Friday, April 30, 2010

No chore at all

I had to miss the end of the kids’ spring vacation last week for a business trip, but Jim sent me daily emails to keep me up on what was happening at home. On Sunday night, the last day of vacation, he wrote that Ursula had needed a day of rest at the end of a busy week.

“She slept in,” he wrote me that night after the kids were in bed. “She read on the couch in the living room, had nothing to run to or people to see. Eventually she got tired of doing nothing, and went outside in the warm spring sunshine. She climbed a tree, walked down to the pond and looked for crayfish and salamanders. She’d spent hours doing those things earlier in the week — but they weren’t as fun without friends, and eventually she joined me out on the front lawn, where I was bent over a couple of saw horses and two pairs of wooden canoe paddles in need of touching-up with varnish.”

Ursula asked Jim what he was doing. “It was a Tom Sawyer moment,” Jim wrote, “and I seized it.” Within minutes, he had Ursula roughing up the paddles with sandpaper and laying on thin coats of spar varnish and he was walking down to the barn to retrieve the wood-and-canvas canoe. A few spots on the gunwales were showing wear, and Jim figured that as long he had the varnish and brushes out, and Ursula was willing…

They did two rounds’ worth on the paddles and a round of sanding and varnishing of the canoe’s gunwales and thwarts, ate tuna fish sandwiches on the porch, picked up some downed limbs in the field, raked a few piles of leaves, and split some wood together — all the while listening to the Red Sox-Orioles game over the car radio from Fenway Park.

Last night, with me back home, Jim and I were talking about getting the kids to do more chores around the house. He remembered last Sunday’s long afternoon with Ursula. He hadn’t thought of it as a teaching moment at the time. But coming back to it, he recognized lessons: that things made of wood need maintaining, that firewood put up in April comes back to warm you in November and December, that spring cleaning in the country can also mean cleaning up after a winter of storms. He realized, too, that the afternoon taught him something, or at least reminded him of something that’s easy for parents to forget — that working together with your kids, side by side, on something real that matters, creates a special kind of bond. More, it offers a glimpse of a maturing relationship.

Soon, we’ll have another warm afternoon when nothing seems pressing. The beds will be made and bathrooms cleaned. Jim will ask Ursula if she’d like to take the canoe out on the pond, and she’ll say yes. I think that when she dips her paddle into the water, she’ll feel an extra measure of satisfaction and pleasure, a sense of having earned it.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Hut, Hut, Hut!

“Our job is to enjoy the mountains and help others do the same.”

That lovely quote is from George Heinrichs, hutmaster at Greenleaf Hut for the 2010 summer season, who I profiled here last month. His quote appears in a round-up of the season’s hutmasters for the eight AMC huts. (Read the round-up and other articles about the huts in AMC Outdoors.)

Such a simple sentiment, really: “Our job is to enjoy the mountains.” I know George is referring to his work in the huts. But when I read his words at the top of Heather Stephenson’s publisher’s note, I suddenly had an urge to head into the alpine zone myself. I’m at a different stage of life than George and the other hut croo, but Jim and I and the kids can still spend a day or two at the high hotels called huts that stretch roughly a day's hike apart from each other along the Appalachian Trail over the peaks of the White Mountains.

I went online and realized that plenty of other people have already felt this urge. I’m not saying the huts are full . . . yet. But there are already stretches, looking at July and August, when one or another hut is full up on Saturday night, or for several days in a row even midweek. It’s a reminder to me that if we want to see George in his glory this summer, or any of the other hut croo, we’d better get going.

You, too.

Learn more

Read "The Hut Life" and "Meet the 2010 Hutmasters" in AMC Outdoors (May/June 2010).
Check availability and make reservations in all AMC huts and lodges.

Photo credit: Kids playing near Madison Spring Hut. Herb Swanson, courtesy of AMC.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Do kids really need nature? Critiquing the No Child Left Inside movement.

The current issue of AMC Outdoors includes an article I wrote about the movement spawned by Richard Louv’s 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods. If you’ve heard of “nature deficit disorder,” a phrase from the book’s subtitle, or “No Child Left Inside,” a rallying cry that plays on the common name for the federal education funding act (No Child Left Behind), then you know something about the movement to reconnect children with nature.

The movement is so successful that it’s starting to spawn some criticism. The most recent issue of Brain, Child, “the magazine for thinking mothers,” contains a lengthy critique of both the book and the movement. In “Guilt Trip into the Woods: Do Kids Really Need Nature?,” writer Martha Nichols wonders if the movement is essentially conservative, against social change, and rooted in a “largely white, privileged value system.”

