Thursday, September 23, 2010

“Just 20 minutes of walking…”

“Exercise your body, exercise your mind.” I’m seeing more and more articles that confirm what my father used to tell my brothers and me when we were kids. The most recent example: “The Fittest Brains” in The New York Times Magazine, on new research into exercise and kids’ intelligence.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana determined that 9- and 10-year-old children who were more fit (as measured by their performance on treadmill tests) had larger basal ganglia, a part of the brain that we rely on for “executive control” and maintaining attention. A different project by some of the same University of Illinois researchers gave another group of 9- and 10-year-old children tests involving complex memory tasks, and measured other parts of their brains, including the hippocampus. Researchers found that fitter children had “heftier hippocampi,” in writer Gretchen Reynolds’ phrase.

In other words, it appears that aerobic exercise stimulates the brain and makes kids smarter. Even very small amounts of exercise: Other studies, also from the University of Illinois, found that “just 20 minutes of walking” before taking a test raised children’s test scores. This was true even if the children were overweight or not fit.

My father would not be surprised.

The article also mentioned a recently completed study, so new it’s not yet published, that “compared the cognitive impact in young people of running 20 minutes on a treadmill with 20 minutes of playing sports-style video games at a similar intensity.” (Think Wiis.) The runners’ test scores improved afterward. Not the video-game players’.

Virgil will be sorry to hear this last result. Maybe it’s an updated version of what my father invariably said if he caught me or my brothers watching television: “You’ll rot your mind watching that thing.”

I’ve also seen a number of articles on the value of spending time outside — again, with research showing that even small amounts provide benefits to children’s health, attention, happiness.

We seem to need these re-orientations toward what earlier generations might have called the tried and true. Just as invariably as my father would say his piece about watching TV, he’d tack on a suggestion (OK, an order): “Go outside.”

Learn more
The Fittest Brains” (Gretchen Reynolds, The New York Times Magazine, September 19, 2010)

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

Friday, September 17, 2010

Kids on the Rocks

Last year, I promised Ursula that I would teach her how to climb — “real climbing,” she insisted — outdoors, on real rocks, with ropes and harnesses and gear. It’s been a while since I’ve roped up, though. So I was glad to have a chance recently to talk to Brian Crossen, a longtime outdoor educator who teaches the basics of rock climbing through REI's instructional programs in the Northeast.

Crossen grew up near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, not far from the Appalachian Trail. Not surprisingly, he spent weekends hiking. He was introduced to climbing when he worked for a YMCA camp that had an extensive ropes course. That experience spurred his interest in climbing and led him to major in outdoor education in college. He’s taught climbing and outdoor skills to hundreds of kids and families over the years.

Even young children can enjoy climbing, he says — no surprise to anyone who’s watched kids clamber up rocks, trees, even cabinets. Crossen says that short classes on climbing walls at outdoor gear stores, fitness centers, camps, and indoor climbing gyms can be a great way to introduce children to climbing. Even if parents don’t want to learn climbing techniques themselves, Crossen has seen the value in having parental support nearby. Parents who learn along with their children are also more likely to understand and help monitor the risks involved with climbing.

Moving instruction outdoors requires young climbers to take more responsibility. A child should be able to tie into a harness using the correct knots and give the right belay commands. “At this stage,” Crossen says, “safety is the most important part.”

When Crossen teaches groups of teenagers, he works hard to create an environment in which the challenges are personal and diverse. “It’s not about getting to the top,” he emphasizes — or about how they look in front of their peers. “The goals I want them to focus on are about building up self-confidence, working with other members of their group to be successful, and supporting each other.”

Young climbers are often hungry for ways to keep climbing, Crossen has noticed. He encourages interested kids to look for youth programs in outdoor organizations and climbing gyms, which can offer excellent support in a controlled environment.

To parents, Crossen urges involvement and an emphasis on safety. “I tell them just because a kid has gone through a four-hour class doesn’t mean he’s ready to go climbing on his own.” Teenagers can sign up for summer adventure programs that include rock-climbing. At a certain point, older teens may be invited to join more experienced climbers. Here, too, though, Crossen urges parents to proceed with caution: “Is my child ready to participate in a mixed-age group?”

Brian Crossen and his wife met on the rocks; their first child is due early next year. Like me, he's likely to have a kid on the rocks before long.

Photo courtesy of REI.

