Wednesday, December 29, 2010

TreeTop Barbie and the Queen of the Forest Canopy

What image does Barbie bring to your mind? How about a young woman outfitted in a climbing helmet and harness and wearing rugged boots instead of high heels? I heard about just such a Barbie on The Promised Land, a new program on my public radio station. In an hour-long interview with Nalini Nadkarni, Ph.D., a professor of environmental sciences at The Evergreen State University in Olympia, Washington, I learned about forest ecology, Nadkarni’s innovative outreach programs, and a TreeTop Barbie doll that can, in a young child’s imagination, ascend into the cloud canopy of a tropical rain forest just as Nadkarni has. I quite liked that image.

Three decades ago, as a young graduate student, Nadkarni climbed into the treetops of Costa Rica’s Monteverde National Park, and became one of the first scientists to explore the unique ecosystems of the forest canopy. Over the years, she’s published extensively in scientific journals. But ten years ago, while doing research in Monteverde, she heard chainsaws. Developers were clear-cutting trees just outside the park boundary. Those buzzing saws convinced her to try to reach the widest possible audiences about the importance of forest ecosystems. She began by talking to those developers. Since then, she’s expanded to prison inmates, religious communities, and, yes, young girls and boys.

Nadkarni pitched the idea of a field-research Barbie doll to Mattel, and even included a pamphlet on forest ecology, but received no reply. So she and her assistants bought their own dolls from thrift stores and worked with a tailor to fashion a realistic outfit. Their first efforts sold through word of mouth. By 2003, when The New York Times called TreeTop Barbie “science’s blondest and most curvaceous attempt yet to reach the public,” Nadkarni had fashioned more than 300 of the dolls. At that point, Mattel responded to the professor — to tell her to stop making the dolls.

The International Canopy Network (ICAN) has taken over the TreeTop Barbie project and offers the dolls for a donation of $55. The organization’s website gives plenty of details about the doll’s clothes, in time-honored Barbie fashion: “Barbie’s field clothes are hand-sewn and include rough-and-tumble climbing pants, field vest, field shirt, helmet, boots, and all the appropriate climbing gear...” TreeTop Barbie also comes with binoculars, a write-in-the-rain data book, and doll- and human-sized field guides of tree-canopy flora and fauna.

Nadkarni understands the importance of making environmental science cool to kids. She also understands the importance of cool role models. Dubbed “the queen of the forest canopy,” she strikes me as a pretty cool role model herself.

Learn more

- Listen to the interview with Nalini Nadkarni on NPR’s “The Promised Land.”
- Learn about the International Canopy Network and TreeTop Barbie.
- Read an "interview" with TreeTop Barbie, channeled through Nalini Nadkarni.
- Watch Nadkarni climb a giant fig in Monteverde, Costa Rica, and take a video tour of that forest canopy.

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

Friday, December 24, 2010

Winter Fires

As I write this, vacation has officially started downstairs. Ursula and Virgil had only a half-day at school and got back home in daylight. Snow fell right on cue, big fluffy flakes that may finally cover the ground for good. I can hear the fire crackling in the fireplace, and Virgil whistling Christmas carols.

This is the time of year when fires burn brightest — and they don’t all need to be inside. Some of our favorite winter outings have been built around fires. We walk into our woods until we find a pleasant spot for a fire; by now we have several favorites.

The kids stamp out a level platform and set off in search of fire material. They’ve learned over the years that we need a good pile of small twigs, bark, and even needles to start the fire. If it’s snowing or the forest is wet, they know to whittle a piece of downed wood to create a pile of dry shavings.

We also collect small branches. Jim tells the kids to look for branches that are no bigger around than a half dollar; in this situation, smaller denominations — dime- and quarter-size — are even better. We may build a small teepee of these sticks and branches over our starter pile, or we may feed them to the small flame once it’s lit. Often we create a lattice of larger logs to create good air flow through the fire, but only after the fire is well established do we add anything you might call a log.

The purpose of our fires isn’t warmth, exactly — at least not a heat that would keep us warm through the night — but they warm us deeply in other ways.

Talking recently to Alex DeLucia, AMC’s Leave No Trace coordinator, I learned that our winter fires are low-impact, as fires go. As anyone knows who’s walked by someone else’s fire ring in the backcountry, fires leave their marks, and those marks can last a very long time. Fires built on snow, and that don’t burn down to bare ground, leave little trace by comparison. Except, perhaps, in our memories.

Learn more
- Read detailed directions on how to build a fire on snow. Know the fire regulations for national forests and state parks. Wood fires are prohibited in many parts of the White Mountains.
- Read my post from January 2010, “Young Men and Fire.”

Photo courtesy Jim Collins.