There’s a sentimental streak in Louv’s book, as he acknowledges. Louv grew up in 1950s suburban America and cherishes an historical moment that just happens to coincide with his own childhood, a time when children didn’t typically work on farms or in factories, and when childhood outdoors play was made possible by legions of stay-at-home mothers. As Nichols points out, childhood hasn’t always been suburban or idyllic.

Like Nichols, I bristled at Louv’s blanket dismissal of parental fears about the dangers in letting children roam outside as freely as in previous generations. Vehicle traffic on residential streets has increased substantially over the last three decades, and the safety net provided by those mothers at home no longer exists. Louv doesn’t fully acknowledge the realistic concerns of today’s parents for their children’s safety.

Nichols makes a persuasive case that Louv also doesn’t address the tension between his belief that children need outdoors childhoods and the enormous changes in family life and communities over the last half-century brought about by the wholesale entrance of women into the workforce. As Nichols notes, without a forthright discussion of the challenges facing working mothers, we aren’t really talking about the issues facing families and children.

She also argues that Louv sets younger generations against older generations in his concern about media use among children. Returning to her own childhood, Nichols describes spending “many summer afternoons taping our own science-fiction radio show” with her brother and the creative influences of Star Trek reruns. In her view, it doesn’t matter whether kids learn to tinker by building forts or by playing around with HTML code; or whether they learn independence and use their imaginations in outdoor play or by creating videos. The basic lessons are what’s important.

This criticism strikes me as a useful one for all environmental and outdoor organizations to consider. But even though Nichols cites a Kaiser Family Foundation report showing that kids “consume media an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes a day,” seven days a week, she seems strangely unconcerned about the sheer amount of time that children are spending with media. (See "How much TV is too much?") Beyond legitimate and well-documented concerns about obesity, attention deficit disorders, and other problems that have been attributed to too much screen time, the point ringingly made by Louv and others is that 50 hours a week in front of TVs, computers, and the like threatens to change more than childhood.

Louv’s concern is that children who spend their childhoods predominantly in virtual or created worlds will not become adults who care about the natural world. We don’t know that they won’t, but we do know that the biggest predictor of whether an adult actively cares about the environment is whether that adult spent time playing and exploring outdoors as a child.

Nichols’ sharpest and broadest critique sets Nature against Multiculturalism, conservatism and privilege against difference and diversity. Early in her article, Nichols writes, “As a feminist and white adoptive mom of an Asian son I’m disturbed by the belief that what’s ‘natural’ is always best for kids.” But her sensitivity as an adoptive mother possibly leads her to misread both Louv and the movement his book has helped create. When Louv uses the word “nature,” he’s not choosing sides in the nature-nurture debate: he simply means green, living things; ditches and sandlots; air and water and dirt.

Fundamentally, it seems to me that Louv isn’t a conservative. He’s an idealist, a utopian. He wants today’s children — whether they’re Asian or white, adopted or not, city or suburban, rich or poor — to make real connections to the planet they live on.

There should be room for individual parents to make choices that they think are best for their children, including taking them to cities instead of to trailheads, letting them explore virtual worlds more than natural ones, finding a balance that feels right for parent and child. That said, most parents would agree that we nurture what we love. Louv’s movement is for nurturing a love of the natural world. I’m with him.

Learn more

• Read the article on Richard Louv and the No Child Left Inside movement, and more, in AMC Outdoors (May/June 2010).
• Read “Guilt Trip into the Woods” in Brain, Child (Spring 2010).

Image by Wordle.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Outdoors Parents, Outdoors Kids, the book

I don’t know Eugene Buchanan, author of Outdoors Parents, Outdoors Kids, but I feel as though I do. He reminds me of certain men I’ve skied with, or hiked or climbed with, over the years.

Before Buchanan became the father of two daughters, he was a classic over-achieving outdoors guy — and an outdoors guy who was making a living writing about his adventures. He paddled rivers all over the world and wrote about them as editor of Paddler magazine. He also worked as a ski patroller, raft guide, and kayak instructor. After his first daughter was born, his wife staged a photo for the birth announcement: a jumble of climbing ropes, surfboards, mountain bikes, skis, and kayaks with a giant For Sale sign sticking out of it.

Buchanan soft-pedals his hard-core credentials in Outdoor Parents, Outdoor Kids. But his message is pitched to fellow adrenaline junkies, assuring them that they can continue to ski the deeps, paddle whitewater, and ride gnarly single-track, even with kids.

