory very quickly. 

Do you have any gear tips or suggestions for families considering long hikes like the AT? 

Emily: Research your gear. Light packs make a difference. Maddy’s pack weighed about 4 pounds, Nathan’s 8 or 9. My pack was between 20 and 25 pounds, Dave’s between 30 and 35. Our group weight was light enough that we could take the kids’ packs if they needed the break. That made a huge difference in morale. 

Dave: If I have one piece of gear advice, it’s to err on the side of bringing less. 

We had a modular approach to gear throughout the hike. At different times and in different combinations we used a one-tarp tent that we set up using trekking poles, a tent for two people, and hammocks for the kids. We could send cold-weather gear home and get it back when it cooled down again. 

We were also efficient with space. Our “four-person tent” was billed as a two-person tent; Nathan slid in next to us, and Maddy was small enough to sleep perpendicular to the rest of us. Emily and I have quilt-style sleeping bags that lend themselves to a layering system. 

When you hike with kids, they’re going to grow out of things along the trail. The economics of gear also changes for a long hike. We were willing to invest in fixed-torso backpacks for both kids because they were going to wear them every day for five months. 

Emily: We’ve promised to put a gear list up on our blog with more information. 

What advice would you give other children and other families who are interested in the AT or other long hikes? 

Maddy: Just try it. See if you might be able to. 

Nathan: Keep going. Get out and backpack with your family as much as you can. 

Emily: Don’t overplan. All your plans will change. 

There’s really no difference in kind between the AT and shorter backpacking trips. The skills you need to backpack for a week are the same as for one month or more, though the length does change some things. Just don’t get discouraged. 

Thru-hiking is not for every family. It’s logistically difficult. People can have a really hard time with the pace. A thru-hike is not a good choice if you want to stop often, hang out by a lake, or have more downtime with your family. Injuries make it really tough. The experience is very different for different people. 

Everyone can get out and enjoy nature. Don’t be constrained by what seems right for other families. My advice is to find what’s right for you. 

To read more about the Kallins' thru-hike, visit their blog at kallinfamily.com

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog. This post was written by Kristen Laine. 

(Photographs courtesy of the Kallin family.)

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Building a Fort with Kids: 6 steps to make a nature-friendly structure

Lisa Gilbert grew up building forts in her backyard with neighborhood kids. Now that she’s co-coordinator of AMC’s A Mountain Classroom, her backyard is a national forest and the children she’s building with arrive by car or bus. As she leads programs out of the Highland Center and Cardigan Lodge, she’s infusing fort-building with environmental purpose, teaching children about habitats and ecosystems and about how to “leave no trace” when they head back home.

“It’s a good way to get them to explore,” she says. “They love looking for materials, and thinking about how nests, dens, burrows, and other homes are built.”

Here are her suggestions for constructing a nature-friendly fort.
  1. Location, Location, Location. When out in the woods, pick a spot that is not visible from the trail so you don’t affect other hikers’ views. Find an area with packed dirt so you have less effect on wildflowers and other plants. And stay 200 feet away from water (Gilbert recommends “80 adult steps or 100 kids’ steps” as an easy way to measure this). Also, try to avoid blocking animal nests or burrows, so that parent animals aren’t kept from their young. To make sure a site is good, “We have kids get down on the ground, look up in the trees, look all around,” Gilbert says. 
  2. A Strong Foundation. Within your general area, find a spot that will be good for building. “I like to look for a big boulder or a fallen log you can lean it all on, in a lean-to way,” Gilbert says. “That’s easier than freestanding.” 
  3. Dead and Down. Tell children to collect only natural objects that are already “dead and down” on the ground—no pulling bark off trees or picking flowers. Set a boundary for the area in which kids can gather their material. If you intend to ask them to put things back in the same spots later, get them thinking now about where they found that big stick. Also ask children to look in different directions, so they spread out and don’t beat a trail into the earth. 
  4. Build and Decorate. Once the children have created a basic lean-to with fallen branches leaning on a rock or tree, encourage them to find beautiful decorations for the entryway: special leaves, rocks with glittering mica, or sticks with patterns left by bark beetles, for example. 
  5. Move-In Time. Let the kids try out their creation and talk about how different it is from the habitats they usually live in. For a group of eight kids, Gilbert says you need a “long, skinny fort”: “They crawl in and sit with their knees to their chins to see if they all can fit.” 
  6. Leave No Trace. Once you’re done playing, involve the children in dismantling their own fort. Sometimes this can be after a few days, sometimes after a few hours. It’s important to explain that all the materials are part of the habitat for the area’s wildlife—that “salamanders are literally living under those sticks,” as Gilbert says—so leaving the area disturbed may affect them. Once the main materials are scattered, kids should “fluff the duff”—gently scatter and fluff up the pine needles and leaves that have been flattened by human feet. “That can be a game in itself—trying to make it so no one knows you were there.” 
Gilbert’s tips reflect her own experience in the mountains, but she emphasizes that “this is something you can do anywhere.” When she built forts as a kid, she sometimes used an old piece of plywood or a plastic chair, or a tarp for a wall. Families might also add large cardboard boxes to a structure. “You can fit it to whatever you have,” she says. “If you aren’t in a big forest, it’s going to be hard to find enough dead and down materials.”

Photo by iStock.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog, written by Heather Stephenson.

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