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

Friday, December 17, 2010

Cut your own tree for $5 in national forests

We cut down our Christmas tree earlier this week. It’s an annual tradition, begun when Ursula was only six months old and I carried her in a front pack, her small fingers wrapped around one of mine while we breathed in the scent of balsam, and Jim crawled under our chosen tree with a bow saw.

The other day, Ursula insisted on walking the entire length of every row of trees in search of this year’s perfect tree. Once again she found it. She’s getting to be pretty handy with a saw and an axe, but she and I held the tree while Jim sawed through the base. We left the tree out on the porch overnight; I smelled balsam all evening.

If I’d known earlier about a tree-cutting program through the U.S. Forest Service in the White Mountain and Green Mountain National Forests, I might have lobbied to go another step — or thousand steps — and walk into the woods to find our Christmas tree instead of going to a tree farm. Permits cost only $5 and the time and energy to tromp around in the forest.

It’s not too late: You can buy tree-cutting permits through Thursday, December 23, at White Mountain National Forest offices in Gorham, Conway, Campton, and Lincoln, in New Hampshire; and at Green Mountain National Forest offices in Rutland, Middlebury, Manchester Center, and Rochester, Vermont.

The White Mountain National Forest website even gives advice on the best trees to cut. Many people, the site says, prefer balsam fir because of its fragrant smell and needle retention. That’s certainly true for our family. Others prefer spruce for their full branches and classic shape. The guidelines conclude with this advice: “Keep in mind that a wild tree may not have the perfect appearance of a commercial tree. Be prepared to do some real searching. Somewhere out there is your ideal Christmas tree.”

Maybe we’ll look for next year’s perfect tree in the forest…

Learn more

- Green Mountain and White Mountain National Forests list guidelines and requirements for the tree-cutting permits.
- Read a Boston Globe story about cutting down a tree in the White Mountain National Forest (December 14, 2010).

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

Thursday, December 16, 2010

David Goodman’s Teen-Approved Backcountry Ski Tours

If you’ve wondered when is the right time to introduce children to backcountry skiing, best-selling guidebook author David Goodman recommends waiting until they’re in the “middle schoolish” years. His daughter, Ariel, skied the backcountry for the first time at age 13; Goodman is taking his son, Jasper, already an experienced downhill skier at age 10, on his first backcountry ski trip this winter. Whatever their ages, young skiers should be comfortable skiing a range of slopes at ski areas and be reasonably strong. One sign of backcountry readiness: A teen or pre-teen skier finds the groomed slopes at ski resorts too wide, too predictable, or too boring.

The following eight backcountry tours and trails have been teen-tested and approved:

Stratton Pond, Catamount Trail, Vermont. 7.8 miles. Starting elevation: 2,218. Vertical drop: 525 feet. If it weren't for the pond — "kids like destinations," Goodman says — this gentle ski tour through “an unspoiled pocket of wild country” on the undeveloped west side of Stratton Mountain Ski Area might not get the kids' seal of approval. On moderate backcountry trails without a lot of steep uphill or downhill, such as this showcase section of the Catamount Trail, Goodman suggests using lighter touring gear. Goodman describes the Stratton Pond trail in “Skiing the Classics” (AMC Outdoors, November/December 2010).

Greeley Ponds, Kancamagus Highway, New Hampshire. 4.4 miles. Starting elevation: 1,800. Vertical drop: 445 feet. “I’m a big fan of mountain ponds,” says Goodman — and few ponds come with as a dramatic backdrop as the two Greeley Ponds. Skiers emerge from dark green woods to breathtaking views of cliffs and ice chutes on the east face of Mount Osceola.

Avalanche Brook Trail, Pinkham Notch, New Hampshire. 6.2 miles one way. Starting elevation: 2,022. Vertical drop: 1,450 feet. This trail isn’t exactly deep backcountry, as it traces close to Route 16 for its entire length. But it does travel through mixed forest and a variety of interesting terrain. Follow it north to south, starting at the Gulf of Slides trailhead south of Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, for a thrilling 2.5 downhill run. It may be easiest to drop a car at the Rocky Branch parking lot, where this trail ends, and hitch to the start.

John Sherburne Ski Trail, Mt. Washington, New Hampshire. 4.8 miles. Starting elevation: 2,022. Vertical drop: 1,928 feet. The approach trail to Tuckerman Ravine is an excellent introduction to backcountry down-mountain skiing. The trail steepens over its two uphill miles from the AMC Pinkham Notch Visitor Center to just above the Hermit Lake shelters and offers plenty of thrills on the way back down.

Wildcat Valley Trail, Jackson, New Hampshire.
8 miles one way to Dana Place Inn on NH 16. Starting elevation: 4,062. Vertical drop: 3,000 feet. The 3,000-foot descent off the backside of Wildcat Ski Area is one of the most popular backcountry skis in New England. The best way to ski the trail is to take the Wildcat Express Quad to the top of the mountain. Even with the gift of a motorized ascent, the Wildcat Valley Trail remains a serious backcountry route, with steep slopes and sometimes icy conditions. It also requires a solution for getting back to the ski area once you reach the road. (Most backcountry skiers stick out a thumb and hitchhike back.)

