Thursday, July 28, 2011

Teaching kids how to pack

A young woman stood before a group of children outside a community center in South Royalton, Vermont, and asked them, “Do you like my pack?” It was an extraordinary pack, stuffed to the brim and beyond. A teddy bear peeked out from under the top flap between a fluffy pillow and a yoga mat. A light saber and a big hand mirror stuck out of the pack’s outside pockets.

“Am I ready to go hiking?” she asked the children gathered around her under the shade of several trees. The tall young woman, her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, was a summer intern with the Upper Valley Trails Alliance. Together with the nonprofit One Planet, the Trails Alliance was teaching the children what to bring — and not bring — on a hiking trip, including what to wear. Kelen, the intern, wore a flouncy yellow skirt, clutched a straw purse in one hand, and had wrapped a pink feather boa around her neck.

Chances are, none of the children had ever seen a hiker quite like Kelen. Some of the children were just out of kindergarten. Others would soon be starting middle school. But all of them knew when someone needed their help. “No!” they shouted.

At that, Kelen invited each child, one at a time, to come up to the front of the room and get her properly outfitted for hiking. In quick succession, they divested her of the feather boa, the purse, and the yellow skirt, revealing hiking shorts beneath.

Next, they moved on to her giant backpack, choosing which items would go into a smaller daypack. Out went the teddy bear, the yoga mat, and a crazy cornucopia of other items. If something didn’t go in the smaller pack, the child got to hold it on his or her lap. “Why can’t I bring my mirror?” Kelen asked when a small girl shyly pulled it from the side pocket. “How can I fix my makeup without a mirror?” “You don’t need makeup on the trail!” children shouted happily back at her.

The light saber prompted a careful discussion. Several boys made an impassioned pitch for keeping it — it’s light, it’s fun, you could play games with it on the trail — but eventually it, too, was cradled on a child’s lap.

After a time, a small portion of the things Kelen had carried up to the front of the room were neatly packed into the daypack: food and water bottles, raincoat and extra clothes, map and compass, whistle, headlamp. And the children left knowing more about what to bring with them on a hike. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit, though, if they found themselves thinking about feather boas and light sabers…

Learn more
- Read “Essential 3-season hiking gear for Northeastern hikes” and “Ten Essentials for a Safe and Pleasant Hike” from AMC Outdoors.

Photo credit: John Taylor, UVTA.

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

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Brown-bag opportunities for young environmentalists

Wednesday lunches have been particularly filling for young Boston-area environmentalists this summer. For six weeks in a row, starting in mid-June and ending tomorrow, the Environmental League of Massachusetts (ELM) has hosted the Young Environmentalists Program (YEP), a series of brown-bag lunch talks for interns and junior staff to learn from people in the field about environmental policy, advocacy, and the role of government and media in environmental issues.

AMC Conservation communications intern Amanda-Joy Febles and AMC Facilities intern Anne Kirk were among about 20 regular participants in the weekly seminars. “Food bribes us to go,” Febles laughed. She also enjoyed the community feeling that developed among the diverse group over the summer: “You have your woodsy guys with beards, college students, folks getting master’s degrees — even three high school students! There were people right from Boston and from all over the country.”

Febles learned how the series began from Eugenia Gibbons, the staff member at ELM who organized this summer’s series. In 2008, a summer intern told Gibbons that she’d especially appreciated the chance to meet and listen to working experts during her internship. She suggested that the nonprofit craft try to reach more young people with those talks — and the Young Environmentalist Program was born. The first lunch series launched the summer of 2009. Febles felt a certain amount of empowerment, knowing that the program, meant to educate young environmentalists, began from a suggestion by a young environmentalist: “The idea was sparked by someone just like me.” She noted that the series was aimed at an age group that was likely to get involved in environmental issues. It’s happening at a time, she said, when “our passions are just getting ignited.”

The intimate, seminar-style gatherings have encouraged more personal conversations. In a recent talk about Harvard’s sustainability program, Heather Henriksen, Director of Harvard’s Office for Sustainability, explained the path she took to a career in environmental issues — fundraising at Stanford Law School, nine years in marketing at Time-Warner, a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School. Anne Kirk found an interesting generational difference between current leaders like Henriksen, who didn’t start out focusing on the environment, and her own generation, which she sees as being strongly focused on environmental issues.

