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.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Encouraging Young Shutterbugs—Outdoor Photography for Kids

Like many children, my 4-year-old daughter loves the tactility of my iPhone, especially swiping back and forth through the photo albums and studying each image, however mundane.

It seems natural, then, as Mabel’s dexterity with the camera grows, to encourage her to experiment with her own visual interpretations of life, to give her an additional outlet—and some of the ownership young children so crave—for storytelling. And where better to foster this than in the outdoors, where muses abound and a child’s curiosity is peaked?

Whether you are the parent of a preschooler, like Mabel, or a 10-year-old, there are some simple steps you can take to encourage these young shutterbugs:
  • Discover what they consider most interesting to photograph. Is it a flower alongside the trail, the scaly bark of a tree, a panoramic vista? Why? If your child is drawn to a flower’s petals, suggest that she consider how best to capture the petals. This provides a focal point and opportunities for experimentation. 
  • Be patient. Your shutterbug may want to stop on the trail more often than you’d like when inspiration strikes. It won’t always be the money shot from the summit that catches his eye, but what does will expand his interpretation and appreciation of the natural world. 
  • Provide some basic guidance that can have immediate impact on photo quality:
    • Stand with the light behind you.
    • Move the camera (yourself) instead of zooming in on an object. If you can walk up to the object, the picture’s resolution will be better than using the zoom—particularly on a smart phone.
    • Remember to take advantage of the whole frame. Holding the phone in portrait mode is better for objects that are tall and thin, while landscape is preferable for shorter, wider objects or scenes.
    • People or objects needn’t be centered. Try positioning them in different parts of the frame for more dynamic shots.
    • Remember that it is incredibly difficult to photograph moving objects, animals or people…even professionals photographers take blurry shots. It may be less frustrating to start with immobile subjects and work up to motion.
  • Celebrate your child’s creativity and efforts by printing her photos or creating an album that she can then share with family, friends, or classmates. Stories of her adventures will not only provide new avenues of connection but also reinforce the shutterbug instinct. 
For now, Mabel seems most intent on having the lens pointed at her, rather than away, but I’m happy to start with selfies and see where that may lead.

Have your kids (or you) taken some great photos this past year? Consider entering them in AMC’s photo contest, which is open until October 1, 2014. For more information, and to enter, visit outdoors.org/photocontest.

Read more about photography:
Photograph by iStock.

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

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Berkshires with Kids: 4 great outdoor adventures


Bring your family to the Berkshires of western Massachusetts for bountiful summer wildflowers, rambling hikes and bicycle rides, and real dinosaur footprints that will fascinate young T. rex fans. Here are four suggestions for your next outdoor getaway. 

Ice Glen and Laura’s Tower, Stockbridge 
Author Nathaniel Hawthorne called Ice Glen, which is just southeast of the village of Stockbridge, “the most curious fissure in all Berkshire.” This gorge of boulders, caves, and spectacular trees—including hemlocks more than 300 years old and white pines reaching 200 feet—holds pockets of ice into summer. It can be 25 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than a shaded spot in the nearby parking lot, so consider bringing an extra layer to wear. While not a large place—the ravine is less than a quarter-mile long—it is magical. “Truck- and cabin-sized boulders are green with moss and topped by ferns,” writes Rene Laubach in Best Day Hikes in the Berkshires. “It is so cool that atmospheric moisture condenses to form an eerie ground fog.” Laura’s Tower, a sturdy, 30-foot tower with a steel staircase to its viewing platform, can be visited by a spur trail and offers near-panoramic views. Access to the trails is free. There are no restrooms at the trailheads. 

Dinosaur Footprints, Holyoke 
Kim Foley MacKinnon, author of Outdoors with Kids Boston, says, “For younger kids or dinosaur lovers, Dinosaur Footprints is worth a visit. The unlikely location, next to a busy highway, boasts more than 100 fossilized footprints preserved in sandstone.” There’s no fee to visit this Trustees of Reservations property, which is open from April through November and offers at least half an hour of exploration (more if you have rabid dinosaur fans in your group). There are no bathrooms. 