Mt. Cardigan, Alexandria, New Hampshire
. The eastern slopes of Mt. Cardigan offer a splendid variety of trails — ski classics cut in the 1930s by AMC volunteers and CCC trail crews and still some of the best down-mountain ski trails in the Northeast. The gentle slopes of Duke’s Pasture, uphill from AMC’s Cardigan Lodge, are a perfect practice area. Above the pasture, Duke’s Trail continues up through old hardwoods, with plenty of room for traversing turns on the way back down. A rolling 5-mile tour heads out from the lodge on the 93Z trail. Come with gear; Cardigan Lodge has no rentals. Goodman describes Cardigan trails in “Skiing the Classics” (AMC Outdoors, November/December 2010).

Jackson Ski Touring, New Hampshire; Trapp Family Lodge, Vermont. Let’s say you’re planning a ski trip weeks or even months in advance, Goodman says. “The thing about backcountry skiing: This could be the weekend the backcountry stinks.” Two reasonable bail-out options are the groomed ski trails in Jackson, New Hampshire, and out of Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vermont. The world’s not a bad place when your backups offer world-class cross-country skiing and fine backcountry options if conditions improve.

A final word to families who already enjoy downhill skiing with their kids: Several downhill ski areas in New England feature “off-piste” or glade skiing. Two areas famous for their backcountry are Jay Peak in northern Vermont and Mad River Glen in the heart of the Green Mountains.

Learn more
Buy Best Backcountry Skiing in the Northeast by David Goodman
… Read “Skiing the Classics,” Goodman’s article about four of the best backcountry ski tours in the Northeast (AMC Outdoors, November/December 2010)
… Read about Goodman’s backcountry ski trips with his teenage daughter and his tips on teaching cross-country skiing to kids.

Photos: Ariel Goodman skiing Wildcat Valley Trail; David and Ariel Goodman. Photos courtesy David Goodman.

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

A Father-Daughter Backcountry Skiing Tradition

When David Goodman updated his classic guidebook to backcountry skiing in the Northeast in 1999, he dedicated it to his daughter, Ariel, then age 7. He wrote, “Whether she chooses to travel on foot, skis, snowboard, or a plastic sled, I hope that she finds the same joy in these mountains over the years that I have found.”

I spoke with Goodman last month, shortly after his new backcountry ski guide, Best Backcountry Skiing in the Northeast, reached stores. As it turns out, the new book updates his decade-ago wish for his daughter. It also gives hope and advice to the rest of us who are backcountry skiers and parents hoping to share something we love with our young children.

To write his first guidebook, Classic Backcountry Skiing, published in 1989, Goodman completed his research in one glorious ski season. Now married, the father of two children, and a fulltime writer, Goodman confessed, “My life does not accommodate living out of my car and skiing every day.” He took three years to research the current book. Along the way, he created a special tradition with daughter Ariel.

Ariel grew up skiing with her parents and brother Jasper, who is younger by eight years. (See Goodman’s advice for raising kids on skis.) But she didn’t join her mother and father on backcountry trips, preferring the ease of downhill skiing at ski resorts. That changed the year Ariel turned 14, when her father took her downhill skiing in Utah for a week with another dad and daughter during their February school vacation – a trip they repeated the following year.

When Ariel was 16, her dad had just committed to writing the new ski guidebook. He asked Ariel if she and a couple of her friends would like to join him and try backcountry skiing. A trio of 16-year old girls accepted his invitation, and they scrounged gear from their mothers, and then “learned on the job,” skiing backcountry runs with author Goodman as their guide. “They’re young,” Goodman said. “They pick up new things as easily as breathing.”

Goodman highly recommends inviting a child’s friends on ski trips. “Teenagers don’t need face time with you,” he said. “But they’re definitely up for doing fun stuff with their friends.” On their first backcountry trip, the three girls and Goodman spent the night in Joe Dodge Lodge at Pinkham Notch. The next day, they skinned up to ski the Avalanche Brook Trail to Jackson. The girls asked a lot of questions on that first trip, including the classic, Are we there yet? on the long uphill. But when they started singing songs, they stopped noticing the uphill.

Once they’d peeled the skins from their skis, another question came up: How do we do that telemark turn? Goodman told them, “You know how to ski. Just go ski.” To me, he explained, “Modern backcountry gear is a lot like alpine gear. The important thing was that they felt confident getting down, that they didn’t worry about knowing the secret backcountry skiing password.” And down they went — giggling the whole way.

This past winter, during Ariel’s final year of high school, she and several friends again joined her father on what has become an annual winter tradition. Once again they stayed at Pinkham. The girls made their bunkroom into a fort and joined in the family dining with gusto. During the day, they broke trail and skied slopes groomed only by nature. As Goodman knows, the adventure and the memories aren’t limited to the skiing.

