Saturday, April 28, 2012

What Matters

Last Sunday was Earth Day, and, by tradition, we honored it by picking up litter that’s accumulated along the sides of our road. Actually, because Ursula needed to be in town for the day, “we” this year was just Jim and Virgil.

Ursula and I went one direction in the car, our windshield wipers clearing off the misting rain, and Jim and Virgil tromped off in the other in raincoats and rubber boots. Through the rear-view mirror, I saw that Virgil was pulling the old red wagon behind him. We used to take him for rides in that wagon as a baby. On this day, discarded coffee cups, crumpled cigarette packs, and especially empty beer cans would soon rattle against its slats.

If past experience held, Virgil wouldn’t make it to our closest neighbor before he’d want to call it quits. In an effort to forestall that eventuality, Jim offered to pay him a penny for each five items he collected. Even then, Jim wasn’t sure how far they’d get, especially on such a wet day.

Virgil, though, noticed cans nearly buried under leaves in the ditch, scrambled down muddy slopes to collect dirt-caked bottles that had been chucked into the woods from moving cars, and didn’t hand the wagon over to Jim until they’d crested the steep hill far past our neighbors. The money wasn’t what was motivating him, Jim decided; he thought Virgil was partly enjoying the fun of the chase, and maybe also feeling the pride of taking care of this place, this land, this home.

Back at the garage, Virgil sorted their haul: 152 bottles and cans (mostly Budweiser and Natural Light, leading Virgil to ask his dad, “What’s up with that?”) went into our recycling bins, Styrofoam cups and other trash into the garbage. That earned Virgil 30 cents at the negotiated rate, but he didn’t bother to collect.

Later that night, telling me this story, Jim reminded me that my first posts on this blog were about motivating Virgil, our then six-year-old reluctant hiker. We used M&Ms on the trail then — “the Hansel and Gretel ploy,” I called it — and tried handfuls of other ideas, some of them pretty desperate, to keep him going. Somewhere along the line, he appears to have developed an internal sense that green, wild places matter, and that taking care of those places is a good thing in itself.

I thought of my own parents, who took me and my brothers on an early Earth Day river clean-up. I’ll bet that we resisted going, even if we kept our resistance to ourselves. Because they insisted, though, we knew that taking care of rivers and roadsides mattered. Because it mattered to them, it mattered to us. And now it may matter to Virgil.

I’m thinking about all this as I write my final entry for AMC’s Great Kids, Great Outdoors.

Although the blog will continue (with Heather as the writer), and I will still write about children and nature occasionally for AMC, I am stepping down from the demands of regular blogging to focus on writing my next book. It’s been a great pleasure to work with Heather, AMC senior editor Marc Chalufour, and many others around AMC; I can tell already that I’ll miss this regular forum.

And regular it has been: Over nearly 300 posts, I’ve had the chance to explore the interconnections among things that matter: parenting, wild places, science and natural history, environmental issues. In doing so, I’ve discovered that those of us who care about kids and families in the outdoors are part of a growing movement. We’re part of a community that’s interested not only in recreation but also in combining our care for children and our concern for the natural world in new and important ways. It matters that we work together, raise issues together, and share our stories together.

I’ve spent the last few days looking back over the information and topics that this blog has brought to the larger conversation:

·      Research into the effects of screen time, green time, imaginative free play, summer vacation, "loose parts" playgrounds, and the benefits to children of spending even small amounts of time outside, with their parents and on their own.

·      The work of people and organizations helping children and their parents get outside, appreciate nature, and become stewards of natural places and green spaces, such as Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign against childhood obesity, collaborations in a small Massachusetts town between a teacher and an AMC staff member, Safe Routes to School, forest kindergartens and outdoor classrooms, environmental mentoring programs, school-garden and farm-to-school programs, AMC’s vision for youth and family participation in the outdoors, and other healthy-community organizations.
·      Businesses, scientists, and organizations making connections between children’s health and a concern for the natural world.

·      The science of being outdoors: why the sky is blue, why gray squirrels eat acorns from white oaks first, how red squirrels “tap” sugar maples, how “three strikes you’re out” helps identify the pitch pine, the geology and plants of the White Mountains.
Writing this blog has also given me the chance to think more deeply about my own children’s experience in the outdoors and about myself as an outdoors parent. In these posts, we’ve caught leaves, looked up at the stars, and used funnelators to launch water balloons. I’ve tracked Ursula in the snow and watched her “swing birches”; racked up “phoenix points” on skis with Virgil; and listened in while they and their friends caught leeches and bullfrogs. I’ve considered risks small and large, the blessings of skinned knees and broken arms, and the value of boys- or girls-only outings. I’ve felt cross-species parental sympathy with a pair of loons.