This is both the book’s strength and its weakness. Buchanan narrates his family’s adventures in nine sports, one per chapter. Some would more aptly be called misadventures (the gear that got left behind, the ski trip that started with getting the car stuck in a snowbank). But all turn into fun, fun, fun and closer bonding between parent and child. Alongside the stories, Buchanan offers tips on gear (lots of gear) and games to play with kids.

I can imagine Outdoor Parents, Outdoor Kids inspiring new parents who wonder if they’ll be able to continue their serious outdoors pursuits. It’s clear that Buchanan loves sharing what he loves with his children, and his pleasure is infectious.

But it seemed to me that there was another, more interesting, and more reflective story lurking beneath the relentlessly go-for-it surface of the book. That story would include the perspective of Denise, Eugene’s wife and the mother of their two daughters. Denise Buchanan appears in almost cartoonish form in her husband’s book, usually as a voice of caution that her husband ignores, and occasionally in the form of a glare, which he also ignores. By ignoring his wife’s concerns, at least in print if not actually in real life, Buchanan misses an opportunity to explore a key part of outdoor parenting, and that’s how parents negotiate such potentially fraught issues as safety and limits. As a result, the book he’s written isn’t for partners so much as it’s for a certain kind of outdoor dad.

Buchanan wrote that the message behind the “For Sale sign” birth announcement was that they were determined not to put their old lives and passions up for sale. Maybe so. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the new mother who staged that photo meant something entirely different. Hearing more from that woman would have made the book truly about “Outdoor Parents.”

Learn more
The Outdoor Parents, Outdoor Kids website.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Junior Naturalist: Spring Peepers

We came home after dark the other night, the Beach Boys on the car stereo — Ursula’s choice. I turned off the engine and opened the door to another chorus: spring peepers.

Spring peepers are almost impossible to see — they’re only about the size of a paper clip — but get a couple hundred of them together, and they’re impossible to miss. Every year, their nighttime music trumpets the news that the vernal pools and wetlands are free of ice and open for partying. Like teenagers at a rock concert, the more of them that gather together in those wet, marshy areas, the louder and rowdier they become.

The male frogs are the ones responsible for the din. They make their high-pitched “peep, peep, peep” by inflating their throat sac. Scientists have discovered that they often compete with each other in trios. The best singer, which in the Peeper Idol competition means the frog that croaks highest and most aggressively, has the best chance of getting the girl.

Some other interesting facts:
• The scientific name for spring peepers is Pseudacris crucifer. Crucifer means “cross,” and refers to the dark “X” on the back of the peepers we have here along the East Coast.
• You’re likely to hear peepers on a warm, wet night between March and May.
• They spend the winter under leaf litter or other protection, but are able to freeze nearly through — their hearts get pumped full of a sort of sugary anti-freeze — and thaw out again.
• After the party is over, female frogs lay clusters of as many as 1000 eggs, attaching them underwater to sticks or reeds. Each egg is no bigger than a grain of rice. The eggs hatch in about a week. Once the tadpoles lose their tails and become full-grown frogs, they leave their watery home and move into the forest.
• Spring peepers live about three years, returning each spring to the pools and ponds for another froggy Woodstock.

Learn more
Read a short description from National Geographic.
Watch this short video of a single peeper:

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Tips for Creating Outdoors Programs for Kids

Tuesday’s post about Earth Day got me thinking about environmental education. I wrote recently about Barbara Dyer, Family Trips chair for AMC’s Worcester Chapter. She is also a teacher who has found a way to incorporate her love of the outdoors in her work.

Dyer has seen the challenges that face anyone who wants more children to spend more time in the outdoors. The schedules of working families, the seductive appeal of electronic media, the pull of organized sports, anxieties about safety and dangers: All these work against getting kids outside. That makes school- and community-based programs like those that she’s started in her local schools ever more important. She says, “It takes a community of parents, teachers, environmental groups, and other adults to stimulate kids’ interest in nature-based study.”

She sent me the following ideas for involving children and teenagers in the outdoors. She wrote them with teachers and AMC volunteers in mind, but her ideas aren’t limited to those groups.

If you’re interested in getting your students outside...

• Present your ideas to your principal, faculty, and school committee.
• Partner with local conservation groups.
• Create a class using your skills, passion, and interests in the outdoors.
• “Green” is in right now, so look for funding from your AMC chapter, PTO, education foundations, retailers, local conservation organizations, and everywhere!
• Integrate the natural world into your curriculum through the use of technology. Create posters, slideshows, brochures, newsletters, video, etc.
• Bring students on field trips to environmental programs like Nature’s Classroom, AMC’s A Mountain Classroom, Stone Environmental School, and others.
• Help students create an environmental or adventure club to get kids outside.
• Join the scouts as a leader.
• Propose a chapter youth program in your chapter
• Lead by example.