I’ll share Goodman’s list of teen-approved backcountry ski tours in my next post.

Learn more
… Buy Best Backcountry Skiing in the Northeast by David Goodman
… Read “Skiing the Classics,” David Goodman’s article about four of the best backcountry ski tours in the Northeast (AMC Outdoors, November/December 2010)
… Check out tips on teaching cross-country skiing to children.

Photo: David Goodman, on the left, and Ariel Goodman, on the right, joined by Caroline Dillon and Jessica Normandeau in the Gulf of Slides, Mt. Washington. Photo courtesy David Goodman.

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

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Coast at Last

The juvenile loon that we rescued from our pond last week spent four days with a wildlife rehabilitator. His home during that time was a six-foot-by-six-foot pool filled with water. The wildlife rehabilitator pumped air into previously frozen capelin to make them float — and therefore more palatable to a bird that expects to chase its food — and crouched out of site of the loon to toss them into his pool. She kept an eye on the frostbite, small red spots on his webbed feet, and treated the loon for tapeworm, thereby adding to the list of possible reasons it might not have been able to make it off our pond.

By the end of the week, the loon had clearly recovered his energy, attacking his pool, the hose, and even his caretaker. It was time to get him to the ocean.

Early Friday morning, she put him in a crate and drove him to a protected cove along the coast. A member of the Loon Preservation Committee had a home nearby, and offered to keep an eye on the young bird — easy enough to do, since he now sported a silver U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service band on one leg. She met the rehabilitator there and captured these photos of his release.

After the rehabilitator gently put him down in the water, the loon lingered for a brief moment and seemed to look back at her. Then he rode the swells out into the bay, stretched his wings, and dove. For the first time since his parents left our pond more than two months ago, he is once again in the company of other loons.

All photos by Kittie Wilson. You can see more of her loon photos in Loon Preservation Committee newsletters. All rights reserved.

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

Friday, December 10, 2010

Natural "Play Scape" Planned at Highland Center

If you go to AMC’s Highland Center at Crawford Notch next summer, you’ll find a new attraction, created especially for families and children — a natural playground. The same landscape architects who helped design the center are now working with AMC to create a natural “play scape” on the lawn to the west of the lodge’s main entrance.

Adding a natural playground to the Highland Center facility may seem unnecessary, given the stunning natural setting of Crawford Notch, but it is actually a logical outgrowth of AMC’s updated strategic mission, Vision 2020, according to Paul Cunha, AMC vice president for outdoor programs centers. “A large component [of the new mission] is helping kids and families get outdoors,” says Cunha. In the seven years since the center at Crawford Notch first opened, guests and AMC staff have asked for more on-site play opportunities for children. Cunha and others have noticed that children are drawn to the large boulders that are already part of the existing south-lawn landscaping. “Those rocks are magnets for kids,” he says.

A miniature mountain, 90 feet wide and 26 feet high — “big enough to be exciting,” says Cunha — will anchor the nature-based play space. Children will be able to climb rock staircases to the “summit” of the mountain, which will be built using locally quarried rock, or stop at an intermediate platform. An overhang on one side of the mountain will shelter a protected play space and materials that children can use to construct lean-tos and other structures. The plan created by Halvorson Design Partners also includes a “bear’s den,” swinging bridge, tunnel, and rock garden for younger children.

Cunha believes that the play scape will lend itself well to the center’s programs. Staff might use the mountain’s intermediate platform as a nighttime “observatory” for star-gazing, for example, or as part of family camp experiences. Cunha has heard from enough parents over the years to know that staffed play times before and after dinner will especially appeal to parents who are tired at the end of a long day, but whose kids still have plenty of energy to burn.

Learn more
- AMC's Highland Center at Crawford Notch
- "Rethinking Playgrounds" and "Rethinking Schoolyards — and Outdoor Classrooms"

Kids bouldering on rocks outside the Highland Center. Photo credit: Herb Swanson, courtesy of AMC.

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

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Loony Parents

Last summer, for the first time in anyone’s memory, a baby loon was born on the small pond that borders our property. Over the course of the summer, I watched the chick’s parents feed it and protect it, and felt a kinship. I recognized their care and their devotion — even their child-rearing issues. When the chick, at three months already bigger than its mother, continued to prod his parents to feed him, long past the stage when he should have been feeding himself, I laughed at how clearly loutish adolescent behavior crossed the species line. And I appreciated the ferocity of its parents’ commitment to raising their offspring. I saw my own in theirs.