Kirk, who is studying transportation and planning at Bucknell, looked forward to the series’ final talk — “Walkability,” by Joseph Cutrufo, program coordinator for Walk Boston — on July 27. Kirk had been inspired by Henriksen’s descriptions of how Harvard students became involved in “greening” Harvard’s campus. “As a student, I kept thinking of all I’d like to do back at school,” she said. “It motivated me for when I go back: ‘You need to plant organic grass in the Quad!’” The talk on walkability will no doubt seed more ideas.

For Febles, the lunches have been a great addition to her internship at AMC — and not just because of the food and the company. The conversations have allowed her to see her work for AMC in a fuller context, the speakers have given her role models and a sense of what it takes to make a difference, and the community has given her an instant network of young people who might together make a difference of their own.

Learn more

- The Environmental League of Massachusetts and its Young Environmentalists Program
- Harvard’s Office for Sustainability
- Walk Boston
- AMC Internships

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

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Visiting the new Madison Spring Hut

Ursula and Jim took advantage of a run of splendid summer weather earlier this week to hike up to Madison Spring Hut. We’ve been tracking renovations to the nation’s oldest mountain hut since work started last fall. Jim had some work to do up that way, and Ursula needed to break in new hiking boots before her Teen Wilderness Adventures course starts next month.

Ursula wasn’t sure she wanted to give up one of the first unscheduled days she’s had this summer vacation. Circus camp had followed theater camp, which had started immediately after school ended. But the chance to spend uninterrupted time with Jim and the promise to dally in mountain streams on the way back down made the difference, and she was up and ready to go before first light.

By late morning, they were hiking in from the north, off Highway 2. Ursula started out in comfortable school shoes, her new boots tucked in her pack. Numerous trails head up the northern slopes of the Presidential Range. Ursula helped Jim follow the signs for Valley Way, the easiest and most direct trail to the hut, and the most sheltered approach in poor weather. None of that was anywhere in sight, although less than a week earlier, severe thunderstorms had pounded the White Mountains. What was in view much of the way up were other hikers headed for the hut, many of whom were also eager to see its new look.

Four miles and 3,500 feet in elevation gain later, they stood before the hut. The first hut below Mt. Madison, built in 1888, was a modest stone affair that slept 12 hikers. The “new” hut uses part of a larger 1929 footprint and some of its stone walls, but opens up into an entirely new dining room and refashioned sleeping spaces. Inside the new dining room, big windows below a soaring cathedral ceiling looked north and west.

Jim and Ursula ate a late lunch in front of those views and then headed back down the mountain, Ursula now in the new boots. Jim had no trouble keeping to his promise, pulling out his fly rod at each deep hole in Snyder Creek. (A fisherman to the core, he won’t let me divulge any details in print.) Ursula waded in, hiking shorts and all, and left the trail for short sections and followed the stream instead. The last mile or so, she didn’t even bother to put her boots, or her socks, back on.

Two tired and very happy hikers pulled into the driveway later that night. The next day, Ursula slept past noon. Summer’s good…

Learn more

- Read about the Madison Spring Hut renovation and re-opening.
- View a time-lapse video of Madison Hut history and its recent renovation.
Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Kids and the outdoors at Tanglewood

When most people think of Tanglewood, the Berkshire summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, they probably think — as I did before I saw it myself — of classical music inside grand performance halls and elegant concert-goers strolling through formal, manicured grounds. “Kids and the outdoors” never crossed my mind.

And so I got more than one unexpected treat when Jim surprised me with an anniversary trip to Tanglewood to picnic on the lawn and see the Mark Morris Dance Group perform in Seiji Ozawa Hall.

We arrived as the afternoon light was fading across the hills, showed our tickets at the gate, and carried our picnic basket up a gently sloping hill on Tanglewood’s 120-acre grounds. People were already scattered about the expansive lawn on picnic blankets and around folding tables. We walked to a broad west-facing overlook. The Berkshires spread out around us, bathed in pink and soft orange; behind the setting sun, we could pick out the Taconic range, which marked the near border with New York. Jim set out a checkered blanket and pulled out our picnic dinner.