Learn more
- REI offers rock-climbing instruction in the following locations in the East: Framingham, Mass.; Reading, Mass.; Philadelphia, PA; and Washington, D.C.
- EMS offers rock-climbing instruction at stores in Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia
- AMC offers numerous summer adventure options for teenagers, many of which include rock-climbing.
- AMC’s Mohican Center offers rock-climbing instruction for beginners age 18 and up, or 16 if accompanied by a parent.

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

Girls & Boys Clubs

I posted here on Wednesday about the girls-only time that Ursula and I spent together this past weekend, while Jim and Virgil were on a boys-only fishing trip. As we headed into the weekend, Jim and I weren’t thinking about it in terms of a gender split. But on Friday night, Ursula made us think again.

“Why didn’t you invite me?” she asked Jim, her eyes brimming with tears, as we cleared the plates from dinner. Something had clearly been bothering her since Jim had picked up the kids at school, but her question took both of us by surprise. Jim explained that the six-hour drive to the fishing camp made it impossible to do the trip in less than three days, and that as a 7th grader, she couldn’t take a day off school as easily as Virgil could in 3rd grade. She turned to me with a bitter expression. “Why didn’t he take me fishing when I was in 3rd grade, then?”

Why didn’t he, indeed? And why hadn’t I thought to encourage Jim to take her fishing?

Busted, I thought.

I have my own memories of feeling excluded from things my father and brothers did together, just because I was the girl. My father took my brothers on several long canoe trips when they were in high school; I never went. But the truth is more complicated than my memories. My father did ask me, once, if I wanted to come on one of their Boundary Waters trips. It didn’t even occur to me to say yes: Those canoeing trips were something the boys did, not me.

By my mid-twenties I wished I’d joined that trip, but it wasn’t until I became a parent that I understood more clearly what had happened. To my father, those canoe trips were opportunities to pass along the skills and traditions of manhood to my brothers. The same purpose underlay his efforts to teach them wood-chopping and knot-tying and drinking songs — strong, capable, confident men knew these things. But defining the canoe trips and the other skills by gender — for men, not for women — made it harder for my father to pass along the same knowledge to me, and harder for me to learn those skills from him. We both missed out on sharing the experience of something he loved.

Jim and I have worked hard to erase gender lines in what we teach our children. Both children know how to chop wood and tie knots; both know how to thread a needle and sew on a button. But we’d put his trip to the fishing camp in a guys-only category. Jim has taken this trip for years with the same group of friends, all men. It seemed natural to him, and to me, to invite Virgil when he was old enough to join them. And to leave Ursula out.

Over the weekend, Ursula continued to press her case. When Jim returned, I told him about our conversations, and my sense of her hurt feelings. He reminded me that Virgil seemed more excited about fishing than Ursula. I thought back to my own diffident adolescent self. Recent research identifies this diffidence as a form of performance anxiety in adolescent girls. Teenage girls need to know it’s safe to try something new. Maybe Ursula has appeared less interested in learning to fish because she’s afraid of not doing it well, I told him.

Ursula’s sense of injustice and exclusion reminds me of what we risk losing if we maintain gender lines simply because they’ve always been there. We can explain the tradition of men’s fishing camps and men- or women-only trips; we can make room for girls-only and boys-only weekends in our family. I thought back to the weekend, seeing Ursula reading in the hammock and sliding along the slack line. We want to support her in what she is already drawn to, I realized, but also in learning new skills — fly fishing, learning a language, playing an instrument — that she’ll be glad for later in life. Most of all, we don’t want to miss the chance to share with each other what makes us happy.

I thought of what I most regret about never going on a canoe trip with my father. "Ursula will feel that she’s missed out if she doesn’t go fishing with you," I told Jim, "because it’s something you love." It’s a way of saying I love you, on both sides.

"How about next weekend?" he asked.

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

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


It was girls-only time here at Orange Pond last weekend. Jim and Virgil left early Saturday morning for Virgil’s first overnight fishing trip, heading up to Maine with two of Jim’s longtime fishing buddies. Ursula had just come home herself from an overnight trip, a three-day outdoor program with her middle school. She extracted a promise from me that we wouldn’t even set foot in the car on Saturday.

The day itself was a perfect pause — no longer summer’s heat and haze, not quite the crisp coolness of true autumn, just clear blue skies and enough warmth to pull on shorts and a T-shirt without thinking. At first, Ursula and I went our separate ways, puttering. After a while, she came in and asked me to help her find materials for a slack line (like a tightrope, except mere inches off the ground, and loose — slack). I gathered that she’d tried a slack line at the outdoor center during her three days there, although circus camp over the summer may have played a role, too.