The chick’s parents left the pond in early October for their short migration to the New England coastline. Since then, we’ve been watching and waiting for the juvenile to follow in its parents’ wake. Biologists don’t fully understand how loons, or any migrating birds, know when to leave or where to go. Nor do they know why some struggle with that crucial transition from water to air. It’s certainly hard for loons — heavy, dense-boned diving birds — to get off the water. They typically require a quarter mile of open water as a runway, often waiting for a stiff headwind to assist takeoff. It’s probably extra hard for a big young bird on a small pond ringed by forest.

Still, I’ve been taking quite personally the failure of our young loon to make that transition. As October became November, and as November drew to its holiday close, the juvenile seemed to ignore the signs of impending winter, practicing its flying only in a desultory manner, or so it seemed to me. I responded like a frustrated, worried mother of a teenager. One moment, I’d be calling the juvenile our slacker loon and wondering if its parents had coddled it too much or if they had been in such a hurry to leave that they’d neglected the flying lessons. The next, I’d worry that our pond was too small or its fish population too depleted to nurture this young one.

I kept thinking of the young loon’s parents and all they’d invested in their offspring. Like many a neighbor, teacher, or family friend who sees a teen in trouble, I wanted to help, to step in where parents couldn’t. I started working through scenarios in my mind and talking to Jim about measures we might take to save the loon if it didn’t leave before the ice came in.

The weekend following Thanksgiving, that moment arrived. We returned from a visit to western New York to find the loon paddling around in the only open water left on the pond, an area not much bigger than a child’s wading pool. A phone call to the Loon Preservation Committee informed us that the loon could keep that area open for several days, if the temperatures didn’t fall too far, and if he didn’t tire. Knowing that a warming trend was on the way, we decided to help nature along.

We outfitted our canoe as a makeshift ice-breaker, loading it up with a maul and an 18-pound iron bar to break through the ice, which was already thick enough in some places to hold our weight. We chopped out a channel 70 feet long and a canoe-length wide out nearly to the loon. I herded the ice chunks back toward shore, and Jim, in waders, hauled them out with a sawdust shovel. To keep the channel open, he went out every four hours during the night to break up the skim ice.

Over that day and the next, neighbors stopped by and shook their heads. Let nature take its course, one said. It’s a fool’s errand, said another. “This is crazy,” Jim said. But he kept chopping.

A midweek storm arrived on Wednesday. Its warm winds and heavy rains re-opened the pond. The change in the weather seemed the miraculous reprieve our loon needed.

For four days, we waited for the loon to recover and to, finally, fly away. Mergansers touched down, as did several Canada geese, stopping over on their way to larger water or the Atlantic. But the loon attempted to fly only once a day, never gaining much elevation, always drifting back to the pond. I kept returning to the window and prowling the dock, baffled and anxious, even angry. One afternoon, Ursula caught me yelling to the loon: “Get out of here! Leave! What is wrong with you?” It didn’t help to remind myself that not all young of the year survive, that there’s only so much anyone can do.

On Monday morning, I woke to a grim scene: the loon once again bounded by ice, this time on the far side of the pond, its head barely visible above the thin black lead of water. This time the forecast held out no hope for another thaw. A short time later, I saw the loon a hundred yards from its watery hole, sitting on the ice.

We’d learned in our conversations with the folks at the Loon Preservation Committee that once a loon went onto the ice, it was only a matter of time before it would fall prey to exposure or a fox or bobcat. There was one hope left, and it gave me sudden energy. We launched the ice-breaker again from the shore nearest the loon. Laboriously, we levered and poled and slid across and through the thin ice. As we approached, the loon lay down on the ice and didn’t move. Blowing snow quickly piled up against its back. It offered little resistance when I leaned over from the canoe and netted it.

I walked the loon, in my arms, out of the woods. After driving an hour and a half to the Lakes Region headquarters of the Loon Preservation Committee, I watched as wildlife biologists quickly determined that the young bird was underweight and had possibly lacked the energy reserves to get off the pond during its reprieve. The biologists banded him, put him in a truck, and drove him another several hours to a wildlife rehabilitator in Maine.

We’ve heard since that the loon is recovering from frostbite and eating well. The wildlife rehabilitator plans to release him on the southern Maine coast, perhaps as early as the weekend.

Maybe I cared too much whether this loon survived and made it safely to the ocean. There are names for this kind of over-involvement. But when I think about what drove me to rescue the loon, I think of something Jim said when we were chopping ice. After he’d said, “This is crazy,” he’d added, “But I know this is the same part of you that would do anything to save our children.”

Sometimes that parental instinct drives us to save the life of a child not our own, sometimes even not our own species. Crazy, I know. Like a loon.

Learn more
- about the Loon Preservation Committee.
- about loons from the Journey North migration website.

Photo courtesy of Matthew Studebaker, All rights reserved.

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

Teaching Kids Cross-Country Skiing

The rap on cross-country skiing is that it's a sport for grown-ups. Cross-country skiing is hard, a workout — "skiing uphill" instead of downhill. All this hard work makes cross-country skiing unappealing to kids, the story goes, and not worth the hassle of teaching them to balance and glide on skinny skis.

