Saturday, February 26, 2011

Does Your Workout Eat Your Family?

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article called “A Workout Ate My Marriage,” about a husband and father of three young children who devoted 20 hours a week to his endurance training. His wife staged an intervention last summer: Her parents and his joined her in asking him to exercise less and spend more time with the family.

The man described in the Journal article is a triathlete, but he could just as easily be a serious hiker or skier or climber. I’ve been around the outdoor community long enough to know plenty of people who spend at least 20 hours a week on their chosen activities. I’ve been one of them. The article brought up questions I often ask myself, and that all outdoor athletes with families may want to consider: When does pursuing your sport — your exercise — conflict with the needs of your family? How do you balance physical activity with family life?

Before I had children, I spent most of my weekends climbing, hiking, or backcountry skiing, and many hours during the week training. If someone had said I was addicted to those activities, I probably would have agreed, with pride. Even before I met Jim and we had our children, my focus had changed. Still, I don’t always know how to balance sport and family life. When is it OK to leave my children for a week’s backpacking trip, or even a long day of backcountry skiing? When is it not the right choice? When does spending time in the outdoors edge into addiction?

The choices I see being made around me run the gamut. Some previously hard-core outdoor athletes scale way back once they have children, even to the point of stopping altogether. I know some parents who have made their outdoor activities a sort of family business, inducting their children into the guild, as it were, at a young age, without giving the kids an option. In other families, one of the parents sometimes spends so much time pursuing a sport that he or she isn’t much of a presence in the family. I’ve seen marriages splinter over the issue. Among endurance athletes, according to the Wall Street Journal article, there’s even a name for this: “Divorce by Triathlon.”

The man profiled in the article refused to cut back on his training. In September, he swam across the English Channel. Someone left this comment on the Journal’s website: “I think most kids and spouses would much prefer a consistent presence rather than a one-time, ‘inspiring’ event. What does he expect his kids to say? ‘My dad wasn’t around much, but his inspirational swim across the English Channel was way better than him actually spending time with me?’”

In our family, we’ve made the choice to share our outdoor activities with our children. We want them to learn about hiking and camping from us, and to build a store of memories of time spent together outdoors. For us, these long-term goals make it worth it to hike at a slower pace, or to wait to climb certain summits until we can stand on them together.

We do have to stay in good enough shape to keep up with the kids, though. Jim and I consider exercising part of our parenting, both for the role modeling and for what we hope will be longer and healthier lives with our children. We’ve struck our particular balance by exercising at times when our family life is less affected. In the winter and spring, Jim plays hockey two nights a week, leaving after dinner and getting back close to midnight. I row in the summer and fall, often getting off the water before the kids are out of bed.

I’m aware of a paradox: The more we parents want to pass on a love of anything, including being active in the outdoors, the less we may get to do of it. But by taking the time to share it with our children, the more likely they are to learn to love it. And that makes the time we don't spend doing our sport worthwhile.

Learn more
- Read “A Workout Ate My Marriage” (The Wall Street Journal, February 1, 2011)

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

Thursday, February 24, 2011

America’s Great Outdoors: A Promise to Future Generations

Last week, President Obama introduced the final report of America’s Great Outdoors Initiative at a presentation at the White House. The president launched the initiative in 2010 with the charge of developing an approach to conservation for the 21st century. The final report incorporates 10 months of public input, involving more than 50 listening sessions around the country. Twenty-one of those were held specifically with young Americans.

The youth listening sessions, which included young audiences in Annapolis, MD; Hyde Park, NY; and Philadelphia, PA, asked participants about their experiences in the outdoors and their interest in and concern for the environment. Reading through detailed notes from these sessions, provided on the initiative website, I saw desire, but also great frustration.

Young people in the Philadelphia session complained that they could take buses to the mall but not to parks, open space, or important cultural sites such as Valley Forge. “If you go bike riding you will get hit by a car,” said one participant. “I live near the beach and trails but if the only way to get there is by car, who’s going to take me?”