It’s been an honor.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine and Heather Stephenson. Kristen wrote this post.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

10 Simple Ways to Celebrate Spring with Kids

Keep this weekend’s Earth Day excitement going with these simple, free or low-cost ways to help your kids connect with nature.

1. First, a suggestion from reader Larry Parnell: Go on a micro-hike. To do this, lay a string about 1 or 2 yards long on the ground, and get down on your hands and knees to investigate along its length with your child. (For multiple kids, you might want multiple strings.) Notice all the small creatures and other objects you can see. Can you identify them? Try looking with and without a magnifying glass. (“Take your time,” Larry says. “This is not a quick hike.”)

2. Make a list of signs of spring and go look for them. Here are some ideas: pussy willows, spring peepers, shoots and buds on plants, and bird eggs (but don’t disturb the nests). Look for signs of life in streams, ponds, puddles, or vernal pools.

3. Plant something. Start small with a flowerpot or window box, or plant a vegetable garden, flower garden, butterfly garden, herb garden, or tree. Or consider joining your community garden.

4. Get muddy. Grab boots and visit a creek or lake where you can skip stones and splash in shallow water while you look for creatures that live there. Bring a change of clothes for the ride home.

5. Watch the birds. Talk about spring migration and go to a nature preserve to see the birds flying by.

6. Have a picnic. Have your kids help you plan a picnic and enjoy eating together at your favorite park. After eating, they can play.

7. Join a work weekend. Local groups offer many opportunities to join in trail work, park cleanup, river cleanup, and other volunteer efforts.

8. Sing in the rain. When it’s raining, head out with umbrellas or put kids in bathing suits and let them run around and splash in puddles.

9. Celebrate outdoors. Plan birthday parties, family visits, or holiday traditions that involve getting outside, even if only for a walk around the neighborhood.

10. Create new games, like racing the wind or lining up pinecones on a log and creating stories about them.

For other simple outdoor activities with kids, see these previous posts:

10 Easy Outdoor Activities with Kids (February 2012)

10 Easy Outdoor Activities with Kids (March 2012)

Photo: iStock

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine and Heather Stephenson. Heather wrote this post.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Earth Day 2012: Fun Ways to Pitch In

Every day should be Earth Day, but sometimes we need a reminder. Want ideas for how to celebrate our planet this weekend? From planting trees to cleaning up parks, there’s something for every family in the following events. If you don’t get to all these places on Earth Day itself (Sunday, April 22, this year), don’t worry: Many of these activities can be revisited all spring and summer.

And don’t forget that caring about the environment requires more than rolling up your sleeves in the neighborhood. It also means advocating for better policies to protect our precious natural resources. The original Earth Day is credited with launching the modern environmental movement and helping to pass such landmark laws of the 1970s as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. So before you head out with your work gloves and picnic basket, consider supporting AMC and other nonprofits that protect our special places.

Friday, April 20
Earth Day Festival at the EcoTarium
Worcester, Mass.; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Enjoy half-price admission to the museum and grounds, which will feature special family and earth-friendly activities and entertainment.

Earth Day on the Rose Kennedy Greenway
Boston, Mass.; 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Celebrate with free family activities in Dewey Square Park, including learning about rain gardens and composting at the new Dewey Demonstration Garden, music, face painting, food trucks, and a guided walk.

Saturday, April 21
Charles River Cleanup
Boston, Mass., to Bellingham, Mass.; 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.
With pre-registration and drop-in options, this cleanup involves thousands of volunteers picking up trash at more than 100 different sites along the 80-mile Charles River and its tributaries. Last year’s event removed an estimated 50 tons of litter.

5K Run/Walk and Fair
Liberty State Park
Jersey City, N.J.; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
At this northern New Jersey park with great views of the New York City skyline, the celebration will focus on green living, with family-friendly activities including art and crafts, kite-flying, entertainment, and “eco-Olympics.” The park also offers picnic areas, playgrounds, rental bicycles for adults and children, options for boating on the Hudson River and New York Bay, and ferry service to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

Massachusetts Park Serve Day
Statewide, times vary
From the Berkshires to Cape Cod, join local efforts to fix picnic tables, improve landscaping, clean trails, and more. Search the website to find out what’s happening near you.

Earth Day Recycling Program
Harvard Recycling and Surplus Center, Allston, Mass.; 1 p.m. – 4 p.m.
As part of the Cambridge Science Festival, tour the big warehouse where used computers get refurbished, clothing is bagged, books are boxed, and all sorts of other things are stored for donation to charities. Rob Gogan, manager of Harvard Recycling Services, will help participants make recycled paper to take home. The free tour is recommended for kids ages 8 and up, accompanied by an adult. Call 617-495-3216 for reservations and more information, or visit the website.