That’s when I noticed the children. I heard their laughter before I saw six or so kids zig-zagging across an open section of lawn in full-out pursuit of fireflies. I could tell that some were probably quite young, maybe three or four years old. Others had the stretched-out, lean look of teenagers or children on the cusp of adolescence. Their delight carried over on the summer breeze, its own joyous music.

As day turned to dusk, another group of children left a big family group near us and ran over to a grove of trees at the top of the slope. Within moments, they’d climbed into the crooks of trees and onto limbs and were calling to each other from their various perches.

Still others somersaulted and tumbled down an open slope by the performance hall. The more I looked about me, even in the fading light, the more children I saw playing on that broad, inviting lawn. In all, before we were called to take our seats inside, Jim and I counted more than 30 children in the kind of free-form outdoor play that we adults sometimes bemoan as lost to the ages.

I’ve since discovered that Tanglewood makes it easy to bring children to many of its outdoor concerts. The Boston Symphony Orchestra offers free lawn tickets to most shows for children and young people up to and including age 17. Parents or legal guardians can claim up to four free children’s tickets per concert at the box office on the day of the concert. (For the Popular Artist concerts, free tickets are available only for children under the age of two.) At noon on Sundays before afternoon concerts and during the open rehearsals on Saturday morning, Tanglewood also offers supervised musical and crafts activities for children and accompanying adults, also free.

The night that Jim and I were there, many in the audience remained outside, viewing the performance through the hall’s open west end from the sloping lawn. I guess that the children who’d been outside earlier either continued playing quietly during the performance or joined their parents in watching. Perhaps to ensure an attentive audience, Tanglewood doesn’t allow children age 5 and under inside the hall during performances.

This summer marks 75 years since the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s first concert in the Berkshires. Jim and I now think of a Tanglewood concert as a great addition to a family weekend in the Berkshires. We’re looking ahead to August 2, to “Tanglewood on Parade” and its fireworks finale, plus a guest astronomer for star-gazing for adults and children and exhibits on the science of music, the sounds of the Sun, and Galileo and his telescope. There’s also the Family Concert on Saturday, August 20, with its $10 tickets for adults and many child-friendly activities.

And all that perfect expanse of grass, inviting us to come out and play.

Learn more
- Tanglewood for Kids
- Look through AMC’s Best Day Hikes in the Berkshires or read these “Great Kids, Great Outdoors” posts for child-friendly hikes near Tanglewood (hikes in Stockbridge and Williamstown).

Photo credit: Steve Rosenthal, Boston Symphony Orchestra.

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

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Blueberry Memories

Early July — traditionally the Fourth of July — is when wild blueberries come into season around here, replacing wild strawberries like blue follows red in red, white, and blue. Some years we’re able to eat them together with cream and get the full patriotic effect. Blueberries have seemed to arrive late this year, though, either because of the cold, wet spring or because we’ve been too busy to notice them.

Last weekend, Ursula caught a glimpse of something blue in the meadow next to the pond. A moment later, she came running up to the house with ripe wild berries cupped in her palm. That’s all it took to pull out our homemade berry buckets (plastic yogurt containers strung with twine, to allow two-handed picking) and spread out to pick the season’s first blueberries.

Coincidentally, I’ve been reading essays by poet Thom Rock that are all about blueberries – how they color our memories of summer, how they connect generations, what they mean to us. He describes picking blueberries alongside his mother as a little boy, the plinking sound of berries hitting the bottom of the pail, the tart sweetness of wild berries — and how, many years after her death, that sound and that taste bring back such intense memories that his mother seems to sit alongside him in the blueberry meadow once again.

My own blueberry memories are of my Finnish grandmother, who stirred fat berries into her pancake batter and baked them into pies, serving up love in berries instead of words. And of my own mother reading me Blueberries for Sal, Robert McCloskey’s tale of two mothers and two young ones, all eating berries on the same hillside one summer’s day. It’s his words I use, even now, for the sound of berries hitting a pail: kuplink, kuplank, kuplunk.

Ursula and Virgil have grown up hearing McCloskey’s story. Rock’s essays taught me a new blueberry story. Certain American Indian traditions say that the Great Spirit sent his people the gift of wild blueberries to feed them when they were starving. “Upon careful inspection of these heavenly gifts,” Rock writes, “a single star could be seen stamped upon each little berry, and from that day on the people called them ‘starberries.’” I’d never really thought about that five-pointed star — all that remains of the flower that begins each berry — but I’ll add the story of its origins to those I tell Ursula and Virgil.