Some comments held up unflattering mirrors to the adults in the community: “A lot of parents just don’t care,” said one Philadelphia participant. “I just took a 15-year-old friend who’d never been camping in her life. I have friends who have never seen snow or gone skiing. It all depends on your family. If they don’t care, you will never get the chance.”

In his remarks at the White House, President Obama acknowledged the issues and frustrations raised in the youth sessions. “We see our kids spending more time indoors,” he said. “For a lot of folks, it’s easy to go days without stepping on a single blade of grass.”

The president maintained a focus on families and children as he laid out the report’s recommendations. He spoke of making it easier for families to get outside no matter where they live, of building and improving urban parks and waterways and making public lands more accessible. “To encourage young people to put down their remotes and turn off video games,” he said to sustained applause, “we will establish a new conservation service corps so they can build lifelong relationships with their natural heritage.”

The final report includes a special section, Youth and America’s Great Outdoors: What We Heard from America’s Young People. The report highlights a four-point youth agenda for America’s Great Outdoors:

• Make the outdoors relevant to today’s young people: make it inviting, exciting, and fun.
• Ensure that all young people have access to outdoor places that are safe, clean, and close to home.
• Empower and enable youth to work and volunteer in the outdoors.
• Build upon a base of environmental and outdoor education, both formal and informal.

In his remarks, the president reminded his audience of the country’s long history of conservation, even during periods of war and economic depression. His point was clear: Even in tough economic times, we can — and must — extend that long tradition.

Learn more
- Read the full report, the executive summary, and the special youth section
- Read notes taken during listening sessions. Sessions within the AMC region include Annapolis, MD; Hyde Park, NY; Bangor, ME; Concord, NH; Poughkeepsie, NY; and Philadelphia, PA.
- Watch President Obama’s presentation of the America’s Great Outdoors report

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

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Play Again: Screen Time vs. Green Time


I watched a scary movie the other night. I don’t mean a psychological thriller or a gory combat film, although the movie offered plenty to trouble my mind and more screen violence than I’m used to seeing. The movie, “Play Again,” is a documentary; it asks the question, What are the consequences of a childhood removed from nature? Those consequences, both as lived out in real time by real teenagers and as played out into the future by experts, truly are frightening.

The film powerfully brings viewers into the digital, commercially produced worlds increasingly inhabited by teenagers. While a voice-over reminds us that U.S. teenagers spend an average of 7-½ hours a day in front of screens, we watch a young girl sitting cross-legged, staring straight at us as she plays a video game. The moviemakers cleverly place us as if we’re inside her game, overlaying a close-up of her angelic face and its rapt yet vacant expression with the action of the game that has her in its thrall.

A teenage boy controls the weapons of armed men horrifically gunning down people waiting in line to go through airport scanners. He and other boys speak about the power they feel when they’re inside the world of their games, and how “wimpy” they feel in the real world. The effect is chilling.

We watch a succession of young children quickly and easily identify a series of corporate logos: X-box, Apple, McDonald’s, Target. Then we see them struggle to identify pictures of common flowers. Confronted with one photo, a girl can tell the interviewer only that she think it’s a “plant.”

The director of “Play Again,” Tonje Hessen Schei, decided to create the documentary after hearing the statistic upon which that scene is based. In a research study, U.S. children could recognize more than 100 corporate logos, but couldn’t identity 10 plants from their own backyards. In the movie, the children aren’t even able to name a dandelion, seen in a photo in its wispy seed stage; the closest they get is calling it a “wish flower.”

“Play Again” makes a strong case for “green time” instead of “screen time.” Expert commentators and troubling statistics convincingly argue that while our children are learning to navigate a virtual world, they are losing crucial human connections to the natural world — and that these connections matter for them, for the health and well-being of society, and for the future of the planet.