I hope you’ll share your own ideas for introducing more children to the outdoors.

Learn more
• AMC programs: A Mountain Classroom, family and teen programs, Chapter activities.
Nature’s Classroom environmental education programs in New York and New England.
• Semester programs for high school juniors at the Mountain School in Vermont.
• Residential and day programs at Stone Environmental School in Massachusetts.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Teaching Kids to Clean Up — Globally

We’re coming up on Earth Day in just over a week: Thursday, April 22. The 2010 event will be our 40th annual opportunity to learn more about how to care for and protect the planet, and to teach others what we know.

Earth Day was conceived as a “teach-in” on the environment by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson and originally directed toward college students. We’d now describe the way it took hold, leading up to the first Earth Day in 1970, as “viral.”

I was 13 and in eighth grade that first Earth Day. My parents signed up all of us — the two of them, me and my three brothers — to help clean up a river near where we lived. We kids walked the shore, picking up trash, while my father joined a group of men wrestling tires and rusty, twisted objects out of the muddy water. I watched the pile of discarded appliances and old car parts grow on the riverbank, surprised that people were willing to dump such things into a river.

My mother had been training us not to litter for some years by then. “Not even a gum wrapper,” she’d tell us. If someone dropped a candy wrapper on the sidewalk — a teenage boy, say — she’d accost the fellow right on the street. I’d cringe in the background, embarrassed, while she chewed him out: “Young man, pick up that trash and put it in the trash can. This is your community, too.” I don’t know if her message got through to any of the people she admonished that way, but it certainly got through to me.

We learn best to care about where we live — whether it’s the river across the road, the main street in our community, or the whole planet — when we are young, and when our parents teach us. I still pick up trash, and I tell my children to do the same. As for telling strangers to pick up their litter, it’s a different world now. I don’t confront litterers. But I do pick up what other people drop and throw it away. And I've realized that those early lessons — the river clean-up, even the embarrassing litter lectures — led me to other actions, more education, and broader advocacy for the environment.

I don’t know what we’ll do to honor Earth Day on this, its 40th, year. I hope that whatever we do, our children will be able to look back in another 40 years and think of how it helped form their respect and care for the planet.

Learn more
Learn the history of Earth Day (AMC Outdoors March/April 2010).
Look for Earth Day events near you.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Ice Out

The ice went out on Saturday, I’m sure of it. We weren’t actually there to see the last of the winter melt away, but with temperatures forecast to reach the 80s on Saturday and knowing how thin a membrane of ice remained on the pond on Friday, I’m willing to call what I wasn’t there to see.

I should explain that I’m writing this in the middle of the night before we leave for a sun-and-sand vacation with my extended family. I may this very moment be swimming in the ocean with Jim and the kids; Ursula and Virgil may be playing in the pool with their cousins; we may be gathered around my 76-year-old father with three generations and 30 family members.

We've been taking this late-winter trip every couple of years for 20 years. (Early April usually feels like late winter this far north.) But this year, after several runs of warm, sunny days, spring has come early nearly everywhere. The big lakes near us lost their ice in March — some even in the middle of the month, which is unheard of around here. Our pond stayed frozen longer because our higher elevation, around 1,500 feet, translated into especially colder temperatures and more snow this winter. We think even the migrating birds are confused, because mallards have buzzed the pond several times over the past week.

We’ve tracked the ice-out date ever since we moved here. April 3 isn’t particularly early in our dozen years of record-keeping, though one year the ice hung on until May 4. Our friends and family couldn’t believe that late date, and their amazement made us feel northern and hardy.

Determining ice-out, at least on this pond, isn’t terribly scientific. We gauge how far the ice has pulled back from the shore, and we expect to see a fair amount of open water in the middle of the pond. When those conditions have been met, we take our first plunge off the end of the dock into the new season.

Much as we enjoy our beach vacation, we don’t like missing that moment. So earlier today, even though the ice wasn’t fully out — the middle of the pond was still a matte gray — we took advantage of the open water around the dock to jump in.

And so we did, each according to her or his personality. Virgil hollered each time and churned through the water as fast as he could back to the dock. Then he turned right around and jumped back in. Me, I went in all the way to my shins before backing out again. Ursula came up from each dunking sleek, wet-haired, and smiling, like a sea mammal glad to be back in the water.

When we return, we’ll have ducks on the pond...

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

School Lessons: Creating young environmentalists

The small central Massachusetts town of Ayer, population 7,300, has become a learning laboratory for young environmentalists, thanks to a collaboration between an AMC volunteer and an AMC staff member.