In just a few days, we’ve eaten blueberries plain and with cream and on cereal and ice cream. They’ll soon be in on the south peak of Mt. Cardigan, on the high bushes around our pond, where we can pick them from a canoe, and carpeting our upper meadow.

I agree with Rock: The celestial berries are indeed “a little bit of heaven beneath our feet.”

Learn more
- Read "Strawberry Moon, Moon Magic" in Great Kids, Great Outdoors.
- Learn more about Blueberries for Sal
- Tips on making your own berry-picking pail and picking blueberries

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

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Fun after dark: 10 activities that even small children will love

Early childhood is the classic time for being afraid of the dark — and for an interesting reason. Children learn to use their imaginations starting around age two. For several years, their ability to imagine all sorts of things outpaces their ability to distinguish between the real world and the world of make-believe. It’s no wonder that fear so often colors young imaginings at night, which, as Shakespeare said, “cloaks and changes the day.”

Yet that very difference between the known of daylight and night’s unknown opens up a world of new experiences for young children — a world of nighttime sounds and spectacles, of nature perceived differently. Summer is a perfect season for acquainting children with the night and letting their imaginations run wild without straying into darkness.

The following activities allow young children to discover the magic of summer evenings — without being scared of what they find there.

1. Catch fireflies. Watch one light up the space between cupped hands or poke holes in the lid of a glass jar and collect more. Release them in an hour.
2. Listen for owls. It’s been said that while the day has eyes, the night has ears. You’re most likely to hear barred owls — who who, who cooks for you, who cooks for you all? — and barn owls, whose hoot follows a descending scale, in the hour either side of nightfall.
3. Watch a meteor shower. The first two weeks of August bring the year’s best “shooting stars,” the Perseids. Wake up a child between midnight and dawn for the best viewing this year. While you’re waiting for the streak of a meteor across the sky, point out the Big Dipper and Little Dipper.
4. Play flashlight tag. “It” gets the flashlight and counts down from 10 (or, for younger children, calls out the names of everyone playing) while other players scatter. Anyone the flashlight beam lands on is caught.
5. Watch the moon come up. Look through binoculars for “the man in the moon.” Near a lake, river or the ocean, look for the moon’s light trail across the water.
6. Get wet. Zip up life jackets and step into water for a nighttime float. (Parents must accompany children for safety.) Run through sprinklers for a cooling nighttime soak.
7. Build a campfire. Roast marshmallows, tell stories, sing songs. A charcoal grill works equally well as a nighttime hearth.
8. Light up the night. No need to relegate sparklers and glow-sticks to the Fourth of July!
9. Take in an outdoor event at night. Many communities hold evening band concerts, baseball games, and other child-friendly events in lovely green spaces during the summer months. To extend the pleasure, bring a picnic dinner or add a short walk to and from the event.
10. Sleep in a tent. Spending a night in a tent is a big step for young children. Share the night with your child for lasting memories — but be prepared to go inside if your child has had enough excitement for one night.

Children are often afraid of the dark in part because it’s an unknown. Nighttime play can light those dark corners and spark the imagination, all at the same time.

Learn more

— This post was inspired by a request from The Mother Company. Read that article, co-authored with Jennifer Ward, “Facing Fear with Summer Fun After Dark!

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

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Nature Principle

Driving back after dropping off Ursula and Virgil at circus camp this morning, I heard Richard Louv on New Hampshire public radio. Louv wrote the international bestseller Last Child in the Woods and gave us the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe an epidemic of disconnection between children and nature.

Louv was on the radio to talk about his newest book, The Nature Principle. The book extends his discussion of nature-deficit disorder to adults — but, as described by Louv on the radio, it adopts a more hopeful tone than his previous book. Louv believes that the twenty-first century will bring a resurgence of human connection to nature.

This optimism surprised me, and surprised Louv’s interviewer, too. By way of explanation, he quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (I’ll have to paraphrase here), who said that people cannot change unless they can see a brighter future. Louv said we need to think about what the future should look like: Do we want a dystopian, “Blade Runner”-type future, he asked, or do we want something else? He encouraged listeners to imagine what a nature-focused future would look like, for families and communities, for cities and nations.