The film brings its case home by following six teenagers from Portland, Oregon, who were picked for their “average” consumption of technology. These teens explain how much of their daily lives revolve around the use of cell phones, television, video games, and the Internet. We watch them “unplug” from their devices on a four-day camping trip, and we watch again as they struggle to maintain a “media fast” following the trip. One girl is close to tears as she tells a video diary, “You guys have no idea how hard it is for me to be sitting here while my show is playing [on TV].” Back home, several of the teens cannot make themselves unplug from their devices for even one day.

The case for nature is gorgeously made through wilderness photography and a lush soundtrack by the Icelandic band Sigur Ros and singer Kimya Dawson, whose songs appeared in “Juno.” The cinematography moved me, and the expert commentary was compelling; however, I wish the movie had delved more deeply into why we — parents as well as children — choose virtual over natural worlds. When I watched the movie a second time, I noticed the teens struggling with boredom, irritation, and frustration during their four-day camping trip. The filmmakers (and their surrogates, the trip’s young-adult leaders) could have explored this discomfort. Right there, the kids were grappling with an important truth about connecting to the real world, whether in a campsite or in a front yard or face to face with other human beings: It’s hard work. We see no parents, either, an omission that removes both part of the problem and a necessary part of the solution.

The film does address the question, though, of why we should care. In one of the more powerful commentaries, Charles Jordan of The Conservation Fund reminds viewers what’s at stake if children grow up removed from the natural world: “What they do not know, they will not protect, and what they do not protect, they will lose.”

The movie ends with a young boy blowing a dandelion. The camera follows the seeds, and the “Hopelandic” music of Sigur Ros soars with them into the sky, leaving this viewer, at least, offering up urgent wishes of her own.

Learn more

- “Play Again” has won awards at film festivals in Colorado, Prague, and Barcelona. The filmmakers hope to create a shorter broadcast version of the 80-minute film and are raising funds for an educational campaign that could accompany the film in schools.
- Like “Mother Nature’s Child,” “Play Again” will be screened in March at the Environmental Film Festival in Washington, D.C. March 15-27.
- Read an article about the film, “Teens try to kick high-tech addiction,” in The Portland (Oregon) Tribune.
- Watch a preview from "Play Again."


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

Friday, February 18, 2011

Snow Moon

Moonlit NightWe caught last night’s full moon, called the “Snow Moon” by some, when it was still low in the sky. Jim, Virgil, and I had planned a “winter break” sauna to coincide with the full moon, and felt lucky that it also coincided with a short warming spell.

The snow had been melting all day. Earlier, Virgil had discovered icy pools of water created by meltwater running off the roof and had completely soaked his snow boots, of course. The drip, drip, drip continued even after sunset, even when we stepped out for an evening stroll to the sauna.

In Northern New England you know winter has been around a long time when 35 degrees feels like spring. It did, though: warm against my skin, compared to the bitter chill we'd had earlier in the week. The springlike feeling was helped along, perhaps, by the moon, which shone so brightly that we didn’t need a headlamp to find our way through the field.

A bit later, we sat wrapped in towels on the bench under the sauna porch, steam rising off our bare skin. Clouds were coming in, with rain in the forecast. Somehow, the moon seemed to slip into every opening, every gap between clouds. Virgil and Jim howled up at the moon.

I thought about our good fortune — and not just for the warmth of the weather and the warmth of the sauna. I felt especially fortunate for the chance to get an eight-year-old boy out into the changing season, where he could touch it, and into the night, lit by the snow moon.

Learn more
- about the February full moon.

Photo credit: Tania Simpson.