Ashuwillticook Rail Trail, Lanesborough, Cheshire, and Adams 
This popular rail trail is a good option for parents pushing strollers, families riding bicycles or looking for an easy walk, and birders who come early in the day. The stretch from Lanesborough to Cheshire and back offers a flat 7.4-mile ride or hike, with the Cheshire end providing benches, picnic tables, and a restroom building along the shore of the Cheshire Reservoir. The trail runs between the Mount Greylock and the Hoosac Mountain ranges and alongside the Cheshire Reservoir, the Hoosic River, and associated wetlands, which provide habitat for abundant wildlife. Laubach recommends looking for mallards, wood ducks, Canada geese, red-winged blackbirds, painted turtles, various species of frogs, and perhaps a great blue heron. The starting point for the southern end of the trail is near the entrance to the Berkshire Mall, and a restroom building and kiosk will greet you. Access is free. 

High Ledges Wildlife Sanctuary, Shelburne, and the Bridge of Flowers, Shelburne Falls 
MacKinnon recommends High Ledges, a Mass Audubon sanctuary, for a hike. It’s famous for its large numbers of wildflowers in season, as well as more than 20 species of orchids and 30 species of ferns. The one-mile Sanctuary Road Trail leads to the cliffs that give the location its name. Exercise caution at the top. Your kids may enjoy the lovely views of Deerfield Valley and Mount Greylock. Visitors are asked to make a small donation; Mass Audubon members may enter for free. There are no bathrooms. Nearby in Shelburne Falls, MacKinnon recommends the Bridge of Flowers, an “unusual attraction” that is open to pedestrians (but not dogs) for free from April to October. A former trolley bridge, the structure was transformed into a pedestrian garden by the local women’s club in the 1920s. You can find numerous eateries nearby. 

Learn More 

Explore five more family-friendly hikes and rambles in the Berkshires.
Enjoy geocaching, hiking trails, and art in Williamstown. 
Read about Tanglewood with kids.

Photo by Jerry and Marcy Monkman

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

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Nature Games and Other Strategies to Keep Young Hikers Happy


Leading kids through the woods requires more than a map and compass. You also need enthusiasm and creativity to keep things fun for young hikers, whether they’re preschoolers who tire easily or older children who claim they’re bored.

Try these strategies to keep kids interested when out on the trail. 

Active Play

Walk This Way: Make walking itself a game by walking like different animals or characters. “We did the monster walk for a while,” says Chandreyee Lahiri, a GIS specialist for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation who recently led her 7-year-old son and some friends on a 7-mile walk against hunger. “Then one parent said, ‘Now we’re all walking like zombies.’” Try scuttling like a crab, lumbering like an elephant, or pounding your chest like a gorilla. You can invite each child to act out a different animal, which others can guess, charades-style, or have a group of kids form one large animal together.

Geology in Motion: To set up this game, first teach the kids that a convergent fault is when two tectonic plates collide and can create large mountain ranges like the Himalayas, and that divergent faults are when two tectonic plates move apart and can create volcanic islands. Then, every time you call out “convergent fault,” the kids have to run together in groups of two. When you call out “divergent fault,” they must run apart. “It gets them moving,” says Leah Titcomb, Coos County (New Hampshire) education coordinator for the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC). “It helps them learn while breaking up the hike.” Another example? When she teaches kids about water cycles, she calls “runoff” and the kids have to run to the lowest point they can see within a 10-foot radius.

Camouflage: For this version of hide-and-seek, designate an area in the woods for some of the kids to camouflage themselves, then let the others find them. “This helps children think about how animals try to fit into the landscape,” says Nancy Ritger, a longtime naturalist as well as huts and Cardigan program manager for AMC. “They can crouch down low, hide behind a tree, or lie down in leaves.”

Observation Games

Deer Ears: You can draw kids’ attention to their five senses, and the importance of using them in the wild, through this game. Start by asking kids to listen with their “deer ears,” recommends Susan Brown, the youth and family outdoor community coordinator for AMC: Cup your hands around your ears to listen to what’s in front of you, or cup them backward to hear what’s behind you better, imitating the way deer shift their ears to hear. Notice all the sounds that are usually covered by hikers’ chatter. Then look with “owl eyes,” forming binoculars with your hands to imitate owls’ fixed, forward-facing eyes, and turning all around. Using your “snake tongue,” try tasting the air, seeing which way the wind is blowing, and sensing the temperature. Tiptoe on your “fox feet” to approach and observe birds and other animals along the trail. And use your “dog nose” to smell bark and leaves. Brown encourages kids to wet their nostrils with a bit of water from their water bottles, to make them moist like dog noses. She claims it improves your sense of smell, but it’s also just fun.