In certain communities around New England, however, a different story is being told. Last year, nearly 1,500 children participated in 50 organized clubs around the Northeast, according to Abby Weissman, youth and introductory programs director at NENSA, the New England Nordic Ski Association. Last year's participation numbers shot up 10 percent over the 2008-2009 season. And Weissman is fielding an increasing number of calls from people interested in starting kids' cross-country ski programs.

These programs share a name and a philosophy. Bill Koch, America's first Olympic medalist in Nordic skiing, inspired interest in the sport after winning a silver medal in the 1976 Olympics. Youth programs around the Northeast named their league after the Olympian—but only after Koch extracted a promise from the organizers: Fun had to come first.

Peter Milliken remembers having fun on skinny skis when he started in what would become a Bill Koch League program in Carlisle, Mass., at age 5. His forty-something father started at the same time, learning along with his son as he volunteered with the program. The boy liked skiing enough to continue all the way through high school and to race in college.

Milliken is now a father and a teacher in a similar program, the Ford Sayre Ski Council in Hanover, N.H. Its Bill Koch League Nordic program also encourages parents to ski alongside their children, learning and teaching. Peter and his wife, Ashley, work with the program's youngest skiers, first and second graders, a group that has included both of their daughters. Kids are given the skills to race, but the focus is on personal achievement, not on winning. Instructors—like Peter Milliken, many of them former collegiate or even Olympic skiers—teach by playing games. Tag. Relay races. Obstacle course races. Balance games. Activities that slyly teach fundamental skills and give both structure and intensity to the lessons.

For the past two winters, 8-year-old Evelina Levy has played these games and skied twice a week for an hour after school with Peter and Ashley Milliken. Evelina's mother, Caroline, enrolled her daughter in the program because she likes Nordic skiing and wants to share the lifetime sport with her. Evelina doesn't seem to be aware that she is being trained to ski fast. She likes it because she's with her friends and because she's playing games. "Kids are all different," Caroline says, "but for Evie, more structure and more intensity translated into more fun."

Caroline thinks that the two of them might be ready to ski some of Hanover's cross-country trails together. She can see the benefits of the Ford Sayre program out ahead of them in the skiers who are just a couple of years older than Evelina. "I see the older kids zipping along," she says. "They are so confident, so good, and so fit." She signed up Evelina, now in third grade, for another season this year. "I didn't really give her a choice," Caroline says.

That parental fiat turns out to be important, according to David Goodman, author of Best Backcountry Skiing in the Northeast, recently published by AMC Books. Goodman says that he and his wife made learning to ski "non-negotiable" for their two children. "All parents have those things, whether it's music lessons or religious school," Goodman says. "We told our kids, 'You need to know how to ski because winters in Vermont are long, and skiing makes winter fun.'"

Further tips for bringing up happy Nordic skiers:

It's only fun if it's fun. After his first child was born, Goodman started asking other skiing parents how they got their kids on skis. One skiing mom told him, "It's only fun if it's fun"—advice Goodman has heeded. If kids have fun skiing, they'll want to do it again. If they associate it with being cold and miserable, they'll want to avoid it.

Keep it short. "You have to go their pace," says Milliken. "It's hard for me to do—I want to get my workout in—but understanding that is key to getting kids to come back." Goodman characterizes early ski outings with his children as "what you do between having hot chocolate."

Keep it simple. "Cross-country skiing is one of the most accessible sports," says NENSA's Abby Weissman. "Kids can just go out in their backyards. They don’t need to go to cross-country ski centers to ski." Loops around the backyard add up, too: NENSA's web-based "Ski for Ks" rewards program lets young skiers track their cumulative mileage online.

Keep costs down. Nordic skiing isn't as expensive as downhill skiing, but the gear can be costly, and choosing among options can be intimidating. Communities with ski programs often hold ski swaps and support retail stores that rent equipment. NENSA has worked in recent years to lower the cost barrier, creating a ski-lease program for its members. Cross-country ski centers often rent gear as well.

Bring other kids along.
"You may think it's romantic to go out on the trails with your family alone," says Milliken, "but it usually works better if two or more families go out together. Kids like having buddies, and they whine less when other kids are around."

Mix it up. In the Ford Sayre program, Milliken may spend half a practice with his younger skiers simply playing on a downhill slope. "Kids get excited about going down the hill," he says, "and they don't really notice that they're also herringboning back up the hill." They're practicing an important cross-country skill, but it feels like fun. If a ski starts to feel like a slog, set up timed or relay races along short stretches. Ask kids to see how far they can glide using only one ski. Make up treasure hunts on the fly. Do it together. "There aren't many sports that you can share together as a family, across the generations," Milliken says. "My father is 81 years old, and he and I still ski together."