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

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Shoveling Tom Sawyer’s Roof


As Huck Finn would say, you don’t know about the story of whitewashing Aunt Polly’s fence without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. The story includes “thirty yards of board fence nine feet high,” a bucket of paint, a brush, and a boy who makes an important discovery about human nature: “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”

I remembered all this recently as Jim and I pulled on our snowpants and boots yet again to shovel off yet another roof. It’s been an unusual winter in these parts: We’ve had a normal amount of snowfall, but very little of it has melted. That’s meant a solid — and I mean solid — two to three feet of snow on many roofs and porches. We’d already used roof rakes to clear the snow from our house and barn. We had one more building to shovel off before more snow came, or before warmer weather made the snow load even heavier: an old mica-miner’s cabin with a low-angled roof. Its long expanse, I must admit, looked a lot to me like Tom Sawyer’s “far-reaching continent of unwhitewashed fence,” except our continent was far northern and all white.

The kids were home from school on winter break. As far as I could tell, they wanted nothing more than to get on each other's nerves and complain loudly about said trampled nerves to anyone who would listen. We’d asked them if they wanted to help us shovel. You can guess at their response.

And then a bright idea came to Jim, just as it had to Tom Sawyer. He conferred quickly with me, then started talking loudly about how much fun it was going to be to jump off that roof.

Here our story departs from Mark Twain’s: For one, Jim and I were still obliged to shovel off that roof, and did. Ursula joined us that day, though, and went back with us twice, until we’d shoveled off enough tonnage. (The Today show reported that two feet of snow on an average house roof can add 18 tons of weight.) For another, we really did jump off the roof. All four of us, plus friends who stopped by on one of the days, climbed the ladder to the roof and jumped into the snowbanks our shoveling had created.

Tom and Huck would have approved.

Learn more
- Read “Whitewashing the Fence” from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

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

Sunday, February 13, 2011

More Winter Fun Programs


In my last post, I described a wonderful, free incentive program to get kids outdoors. I’ve spent some time looking around for similar cold-weather programs elsewhere in the AMC region and haven’t found anything quite like UVTA’s Passport to Winter Fun.

I did find several “winter passport” programs for downhill and Nordic ski areas in the five states listed below. The programs offer free lift tickets and day passes to school-age children, and in some cases discounts for their parents or siblings. The incentives here work both ways: The ski areas get more of the next generation of skiers and boarders, and families get a break on the ever-increasing cost of lift tickets.

All of these programs, with the exception of Maine’s WinterKids, are available to any child who meets the criteria, no matter where that child lives. Maine’s program is open only to children who live in Maine.

Maine WinterKids Passport. The Maine program offers three free lift tickets or day passes at each of more than 50 participating recreational areas to fifth-graders; two passes to sixth-graders; and one pass per area to seventh-graders. $25 two-week processing fee; $50 rush fee for 2- or 3-day processing. No-cost scholarships are available.

New Hampshire’s Earn Your Turns and 5th Grade Snowsports Passport. To earn a free downhill or trail pass to any of 37 participating areas in the Ski NH Earn Your Turns program, fourth-graders must research some aspect of the history of skiing in New Hampshire and turn in a report to a teacher, who then sends in a completed application on the child’s behalf.

The 5th Grade Snowsports Passport program offers fifth-graders up to 3 complimentary passes at 37 participating downhill and cross-country ski resorts, and other discounts and savings to accompanying adults. $25 processing fee, of which $5 is donated to the Make-a-Wish Foundation of New Hampshire.

New York 4th Grade Ski and Ride Passport. New York’s Passport program gives 3 free passes and discounted learn-to-ski and learn-to-ride packages to participating fourth-grade students for 30 participating ski areas. $19 application fee.

Pennsylvania 4th and 5th Grade Snowpass. Each Snowpass booklet contains 3 complimentary children’s day lift tickets for 22 participating areas, plus one coupon for a free learn-to-ski/ride package. $20 processing fee.

Vermont 5th Grade Passport. The Vermont Passport program offers fifth-graders 94 free passes to Vermont’s Nordic and downhill ski areas. The program adds a Vermont twist by donating the $10 processing fees to Keep Local Farms, a program that supports Vermont’s dairy farms.