Rivers of Ice: What's Your Question?
MIT Stata Center, Cambridge, Mass.; 4 p.m. – 6 p.m.
As part of the Cambridge Science Festival, join mountaineer and filmmaker David Breashears and climate change experts at a free public symposium, “Rivers of Ice: What's Your Question,” marking the opening of a new exhibition, “Rivers of Ice: Vanishing Glaciers of the High Himalaya.” The symposium will be in the Kirsch Auditorium, in the Stata Center, which is at 32 Vassar Street. Pre-register to guarantee a seat and submit a question that may be asked at the event.

Discover WILD New Hampshire Day
New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, Concord, N.H.; 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
At this free event, see live animals, big fish, and trained falcons, participate in archery, casting, and crafts projects, and learn about new trends in recycling, environmental protection, and energy-efficient hybrid vehicles. Exhibits will be presented by dozens of New Hampshire environmental, conservation, and outdoor organizations, including AMC’s local chapter. The Fish and Game Department is at 11 Hazen Drive.

Family Earth Day Project
Providence, R.I.; 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Join members of AMC’s Narragansett Chapter and others in planting trees, seeding grass, removing invasive vines, and cleaning up litter at Neutaconkanut Hill. Pizza will be provided. Registration required.

Friday-Sunday, April 20-22

AMC Family Adventure Camp
AMC’s Highland Center, N.H.
This weekend will include guided indoor and outdoor programs for families with kids ages 5 and older. Nature walks will be offered each day, as well as hikes to local waterfalls or summits. In celebration of Earth Day on Sunday, kid-friendly games and activities will include recycled craft making, a recycling relay, and bottle bowling. Lodging, meals, guided activities, and free use of the L.L.Bean gear room are included in the rates.

Saturday, April 28
Boston Community Cleanup Day
Boston, Mass.; times vary
Register online to learn about efforts in different neighborhoods and lend a hand.

Photo: iStock

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine and Heather Stephenson. Heather wrote this post.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Up: A Mother and Daughter’s Peakbagging Adventure

What does a parent do with an incredibly active child? Patricia Ellis Herr’s first daughter, Alex, was “awake all the time” as a baby and “not able to sit still” as a 5-year-old — “a boundless bundle of energy.” Another mother might sign Alex up for classes or ask her pediatrician if her daughter was hyperactive. Trish Herr started taking Alex hiking.

And not just any old hiking: As Herr writes in her newly released memoir, Up: A Mother and Daughter’s Peakbagging Adventure, Alex gets hooked on the idea of earning an AMC Four Thousand Footer badge when she’s just 5 years old. Up describes their 15-month quest to hike all 48 peaks in the White Mountains above 4,000 feet. Alex’s younger sister, Sage, comes along for the ride on occasion, as do Herr’s thoughts on parenting, safety, and the lessons that can be learned at any age on a hiking trail.

Trish Herr is married to climber and MIT professor Hugh Herr, who lost his legs to exposure after losing his way in a winter storm on Mount Washington as a teenager. A rescue worker died in the effort to find Herr and his ice-climbing partner. Trish Herr retells her husband’s story in Up, but for the benefit of her daughters, and with a stern focus on the consequences of seemingly small decisions.

Risk and safety are central themes of the book. The first chapter describes a terrifying thunderstorm on Mount Tom, seven summits into their adventure. Herr and her daughters crouch on open ground as hail pelts their backs and lightning strikes so near that it raises the hair on the back of Herr’s neck. Alex becomes separated from her mother and sister when they make a dash for the trees. The chapter ends with mother and daughters safely back at the car, eating chocolate bars promised for the summit, and with Herr uttering the book’s first and precautionary lesson: “[S]ometimes things happen that you can’t prepare for.”

In fact, throughout the book, Herr takes what this reader considers a refreshing stance toward risk and danger in the mountains, especially where children are concerned. She makes sure that her daughters carry whistles and know how to use them, and drills Alex on how to keep herself warm, hydrated, and fed before taking her on winter hikes. But she also has little patience with people they encounter who are surprised to see such young children — and such young girls — on steep and rocky or snow-covered trails. When people express concern for the girls’ safety, Herr lets us feel her initial flair of irritation, but also shares the anxiety she feels when an axe-wielding man gets too close to Alex.