Louv started describing the work being done in some cities to make nature more readily available to more people. He made a case for “button” parks, small green spaces people can “sew into” the urban landscape themselves. My mind, though, lingered on his earlier question. It felt like a challenge. What would I see in a world with better connections between humans and nature?

I’ve written here about my pleasure in living in the midst of wilder nature than existed in this small town when Jim’s mother was growing up down the street, and my gratitude that Ursula and Virgil have developed strong connections to the natural world. In my even better, nature-centric future, we would drive much less than we do now — not just our family in our rural community, but families across the country. We’d have shorter commutes so parents could get home to their children earlier each day. We’d incorporate nature into every school day and across school curriculums. Our roads would be safer, so more children could walk or ride bikes to school. Our governments would regulate chemicals and pollutants to protect us and the environment.

Louv and King were right: I felt more hopeful, even energized, after imagining that better future. What would you put in your better, nature-connected future?

Learn more

- …about The Nature Principle by Richard Louv
- … about Louv’s NHPR interview

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

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Seashells in Their Pockets: Exploring the seashore with children

Growing up along the Maine coast, Judith Hansen came to love the smell of salt in the air, the sound of waves against a rocky shore, and the ways of shorebirds and other coastline animals. Even before her son Justin could walk, she introduced him to the same pleasures. "I kept looking for a guidebook that was sturdy enough to take to the beach," she says—and one that followed environmentally sound principles. When she couldn't find any she liked, she decided to write her own guide, and asked her cousin, illustrator Donna Sabaka, to create drawings for it.

The child for whom Judith Hansen wrote that guidebook is now a grown man. AMC first published Seashells in My Pocket in 1988, when Justin was 6. The current third edition describes more than 200 plants, shells, and animals that can be found along the Atlantic coast between Florida and Maine. The final pages still contain a Sea-Searchers Award for children who identify every creature and plant in the book

Close to home, Hansen also observed successful grassroots efforts to conserve an estuary—a place where a river meets the ocean—in Wells, Maine. The wetlands and salt marshes eventually became the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve. Hansen added more information to the new edition about protecting the plants and animals of these critical coastline environments.

Adults at the beach, Hansen says, "have a tendency to look out over the water or down at the sand." Going to the beach with children often means exploring smaller places. "It's also fun to sit down and find out how many things you can find in one square foot." Bring magnifying glasses, spoons, and containers along with the beach towels, sunscreen, and water.

Hansen encourages adults to explore the treasures of the sea through a child's eyes:

Tide pools and other small ecosystems. "Tide pools are teeming with life," Hansen says, from water animals so small they can't be seen without a magnifying glass to starfish and sea urchins. "I can easily spend more than an hour exploring a tide pool."

Snail trails. Snails are famous for being slow, but they're quick to pull inside their shells if they sense danger. If you hum while holding a snail in your hand, the "good vibrations" can sometimes entice the snail to peek out from its shell.

Stay-at-homes and headstanders. "Every person has a story," Hansen says, "and every living thing does, too." She especially likes to tell children the stories of easily missed animals like limpets and barnacles. Limpets, which have shells that form a cone-shaped "hat," hardly ever move once they attach to a rock. And a barnacle spends its entire adult life standing on its head.

Over the years, Hansen has also developed several easy guidelines for protecting the seashore's treasures:

Leave animals where they live.
Hansen is heartened that in the quarter century since she started working on her guidebook, seashore visitors have become much more careful about not collecting living things. Hansen goes further and explains the importance of leaving animals where you find them. "Some animals live at the low tide line," she says, "others at the high tide line. The difference between the two may be only 4 or 5 feet, but it can be the difference between life and death for these creatures."

Observe more than you collect. Hansen understands the pleasure of stuffing small pockets with half-shells—it's what gave her book its name. She's learned, though, that even young children can understand the importance of leaving the treasures of the sea for others to enjoy.

Create seashore art.
Use shells, seaweed, driftwood, and more to decorate sand castles (and let the tide redistribute the wealth). Take pictures of sand castles or of collected seaside treasures. At the end of a weekend, or a summer, put the snapshots in a scrapbook.

Bring home the trash.
Any time Hansen goes to the seashore, she takes along an extra plastic bag to pick up trash left behind by careless visitors or carried in by the tide.

Photo credit: Marcy and Jerry Monkman

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

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