Barbara Dyer, an AMC member for 20 years, has served as Worcester Chapter chair and in other positions; since 2009, she has been the family trips chair for the chapter. Dyer is also a teacher who brings her appreciation for the natural world, and her knowledge of it, to her students.

When her own children started school, Dyer started thinking about the students in her technology classes in Ayer's middle school. She enjoyed teaching them how to use the Internet, video cameras, and editing software, but she also wanted to counteract some of the trends that were keeping her students from spending more time in the outdoors. She started setting Internet research assignments about the natural world: research a national park; research an animal; research your local green spaces. At the end of the unit, Dyer took her students to the White Mountains, where they participated in AMC's A Mountain Classroom environmental education program. Ayer students continue to participate in this program each year.

AMC Chapter Relations Manager Faith Salter, who also lives in Ayer, heard about Dyer's "nature and technology" effort around town that first year. Many of the parents had never been to the White Mountains themselves. As Salter remembers it, they "just wanted to be sure all the students returned alive." When the children came back to Ayer safe, and also excited about their outdoor experiences, word started to get around.

Dyer wanted to continue connecting students with the outdoors beyond middle school. She began teaching a separate elective at the high school that she calls Mountain Classroom. Teenagers in Dyer's class don't end their course with a three-day trip to the White Mountains. Instead, they take twice-weekly hikes nearby, expanding their understanding and appreciation of the natural world at their doorstep. Dyer says, "Many of them had no idea that a 22-mile rail trail goes right through Ayer."

In 2009, Dyer invited Salter to speak to her middle-school classes. Salter explained climate change—what it is, how it happens—using examples from everyday life. She compared the greenhouse effect to what happens inside a car on a sunny day: the heat can't pass back through the windshield (the atmosphere), which makes the inside of the car (the planet) heat up. She offered suggestions for how to "meet the climate challenge." Both Salter, the presenter, and Dyer, the teacher, wanted the students to understand that they could change the trajectory of climate change—that they could, as one of the presentation's 20 slides said, "Take small steps and make big changes."

That first experiment created new opportunities. Salter's son asked if he could give the climate change presentation to his kindergarten class, so Salter modified the slide show for a younger audience. She looked at the two presentations, for grades K-2 and 7-12, and thought it only seemed right to fill in the gap and create a version for grades 3-6.

A Girl Scout leader who'd heard about Salter's classroom visit asked her to give the climate-change presentation to girls who wanted to earn environmental leader badges. By the end of the year, Salter had shown the slides to more than 400 people, with children and teenagers nearly half of that number.

In this one town, we might see a model of how environmentalists are created. Five years after Barbara Dyer first signed her middle-school students up for AMC's A Mountain Classroom, Salter hears strong support for Dyer's program at every turn. The Ayer Education Foundation has awarded it several grants; AMC's Worcester Chapter has helped Dyer's students attend A Mountain Classroom. Students hear about the program long before they reach sixth grade, and enter Dyer's technology classes already primed to have the experience of their lives.

From that broad foundation, the students in all of Dyer's classes, across six grades and two schools, are able to understand, and then meet, environmental challenges.

Dyer makes community service a component of her classes. Her high-school students have spearheaded the school's recycling program, from presentations to the school committee on the benefits and cost savings of recycling all the way through implementation. Her middle-school students helped create a naturalist guide for a nature trail that connects to the school grounds. The guide, not surprisingly, included photos—these were kids in a technology class, after all—but it also included habitat information collected by the students.

Last year, some of Dyer's middle-school students were out working on another local trail when they met Salter. One of the students asked, "Aren't you the climate-change lady?" Salter replied that she was, and then repeated the question she'd used to end her presentation, "Tell me one thing you learned."

Rapid-fire responses came back. Turn off lights when you're not using them. Recycle. Tell other people what you know. I can do something to help.

Learn more
- AMC’s A Mountain Classroom program helps students in grades 5-12 gain a deeper understanding of the natural world. AMC has worked with thousands of students from over 75 schools across the Northeast. To learn more visit
- Read about another high school’s experience with A Mountain Classroom.
- AMC Chapter Relations Manager Faith Salter has recently revised her three climate-change presentations, drawing on an advisory committee of scientists and environmental educators. She’s created a full package of materials around the presentations for AMC volunteers, parents, teachers, scout leaders, and others to use. The package contains handouts, planning documents, and background information to answer questions that often come up in discussions. The entire package is available for download here (PPT, 8.6MB).

Photos by Barbara Dyer.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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