National Passport
. All of the states listed above are linked in a national passport program. Passport holders in one program are also able to use their passports at participating resorts in other states around the country.

Drawing from the cover of Pennsylvania's Snowpass.

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

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Passport to Winter Fun


It’s been a great winter so far, or a long one — possibly depending on how many hours you’ve spent handling your snow shovel or driving through slush and snow. Even snow days have become part of the school routine for our kids, and therefore — shockingly — boring. Luckily, we’re involved in a program that takes perfect advantage of all this, well, winter — and takes care of the boredom, too.

The program is called Passport to Winter Fun. It’s a winter-long program for elementary-school-age children created by the Upper Valley Trails Alliance, which serves communities in Vermont and New Hampshire. The basic idea behind Passport to Winter Fun is to encourage children — and their parents, too — to have fun outside “even” in the winter.

Virgil received his passport book from his third-grade teacher a few weeks ago. The book gives simple instructions for documenting the number of days he spends at least 60 minutes being active (outdoors or indoors) between now and the middle of March. Once he’s filled in 10 boxes, he gets to call himself a Snowshoe Hare; after 20 boxes, he’s a Winter Fox; and after he’s filled in 30 boxes, he becomes a Polar Bear.

The folks who put the program together clearly know kids. The passport book has no glossy photos, just line drawings of various northern animals having winter fun — a moose on skis, a squirrel on skates, a goose on snowshoes. But I notice, watching Virgil, how it keeps him interested. Each box is big enough for him to write a short description of his outdoor activity; a small star in each box also lets him fill in days when he shared his activity with a family member. Not surprisingly, that’s motivated him to think about ways to get the rest of us outdoors, too.

Virgil’s motivation gets a big assist from a list of prizes, all donated by area businesses, that he can claim after hitting his 10-, 20-, and 30-day marks, and by a Grand Prize that all 30-day Polar Bears can enter a drawing to win. The Grand Prize, Virgil tells me, is an iPod shuffle. Very motivational.

The Passport to Winter Fun program grew out of a grant to the Upper Valley Trails Alliance from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It’s now in its sixth year and reaches more than 4,500 children in 32 area schools and two community recreation departments. Teachers receive packets that explain the program’s goals and benefits in terms of individual, family, and community health. (And parents can find the same information online.)

Last year, more than a quarter of the participants became Polar Bears. Virgil’s going to have some competition for that iPod…

Coming up: Information on other Winter Fun programs around the AMC region.

Learn more
• Go to the Passport to Winter Fun page on the Upper Valley Trail Alliance (UVTA) website. UVTA also helps other communities start their own Winter Fun programs.
• Read about the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation program, Active Living by Design, and its work with UVTA.

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

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Not Your Parents' Wilderness Ethics: Leave No Trace for the next generation

When I was a kid, my dad showed me how to create a fir-bough bed by chopping the soft branches from a live tree. He built fire rings every time we camped and burned our trash before we packed up so we wouldn't carry it out. He taught us to answer the call of nature as if we, too, were wild animals, making open-air toilets of rocks, logs, and patches of ferns — although with toilet paper.

After college, I spent time in the backcountry with a new generation of hikers and climbers, took outdoor courses, and learned a new environmental ethic. Leave the trees alone, I told my dad. When I went backpacking, I followed a new mantra: "Pack it in, pack it out." Instead of an axe, I packed a small trowel, to bury my waste. Instead of gathering fir boughs, I carried a tent.

I recently talked with Alex DeLucia, AMC's Leave No Trace coordinator, to find out how environmental ethics have continued to evolve in the 30 years since I was introduced to the U.S. Forest Service's Leave No Trace programs. Our conversation could serve as a primer on wilderness ethics for the new generation.