Every chapter includes trail-tested ideas that will be useful for families interested in getting young children out on the trail. Each chapter also points toward a single lesson, which is neatly summed up by its title. Some of the titles would do well as bullet points in a list of hiking tips:
- Know what you’re getting into
- Some risks are worth taking
- Roll with the punches
- Little things matter (a lot)

Others could be straight out of an empowerment seminar — “‘I Think I Can’ works,” “Ignore the naysayers” — and my personal favorite, “To get to where she wants to go, a girl must punch through rotting snow.” Any early-season hiker knows exactly what character-building is going on in that chapter.

Up will likely appeal to hikers, and to anyone interested in children in the outdoors, but it may have special appeal to mothers and daughters. Readers looking for more about Hugh Herr will find little here; the book’s primary relationships are those between Trish, Alex, and Sage, and Herr’s fierce love for her daughters and for their abilities runs across every page. This is not a book about a parent dragging her children off on her adventure: It is the story of a mother following and guiding her children’s passions, and encouraging her daughters to find and develop their strengths.

Herr took Alex on her first 4,000-footer hike thinking it would be a great outlet for her daughter’s excess energy. Four years later, mother and daughters continue to spend many hours on hiking trails and pursuing new goals. At the end of the book, Herr concludes her summation of what her daughters have learned by hiking mountains with this stirring sentence: “Above all else, they know that little does not mean weak, that girls are indeed strong, and that practically anything is possible.”

Learn more
- Learn more about Trish, Alex and Sage.
- View the Up book trailer

Photo of Trish and Alex Herr on Mt. Lafayette courtesy Trish Herr.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine and Heather Stephenson. Kristen wrote this post.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

7 Favorite Kids' Outings around New York City

In my last post, I highlighted top picks from AMC’s new book Outdoors with Kids Boston. Today, I’m sharing the best locations in Outdoors with Kids New York City, as selected by the authors’ children.

The de Jong-Lambert children—brother Riley, age 9, and sister Halina, age 6—are experts on outdoor adventures in and around Manhattan, where they live. When their parents, Cheryl and William de Jong-Lambert, were doing research for the new book, Outdoors with Kids New York City: 100 Fun Places to Explore In and Around the City, Riley and Halina joined them on almost every trip. Whether kayaking from the boathouse at Pier 96 or finding their way through a Secret Garden maze at a Staten Island botanical garden, they spent months searching for the best experiences for other families to enjoy in the area.

It’s no surprise, then, that Riley and Halina have strong and well-informed opinions about the places described in the book. What I found surprising, though, was that both children chose the same destination as their favorite: Bear Mountain State Park. It’s that good!

So, with Bear Mountain at the top of the list, here are the seven best locations in the book, as judged by the authors’ kids. These locations aren’t limited to traditional hiking trails or paddling routes; the new book series includes all sorts of places where families can be active outdoors and connect with the natural world.

Grand Prize

Bear Mountain State Park. This state park offers scenic lakes, hiking trails, picnic and barbecue areas, a large outdoor swimming pool, an outdoor ice rink, boat rentals, and a merry-go-round featuring such animals as black bears and wild turkeys. One walk described in the book takes families along the Appalachian Trail, past the Trailside Zoo where injured animals and birds are rehabilitated, and over the Hudson River. Explaining why he chose this destination as his favorite, Riley told his mom (who took dictation), “I like walking over the Bear Mountain Bridge because it is a nice view of the Hudson River.” Younger sister Halina added, “I like that it had a pool and the zoo.”

Halina’s Additional Top Three
1. Riverbank State Park. The only state park in Manhattan, and open only since 1993, this park on top of an active sewage treatment facility by the Hudson River offers acres of “green roofs.” It also has playgrounds, ball courts, and a covered rink for roller-skating in warm weather and ice-skating during winter. But the Olympic-sized pool, where the de Jong-Lambert family swims during winter, is what made this one of Halina’s favorites. She also likes the view up to the George Washington Bridge, and the fact that this park is especially close to home—her family can walk or ride scooters to get there, without even getting on a subway.

2. Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Site of the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs, this park sports a gigantic metal globe called the Unisphere, which Halina pointed to as one of the signature attractions. “I like that it's the welcoming of the universe,” she told her mother. “It is also fun to try to find the different continents and oceans around the world.” The park also offers bike paths, a boathouse with rentals, and a playground designed for children with and without disabilities.

3. Jones Beach State Park. “I like that it has a boardwalk that you can walk on, and I like that because it has information about birds and other animals,” Halina said of this park, which is home of the Theodore Roosevelt Nature Center. “I also liked the ocean beach,” she added, referring to the 6.5 miles of beach along the Atlantic.