Meet a Tree: For this game, form pairs (either two children or a child and an adult, depending on the ages in your group) and blindfold one person in each pair. The partner who can see leads the blindfolded person to a tree (within a designated area) and helps him or her get to know that tree. “They can feel around it, smell it, try to learn as much as possible about the tree and its environment,” Brown says. Then the partner leads the blindfolded person back to the trail by a slightly meandering route. Take the blindfolds off and let each person try to find “their” tree.

Camera: Ritger recommends this game, in which you form pairs, and designate one person in each pair the camera, and the other person the photographer. Have the “cameras” close their eyes (or use blindfolds), while the photographers set each up by walking with them, turning them, or asking them to crouch to face a particular view. When the photographer taps the camera on the head, the camera opens his or her eyes for three seconds to take in the view, then closes them and is brought to another location. At the end of a set time, everyone gathers and talk about the “photos” they took. What did the photographers notice and why? Did the cameras observe more keenly when they were given just three seconds to look?

Responsible Roles

Silent Cooperation: Ritger recommends having each member of your group carry one part of lunch. For example, one child can carry bread, another peanut butter, another jelly, and a fourth the knife. When you stop for lunch, challenge the team by announcing that they are responsible for making the group’s sandwiches—without talking. This activity makes nonverbal communication urgent and the payoff is sweet.

Trash Collectors
: Bring a bag and ask children to pick up trash while on a local walk. “It gives them something to spot—something to keep their heads and hands busy,” Lahiri says. “Plus it makes the path better for those who follow you.”


Learn More


Photo by Herb Swanson

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

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Julia & Charlotte’s Big Adventure

Two first-aid kits are spread on the hood of my friend’s car and we’re trying to decide what we should pull from each for our three-day hike along the Appalachian Trail from Connecticut into Massachusetts. Julia, my friend’s 7-year-old daughter, and I are looking at a rolled-up ACE bandage.

“Do you think we’ll need that?” I ask.

“I don’t know how crazy this [trip] is—I’ve never done this before!” she says, slightly exasperated by my question.

I’ve never done this either—if “this” means backpacking with kids. Julia and her sister Charlotte, who is about to turn 6, have car-camped before, and they did a one-night backpack a year ago. But three days, two nights, and 15 miles on the AT will be a challenge.

The girls are slow to warm up to the hike, frequently asking when our next break will be. I'm not sure we'll ever cover 5 miles—let alone repeat that each day. But then they start to find a rhythm and tune into their surroundings. “It’s a mushroom!” Charlotte says, pointing to something growing on a tree trunk. “FUNGUS!” her sister affirms. We approach a downed birch tree and Charlotte says she thought it was a zebra.

We snap smart-phone photos of wildflowers and salamanders, and that night at camp the girls try to sketch them. On our first night, Julia and Charlotte want to write a story about the trip, which began a day earlier, shortly after their mom left town on a business trip. “How should we start it?” one of them asks.

“The moment Mom’s car left, we got so excited!” Julia says. “We sprang into action!”

“Mom’s not going to like this!” my friend says.

I ask them if they have any advice for other hiking families, and they quickly rattle off a mixture of textbook hiking tips and wonderfully youthful observations. Here’s a list of their advice, compiled on the trail and in a conversation following the trip:


Julia & Charlotte’s Hiking Tips 


  1. Take some breaks on the trail. 
  2. You should probably make some trail mix. 
  3. Be patient with your kids. 
  4. Definitely have a first-aid kit. 
  5. Bring avocados—but make sure they’re not too hard. 
  6. You might need two adults for two kids. 
  7. You should probably start a conversation to keep your kids entertained. Like if you see something cool, tell them. 
  8. If the kids want, use hiking poles, because it’s very broomy. 
  9. However: Hiking poles aren’t the best thing for the underground world. 
  10. Bring something to do in camp—like writing a story. 
  11. If you write a story, ask the kids to draw the pictures. 
  12. Take pictures of what you want to draw. 
  13. Look closely at things so you can see baby things—like baby salamanders. 
  14. Bring camp shoes. 
  15. Bring survival stuff. 
  16. Probably let your kids stay up later than they usually do. 
  17. Bring extra food in case you get stuck out there, or your stove breaks. 
  18. Have s’mores (“Put that last,” they insist.) 

I’m amazed by how much they’ve picked up from their dad—or simply figured out on their own. He'd told them about Leave No Trace, generally, and here Julia was already extrapolating that into the impact of her hiking poles.