Bring out what you bring in. DeLucia emphasizes that planning ahead is a key to this core Leave No Trace value. Pack orange slices peeled ahead of time, for example, or pistachio nuts already shelled. "What about apple cores?" I asked him, thinking of all the cores I've tossed off the trail over the years. "The backcountry isn't an orchard," he replied. "Whether it takes a week or a month for something to break down, you're impacting someone else's experience." Ants and mice have become pests in high-use areas because of visitors' careless actions. In other words, no more apple cores.

Respect wildlife. Teach children to enjoy wild animals without interfering with them. That means not feeding them, even inadvertently. DeLucia recommends filtering "gray water," the water left over from cooking, and then scattering it. (Bandanas work well as filters.) "We're trying not to habituate animals to human food," he said. "A bear will be drawn to the food scent in scattered gray water. But — unlike digging up food bits from a sump hole — it won't score."

Minimize campfire impacts.
"In a lot of our programs, we simply don't have fires," DeLucia told me. "A fire superheats and kills all life on the bare ground underneath it." Add a warm glow to a night under the stars, instead, by lighting candles, putting headlamps behind or inside (empty) colored water bottles, or simply looking at the stars or moonlight. DeLucia added, "It's a whole different experience when we're not trying to shut out the night." Campfires can still be part of family camping experiences. Use existing fire rings in developed areas, DeLucia said, and make small fires, burning the wood wholly to ash.

Practice low-impact hiking and camping. "People understand pretty well, now," said DeLucia, "to stay on the trail in fragile alpine areas." We need to take the same care at lower elevations, especially in heavily used areas. Teach children to be aware of where they walk, and model good behavior by setting up tents back from shorelines and away from easily disturbed areas.

Up high or down low, it helps to know what's out there. DeLucia encourages adults to spend some time down on hands and knees with kids, looking at the plants of the forest and alpine zone. Bring along guides to identify what you see: "When we put names to things, that often correlates to more care."

Dispose of human waste properly. When DeLucia talks to children about going to the bathroom outdoors, he gives them the analogy of cats using a litter box. He explains that they can also make "cat holes" out in the woods. DeLucia encourages parents to make site selection into a game: Is it 200 feet from water? Is it far away from a trail? "They're exploring off the trail, so it becomes an adventure at the same time." Pack wet wipes instead of toilet paper — more sanitary, less waste. Above treeline, carry out all solid waste, including used wipes.

Think broadly about reducing impact. Even careful outdoors families sometimes overlook harmful impacts. Before swimming, for instance, fill a pan or water bottles, move 200 feet away from the water, and rinse off bare skin. It's the same principle as showering before entering a swimming pool. The quick rinse keeps sunscreen, insect repellent, and other chemicals on the skin from entering and potentially damaging natural water sources.

Resist the temptation to collect shed antlers and other natural treasures. DeLucia encourages the teens he works with on trail crews to think of the excitement other people will feel when they come across those same moose antlers. For keepsakes, take pictures.

Our impacts even include the noise we make. DeLucia suggests re-thinking the whole notion of "indoor voice, outdoor voice." By listening more and using quieter voices, he says, we gain a deeper appreciation of nature — and give others the same opportunity.

DeLucia and other Leave No Trace educators are trying to change the perception that we are "alone in the woods." As visitors dramatically increase in front-country natural areas, such as roadside campgrounds and picnic stops, and as more people rely on city parks and green spaces, we want to teach Leave No Trace principles to the next generation of hikers — and also to millions of people who may never set foot in the backcountry.

Learn more
- Learn about Leave No Trace principles from The Center for Outdoor Ethics.
- AMC holds five-day Master Trainer courses for outdoor educators, as well as general two-day trainer courses in Leave No Trace.
- As members of trail crews, teens also participate in workshops on LNT principles. In 2010, 36 teens on four Berkshire Trails Leadership Crews became Leave No Trace trainers, taking the LNT message back to schools, scout groups, and communities. Leave No Trace training is also included in the Camp Dodge Leadership and Conservation Crew program in the White Mountains.

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