We dug around in my old climbing gear to find several lengths of webbing, and I taught her how to tie the ends together using a water knot. Then she wandered off, webbing and ropes in hand. An hour or so later, she came and found me again, and led me outside to a stand of trees where she’d set up the line. She slid back and forth on the one-inch-wide strand of webbing, arms outstretched, graceful, intent, happy.

We slid into the afternoon. I was in my office, cleaning and organizing in the bright sunlight, windows open. I kept hearing an irregular squeaking noise. At first I took it as the sound of some bird or other animal, but eventually I stopped my rustling and listened: squeak, squeak, like a door opening and closing on slightly rusty hinges. I looked out my back window and down onto Ursula in the hammock, reading a book. Every couple of seconds, she pushed off the ground with one leg, gently swaying the hammock.

Still later we walked together up the road. Ursula dipped into the woods for some solo exploration. We watched the loons on the pond, sharing a pair of binoculars. We didn’t go back inside the house until the sun had dropped completely below the hill behind the house.

Jim and I sometimes think that Ursula needs more unstructured time than we can give her. I could see how much she’d enjoyed the way the day had unfolded organically, with so much of it spent outside. She exuded contentment and ease, and pride, too, for having figured out the slack line all by herself. The day felt nearly perfect, and just exactly what she needed. I thought of Jim and Virgil, bedded down at the fishing camp up north, and hoped their day was just as glorious.

Learn more
For more information on slack lines, see Set Up a Slackline.

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

Boys and their toys

Jim and Virgil returned last night from their long fishing weekend in Maine, full of stories and excitement. Virgil burst out of the car door wearing a fur cap on his head and a raccoon pelt draped over his shoulders — a purchase from a roadside yard sale, Jim told me later — and started right in on recounting his adventures at the fishing lodge.

There was archery: “Three times today,” he said last night. “The last time I shot 7 arrows, 6 hit the target, and 5 got in the color. I got a lot better.” There were chores: He helped take apart a dock and pitched in with a shovel to drain a low spot in the road that had ponded with water. Fun and games: Stratego on the deck overlooking the river, four hands of poker before breakfast. Mountain biking 3 miles of rough road each way to a fishing hole downriver. Exploring around the camp. And, especially, fly-fishing.

For Jim and his friends, the fishing wasn’t great. But for Virgil, who had to wait for his broken arm to heal before he could use the fly rod we gave him for his eighth birthday last month, it was stupendous. He cast for the first time into moving water and several times saw a fish come up and take the fly. He didn’t land any fish, but he liked watching Jim and Jim’s friend Steve work the water.

Everything interested him. The fishing camp has no electricity. Water runs on gravity feed, and the stove and lights off propane gas. At night, Jim and Virgil slept in a yurt on the bank of the river.

At home, Virgil often begs us to play games on the Internet. When one activity is over, he’s quick to say he’s bored. He doesn’t lose himself in imaginative play as easily as Ursula does, or seem to have the same need to be outside. We sometimes say of Virgil that he needs more structure, not less, and more ways to get excited about spending time outside.

Over their long weekend in Maine, Jim never once heard Virgil complain of boredom — or of the cold, or of being wet when he slipped off a rock into the water. He never once asked about computers. Virgil seemed proud to be included in the group of men, proud to contribute to the work of the camp, eager to be learning new skills, happy to be with his dad. It seemed just exactly what Virgil needed — and exactly the way to give it to him.

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

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Junior Naturalist: Red Pine, White Pine

Several people pointed out an error in my recent post on identifying trees in and around the White Mountains. I correctly noted that the soft needles of the white pine come in clusters of five, the same letters as are in “white.” It’s not true, however, that red pines have three needles in a cluster; they generally come in pairs, two to a cluster.

I checked that fact, after the fact, in several nature guides, and in A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America by Donald Culross Peattie. True to its title, the book covers much more than identification; it's elegantly written, full of wisdom, and knowledgeable about the place of trees in American history. Here’s Peattie on the red pine: “From aboriginal times to the present, the Red Pine has been the companion of the graceful White Pine, that queen of the forest. Like a consort to a queen, seldom mentioned, the rugged Red Pine has shared much of its fate.”