Over the three days both girls have moments of fatigue and conviction that they have to stop—but within minutes they are usually on the move again. Those incidents are easily outnumbered by their mature observations. And as we spend more time in the woods, it’s interesting to see which experiences they most often bring up. They're the seemingly small ones, seeing the salamanders, or spotting a new variety of wildflower. These tiny moments seem to captivate their imaginations even more than summit views and waterfalls.

On the final day, along the last stretch of trail, we talk about kid stuff. Their favorite cartoons, which I’ve never heard of; my favorite cartoons, which they’ve never seen. Candy. Toys. Movies. Finally the parking lot comes into view through the trees. We’re all eager for a real meal and our own beds. Julia sums things up perfectly: “That was fun and hard at the same time,” she says.



This post was written by Marc Chalufour, senior editor of AMC Outdoors.

Photos by Marc Chalufour.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

New Backyard Games for Kids: Contest Encourages Creating Your Own

Do you and your kids like to dream up new backyard games? Or are you stuck in a rut and need some
fresh ideas?

In either case, the CLIF Backyard Game of the Year contest has something for you.

If you’re a kid who has invented a game, you can submit it by July 3 for the chance to win a $10,000 scholarship.

On the contest’s website, you can find all this year’s entries, plus finalists from previous years. In other words: lots of new games to play. If your favorite makes it to the top three, you can vote for it through a related Facebook page.

All the games are meant to be played outside by two or more kids ages 6 to 12 and do not require fancy equipment. Here are a few examples to whet your appetite:

Nature Rainbow Hunters: In this spin on I-Spy, submitted by a 7-year-old, kids race to find natural objects in the colors of the rainbow (red-orange-yellow-green-blue-indigo-violet, although the young inventor leaves out indigo for reasons unexplained). You can play this game as a group or individual kids can compete to see who’s fastest.

Treasure Map: This game, submitted by a 6-year-old, requires paper, crayons or other drawing materials, a small shovel (I’d say this is optional), and a small treasure for each player to hide. As you might guess, each child has a chance to hide his or her treasure (while others are distracted) and draw a treasure map to it, along with providing a clue. The kids swap treasure maps and search for each other’s treasures.

Nature to Nature: In this matching game, submitted by a 10-year-old, one child first selects a natural object from the area (for example, a fallen leaf, a shell on the seashore, or a twig in the woods). He or she then shows it to everyone else for 10 seconds. The other players then have to the count of 100 to find something else that matches the first object. Whoever finds the closest match gets to choose the next object.

(Photograph by Stephanie Platt.)

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Pooh Sticks: Or, How to Investigate a Stream with Kids

When I get to a bridge while hiking, I like to stop and gaze at the water. My daughter, not so much. At 4, she is more interested in action.

That’s why I was delighted to be reminded of the game “Pooh sticks” when talking with Susan Brown, the youth and family outdoor community coordinator for AMC. We were discussing other trail games and I didn’t ask much about Pooh sticks. I thought I remembered it perfectly from reading the A.A. Milne books to my daughter.

The rules, I thought:
Like Winnie the Pooh, you drop a stick from the upstream side of a bridge, then walk to the other side to see it moving downstream with the current. Right? Easy! (Just remember not to break sticks off of living trees. Gather fallen ones off the ground.)

The wrinkle I found
:
I tried this game the next time I was hiking with my daughter. And the next time. In both cases, although it was spring, the low bridges we crossed passed over such tiny creeks that my daughter’s stick got stuck on rocks and never made it to the other side. But it didn’t really matter. Just having a reason to go hunting for a stick and dropping it down, talking about the current and which way it was headed, gave us a pretext for staying near the water longer and observing how it gurgled and flowed. Perfect.

The real rules:
When I got home, I investigated more and realized that Pooh sticks is actually a more competitive sport than my version. Two or more players are meant to drop their sticks, and see which one comes out the other side first. The person whose stick is faster wins.

The even more competitive version
:
I also discovered that the World Pooh Sticks Championships have been held annually in Great Britain since the 1980s. With individuals and teams competing, the championship draws a quirky crowd and raises money for charity. With all the hubbub, you might not get so much time for nature study, but it still sounds fun.

However you play, I recommend giving Pooh sticks a try. After that, if sticks are plentiful, you may want to build a house like Eeyore’s.


Photo by Heather Stephenson

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

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