Learn more

- Check out some ski games used by the New England Bill Koch League.
- Listen to Bill Littlefield's "Only a Game" January 30, 2010 NPR segment on the Bill Koch League in eastern Massachusetts.
- Find more information on the Ford Sayre program in Hanover, NH.
- Purchase a copy of Best Backcountry Skiing in the Northeast: 50 Classic Ski Tours in New England and New York, by David Goodman.

Photos by Lars Blackmore.

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

Friday, December 3, 2010

Rethinking Schoolyards — and Classrooms

In my previous post, I described an emerging trend in “adventure playgrounds.” We’ve had our own playground adventure here in rural New Hampshire. The small school that Ursula and Virgil attend, Crossroads Academy in Lyme, decided last year to dismantle its playground. Out would go the slide, the jungle gym, and the monkey bars that occupied a crowded corner of the schoolyard. (A sandbox, a small wooden cabin, and two swing sets would stay.) Over the summer, 60 volunteers — parents, teachers, school administrators, and children — did more than replace the old equipment. But before I explain what they did, I should give you some background.

First, more about the school: Crossroads is a small private school that teaches some 130 students from kindergarten through eighth grade. The school occupies four buildings on 140 acres, most of them wooded. Over the dozen years that the school has owned the property, parents and faculty have cut trails along the brook that winds through it. Each spring, fifth graders release salmon into the brook, an activity that is part conservation, part science.

In other words, the school was already justifiably proud of its connection to a natural environment. It wasn’t obvious that there was a reason to do more. But one of the parents, a Rhode Island School of Design grad and director of a summer camp who had been following the trends in playgrounds, came to the head of the school with a plan. Janna Genereaux wanted to combine the theory of “loose parts” that animates David Rockwell’s Imagination Playground and the collaborative design and construction of KaBoom! with another emerging concept, that of outdoor classrooms.

Outdoor classrooms incorporate a rich outdoor environment into a school’s core curriculum. The Boston Schoolyard Initiative (BSI), in collaboration with the City of Boston, has renovated 78 schoolyards around the city, building outdoor classrooms in 26 of them. The organization takes the position that schoolyards are different from parks and playgrounds. Their proximity to one of the crucial tasks of childhood, going to school, makes schoolyards natural places to bring together recreation, creative play, and academic learning.

Over 15 years of collaboration with teachers and communities, BSI has developed materials and guidelines for making outdoor classrooms work. The outdoor spaces need to be large enough for an entire class to congregate, but should also have dispersed seating that allows smaller groups of students to sit and work. Plantings are designed so students can observe seasonal changes and find flowers, berries, or buds throughout the year. BSI has developed a series, Science in the Schoolyard, that helps teachers develop outdoor lessons and offers tips for outdoor classroom management. BSI completed 6 projects in 2010 and has 3 scheduled for 2011. According to BSI’s executive director, Myrna Johnson, two more rounds of funding will allow the public-private initiative to reach every elementary and K-8 school in Boston.

At Crossroads, Genereaux wanted to do more with the school’s abundant natural space. She especially wanted to incorporate a small hill and grassy swale below a stand of oak trees, none of which were part of existing play patterns. The school agreed to remove the existing playground, and parents signed up to help. Over the summer, under Genereaux’s direction, earth-moving equipment dug through the hill, installed two culverts, and refashioned the hill over the tunnels. The group thinned the wooded buffer between the hill and the brook, opening up a view of the water. They sliced some of the trees into rounds of different widths, cut their branches into sticks of various lengths, and stacked the loose parts under the trees. To these they added piles of smooth stones. They tied ropes around a couple of the oaks so that the ropes extended down the hill toward the tunnels. Total cost: less than $5,000.

The new natural playground was dedicated following the first week of school. Already children had created teepees of the sticks and paced out additional rooms using the paving stones. They’d tied logs to the ropes and hauled them up the hill.

The playground continues to evolve. Later in the fall, acorns became a bumper crop, the kids collecting them as fast as they fell from the oak trees and using them to plot out rooms in outdoor houses and line new roads. Teachers left bins at the trees with plastic figurines from historical eras that children study at Crossroads. Soon medieval knights on horses clashed on the hillside with ancient Egyptian and Roman warriors.

Teachers watched over the activity but left the children to negotiate their own rules of play. Structures and creations stayed up until kids tore them down for new projects. The second grade spent more time at the newly accessible brook, observing how it changed from week to week.

Genereaux wasn’t surprised by the success of the new play area. “There’s more and more science supporting what we’re trying to do here,” she said. “But really we’re just letting kids do what has always come naturally to them. When we give children freedom, it compounds like interest.”

Learn more
- Boston Schoolyard Initiative

Photos courtesy Boston Schoolyard Initiative and Crossroads Academy.