He is even more eloquent on the queenly white pine, which he gives pride of place in the book’s first chapter. No other tree, asserts Peattie, has played so great a role in the life and history of the American people. Its nearly pure stands, intermixed only with red pine, once covered most of Pennsylvania and New York outside the Adirondacks. A white pine measured in the early years of Dartmouth College stood 240 feet tall. No tree on the East Coast approaches such a height today.

The towering, straight tree supplied the British navy for 150 years and enriched those in the colony, like the Wentworth family of New Hampshire, who received the Crown’s timber contracts. White pine became one point in the infernal triangle of slave trade, along with African slaves and sugar and rum. The first flag of the American Revolutionary forces bore the emblem of a white pine.

“In the three hundred years of its exploitation,” Peattie writes, “White Pine built this nation, literally and figuratively.” Covered bridges were built of the light, yet strong and long-lasting wood. Early major bridges and aqueducts, too, made use of its durability. By 1805, white pine had been used to build half a million American homes.

Henry David Thoreau saw the white-pine lumber industry in its final century of dominance. During a trip to Maine in 1846, recounted in Ktaadn, Thoreau foresaw the end of the great tree’s reign:
Think how stood the white-pine tree on the shore of Chesuncook, its branches soughing with the four winds, and every individual needle trembling in the sunlight, — think how it stands with it now, — sold, perchance, to the New England Friction-Match Company! There were in 1837, as I read, two hundred and fifty saw-mills on the Penobscot and its tributaries above Bangor, the greater part of them in this immediate neighborhood, and they sawed two hundred millions of feet of boards annually. To this is to be added the lumber of the Kennebec, Androscoggin, Saco, Passamaquoddy, and other streams. … The mission of men there seems to be, like so many busy demons, to drive the forest all out of the country, from every solitary beaver-swamp and mountain-side, as soon as possible.

Peattie ends his retelling of “the glory and the tragedy of the White Pine epic” by noting that public outcry arose too late to save virgin White Pine forests in the Northeast or Midwest. But public opinion “made itself felt just in time,” he writes, “to save the great forests of the Western States,” and to back Theodore Roosevelt in his battles for timber conservation.

He doesn’t forget the humble red pine, either. The tree was often cut and sold alongside the white pine, and put to the same uses. “Serving more or less anonymously under the other tree’s banner,” Peattie writes, “Red Pine went to glory with it — to fame, and almost to extinction as a commercial tree.”

Learn more

Death of a Pine Tree,” Henry David Thoreau
Ktaadn,” Henry David Thoreau
A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, Donald Culross Peattie (Google Books)
Giants in the Land, Diana Applebaum, is a superb children's introduction to the history of the white pine in America, accompanied by woodcuts worthy of their subject.

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

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Moose-Spruce and Goose-Foot: 5 tree-identification tips for northern forests

Teaching children to identify trees is an "evergreen" topic for AMC naturalist Meaghan Murphy. During three summer seasons at Mount Cardigan and Pinkham Notch, she's seen that children enjoy figuring out which tree is which.

Before Murphy teaches children how to find the trees in the forest, she tells them about two types of forest they'll find in the White Mountains. Mount Cardigan and Joe Dodge Lodge at Pinkham Notch are situated in northern hardwood forest, which contains many types of trees; some lose their leaves in the fall and some stay green. If kids take a trail higher into the White Mountains, they'll enter the boreal forest, which has fewer types of trees — mostly spruce and balsam fir. Farther north, the boreal forest is often called the "moose-spruce" forest, though moose inhabit New Hampshire's northern hardwoods forest, too.

With that basic information in mind, kids are ready to do some tree-identification detective work.

Trees with leaves. Trees with needles. Murphy helps kids figure out why trees with big leaves thrive at lower elevations in the White Mountains and trees with needles survive up high. Deciduous trees have broad leaves and lose them as the trees go dormant for the winter. In the spring, they need a lot of energy to start up again, sending out new shoots that will become that year's leaves. Evergreens have needles, which are modified leaves, and are specifically adapted to survive winter. The waxy coating on needles protects them on the outside, and a thick resin inside acts like an "anti-freeze."

Flat, friendly fir. Sharp, spiny spruce. Firs and spruce are two common types of evergreens in the White Mountains. Murphy teaches children a mnemonic to tell them apart. She asks them to "pet" the trees and asks, "Do they feel soft and friendly or spiny and prickly?" Next she tells them to take a needle and roll it between their fingers. Is it flat, with edges, or round? A Fir tree has Flat, Friendly needles, and a Spruce has Sharp, SPiny (and round) needles.

Cluster of five. Cluster of three. White pine and red pine often appear together in the northern hardwood forest. Both have flat, friendly needles. An easy way to tell them apart is to count the needles in each cluster. There are five in white pine — and conveniently, "white" has five letters. It would be nice if red pine had three needles to match the three letters in "red," but its needles appear in clusters of two. Pitch pine, on the other hand, does come in clusters of three needles, and its name gives us a great way to remember this American tree: "Three strikes, you're out!"

Oaks and maples. One of the easiest ways to tell these two leafy, deciduous trees apart is to look at the ground below them. If there are acorns, it's an oak. If helicopter seeds, it's a maple. Kids can double-check by looking at the leaves: oak leaves are typically long, while maple leaves are broad.

Red, sugar, and striped maples. Red and sugar maples grow near each other and have similarly shaped leaves. Telling them apart is advanced tree-detective work. Murphy tells children that the sugar maple is the leaf on the Canadian flag. She has them notice the rounded space — like the "u" in sugar — between its five lobes (the same number of letters in "sugar"). The leaves of the sugar maple don't have teeth, while red maple leaves have jagged edges and red stems. Striped maple is sometimes called "goose-foot" maple, because its leaves have three lobes. An even easier way to identify this tree is to look at its striped green-and-white bark.

With autumn coming to the northern forests, color will soon be another way to identify trees. Sugar maples will turn orange, red maple a striking red, and striped maple, beech, and birch will turn one of the many shades of autumn yellow.

Learn more

- Check out this leaf-out guide to common White Mountain trees.
- Read about identifying oak, birch, and maple trees (AMC Outdoors, May 2009).
- Read Meaghan Murphy's post "Elevation Brings Changes," about White Mountain trees on - AMC's Nature Notes blog.

Photo: Meaghan Murphy identifying a sugar maple.

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

Friday, September 3, 2010

Safe Routes, Cool Routes to School

In the most recent issue of AMC Outdoors, Senior Editor Marc Chalufour described how Biddeford, Maine, fifth-grader Matt Perkins got to school one day a week last winter. Each Wednesday morning, Matt would show up at Biddeford’s Community Bicycle Center bundled in layers of clothing, wearing a hat underneath his bike helmet, and rolling a bike with hand-made metal-studded tires. He’d meet up with Dillon Teske, an Americorps volunteer, and together they’d ride to Biddeford Intermediate School. Matt was into it, claiming, “I bike everywhere I go.”

Matt Perkins’ story is unusual. Here’s a fifth-grader who rides his bike to school through a Maine winter. Here’s a reliable adult guide who shows up every Wednesday morning to escort Matt to school. And, behind the scenes, here are well-marked bike trails, community programs that teach bike safety, and a school and parents who support one child’s effort to get to school safely under his own power.

Sadly, Matt’s experience is all too rare. In 1969, more than 40 percent of students walked or rode their bicycles to school. In 2009, the rate was 13 percent.

The rate is low partly because we are even more firmly enmeshed in a car culture now than we were then. According to the nonprofit organization Safe Routes to School, half of all children who live within a half-mile of their schools are driven there. And our communities — many of which have seen ever-increasing, ever-faster car traffic — are no longer designed for safe walking or bicycling. Nationally, one-third of traffic deaths for children under the age of 14 occur when cars strike children who are walking or biking. In some places, the risk is even higher: According to the New York State Department of Health’s Bureau of Injury Prevention, the leading cause of injury hospitalization and death among 5 to 9 year olds in New York State is being struck, as pedestrians, by motor vehicles.

But changes are occurring — like Matt Perkins’ weekly bike rides to school. Twenty-five U.S. senators (that’s one-quarter of the Senate) signed on to co-sponsor S. 1156, the reauthorization bill for the Safe Routes to School Program, which helps underwrite programs like the one that got Matt Perkins to school. The bill is likely to be available in draft form later this month. Visit the Safe Routes to School National Partnership for information on what is happening at the state level.

Doing what it takes to increase the number of kids getting to school on their own power is a worthwhile initiative on several levels: from reducing carbon emissions to reducing childhood obesity, from teaching self-reliance to putting a little fun back into the school day. Riding to school might even help with self-image and social standing. Tooling into the parking lot on homemade studded bike tires on a frigid morning in Maine: How cool is that?

Learn more

- National Walk or Bike to School Day is coming up on October 6.
- Resources, including materials to create and promote a “Safe Routes to School” program.

Image kindly allowed by

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

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