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

Rethinking Playgrounds

In this shoulder season, when the leaves are down and hiking trails no longer call, but before we have enough snow on the ground to play in or ice on the pond to skate on, my thoughts have turned to playgrounds.

We explored the neighborhood park and playground while we visited Grandpa over Thanksgiving. It was typical shoulder-season weather in western New York, a gray, changeable mix of sleet, snow, rain, and wind, but not so harsh that Grandpa, Virgil, and I couldn’t walk a block to the park to watch the black squirrels race between oak trees and see how high we could go on the swings. After a short while, though, Virgil tired of swinging. He ignored the other equipment on the playground — a plastic horse on a metal spring, a seesaw sized for toddlers, a slide — and declared himself ready to go back inside.

That got me thinking about a playground that opened in New York City this summer. Its unveiling received the kind of publicity normally reserved for theater openings: The New York Times and The New Yorker wrote lengthy articles; glossy design and architecture magazines covered it as well. This was no ordinary playground. The Imagination Playground at Burling Slip, built over five years for $7 million on a former parking lot where fish were once unloaded for the Fulton Fish Market, is being heralded as an exemplar of the newest thinking about children’s play.

The playground is the brainchild of architect David Rockwell, known for his inventive designs for casinos, airport terminals, and restaurants — until he became a father and noticed that the playgrounds he frequented with his children weren’t all that much fun. The Burling Slip playground contains no swing sets. Instead of the traditional equipment, known as the “4 ‘S’s” (swing, sandbox, seesaw, and slide), Imagination Playground has running water, a crow's nest tower, a 3,000-square foot sand pit — and one lone slide. Much of the playground’s $7 million price tag comes from its landscaping and water engineering. But one of the most important parts of the playground, both theoretically and on the ground, turns out to be its least expensive. In addition to tunnels and towers, hills and sand, the playground also contains hundreds of bright-blue foam pieces, some shaped like blocks, others with grooves or holes cut into them, others like swimming noodles — what Rockwell calls “loose parts.”

The ideas behind Imagination Playground come with a fascinating and instructive history. The term “loose parts” comes from a 1971 essay by another architect, Simon Nicholson, “How Not to Cheat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts.” In Nicholson’s formulation, the more variables — loose parts — children have to play with, the more inventive and creative their play becomes, and the more they discover together. Nicholson’s essay is four decades old, and draws from an even older concept of adventurous play that developed in the United Kingdom and Europe after World War II. Many an “adventure playground” was built out of the rubble of buildings that had been destroyed by bombs. The first movie in Michael Apted’s “7-Up” series shows young British children building elaborate contraptions out of scraps of lumber and metal in one such playground. One of England’s most prominent backers of the concept, Lady Allen of Hurtwood, promoted adventure playgrounds as places where children “come to terms with the responsibilities of freedom.”

Other groups were playing in this particular sandbox before David Rockwell and Imagination Playground. After 24-year-old Darell Hammond read a news article about two children who suffocated while playing in an abandoned car because they had no other place to play, he started the nonprofit that would become KaBoom!. The organization works collaboratively with communities to design their playgrounds, even including children in the design process, and keeps costs to a fraction of the Burling Slip’s by using volunteer labor. KaBoom's playgrounds mix traditional components with creative ideas generated by children and parents. Since 1995, KaBoom! has helped build more than 1,900 playgrounds around the country.

David Rockwell has teamed with KaBoom! to create Playground in a Box, which crams 75 blue-foam “loose parts” into a 5-foot by 5-foot container. Other play spaces around the country are using Imagination Playground’s loose parts, including other spots in New York City, Pittsburgh and Allentown, Pennsylvania, a KIPP school in Washington, D.C., and Stepping Stone Museum in Norwalk, Connecticut. Boston Children’s Museum is slated to receive the bright-blue blocks.

The new interest in creative, collaborative playgrounds appears to be driven by concerns that America’s overscheduled and sedentary children aren’t only losing out inside the classroom, compared to their peers in Europe, Asia, and Canada, but are also missing out on crucial development tasks outside of school. Research into play using brain imaging and animal observations leads people like Melvin Konner, an anthropologist at Emory University and the author of The Evolution of Childhood, to speculate that “natural selection designed play to shape brain development.” The research also suggests that the folks who built playgrounds out of bomb sites had the right idea: to fully work, play must involve some risk; its sharing and collaborations need to be negotiated with minimal adult intervention.

When I think back to our walk to the park, I remember that the black squirrels kept Virgil interested far longer than the playground. Some outdoor educators are taking the concept of collaborative, “loose parts” play and moving it into the natural world. I’ll explore those ideas in my next post.

Learn more
- Imagination Playground
- David Rockwell plans for Playground in a Box (The New York Times, September 25, 2010)
- KaBoom
- Watch “Playwork: An Introduction,” a video by KaBoom

Photos courtesy Imagination Playground.

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

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