Riley’s Additional Top Three

1. Fire Island. “Fire Island has a nice beach,” Riley said. “I like that you can go very far out and it is still shallow [on the bay side]. And on the Atlantic Ocean side you can enjoy big waves.” Only service and emergency vehicles are allowed on this island, so visitors get around on foot or on bicycle. AMC members and their guests may stay at the Fire Island Cabin, which has sailboats, kayaks, and canoes.

2. Manhattan Waterfront Greenway. This heavily traveled bikeway follows the Hudson River on the western side of Manhattan. “I like that we can take it to the Intrepid or the George Washington Bridge,” Riley said, referring to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum on a southern section of the path and the iconic bridge closer to its northern edge. “I like being so close to the water. I like the view to New Jersey.”

3. Floyd Bennett Field. New York City’s first municipal airport, this location in Brooklyn is now home to the only public campground in the city and hosts a family camping program run by National Park rangers. “Amelia Earhart took off from there,” Riley said, when asked why he likes it. “It is interesting because she flew to the Pacific Ocean and disappeared. I also like the old buildings because I hadn't seen them before.” The abandoned airplane hangars from the age of early commercial flight are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Learn more
- Check out Outdoors with Kids New York City at AMC’s store.
- Meet authors Cheryl and William de Jong-Lambert on Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 13, from 1 to 2:30 p.m. at Prospect Park’s Audubon Center. The fun family event will include a scavenger hunt, a campsite to explore, and a guided nature walk.
- Learn about AMC’s Kids Outdoors online communities for New York City and Boston, set to launch in May. These sites will offer more tips and activities for families interested in getting outdoors.

Photo of the de Jong-Lambert family by Cathy Clarke

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine and Heather Stephenson. Heather wrote this post.

Friday, April 6, 2012

5 Favorite Outings with Kids (Especially Tweens) around Boston

AMC’s new book series, Outdoors with Kids, is hot off the presses, with brand new titles for Boston and New York City. Today’s post features five top family picks from the book for Boston; next week I will post recommendations for New York. In each case, I decided to interview the kids involved in the project, to learn which places they liked the most.

Sadie MacKinnon,13, knows outdoor adventures. She spent many days last summer with her guidebook-author mother exploring around Boston (the Harbor Islands, the Emerald Necklace, the Blue Hills) and also strayed as far afield as Mount Watatic in north-central Massachusetts and the Cliff Walk in Newport, Rhode Island. You see, Sadie’s mother, Kim Foley MacKinnon, was doing research for the new book, Outdoors with Kids Boston: 100 Fun Places to Explore In and Around the City. She was scoping out great experiences for families, and Sadie was along for the ride. They brought some of Sadie’s friends, and soon an informal summer camp was born.

By the time school started, Sadie knew more about the New England outdoors than she had ever expected. (She visited 85 of the final 100 locations selected.) And she also had “a list of favorite places she can’t wait to return to,” her mother writes in the acknowledgments. Here are five locations that made the top of that list—the best places in the book, as judged by Sadie. These locations aren’t limited to traditional hiking trails or bicycle paths; the new book series includes all sorts of places where families can be active outdoors and connect with the natural world.

1. Purgatory Chasm. This 900-acre state reservation in Sutton (south of Worcester, in central Massachusetts) features a quarter-mile chasm of boulders jumbled between granite walls, some reaching up to 70 feet tall. A half-mile trail lets kids clamber over rocks, explore small caves, and visit stone formations with names like the Devil’s Pulpit and Lovers’ Leap. It was Sadie’s favorite hike from the whole summer, and her mother recommends it particularly for kids between 9 and 12, because younger children will require constant supervision. “I can’t wait to go back,” Sadie told her mother (who emailed me her comments). Her mother adds that Sadie talks about this location all the time: “She wants to have a cookout there or maybe her birthday party.”

2. Dungeon Rock at Lynn Woods Reservation. This park includes a cold, damp, and spooky 174-foot tunnel that was blasted by a spiritualist seeking buried pirate treasure in the 19th century. “The best part was going way down the stairs into the dark tunnel at Dungeon Rock with my friends,” Sadie said. “It was really scary but cool.” Bring a flashlight if you plan to go into the tunnel, and hold the railing. (MacKinnon recommends this destination, like Purgatory Chasm, more for older kids than the little ones.) If you’d rather stay in the sunshine, the park offers 30 miles of hiking trails.

3.Spectacle Island. This island, recommended for kids of all ages, is part of the 34-island national park that families can visit by catching a ferry from downtown Boston. A former landfill that was rebuilt using fill from the Big Dig, the island now hosts a visitor center that offers Hula Hoops, self-guided treasure hunts for different ages (with prizes of stickers and stamps), as well as ranger-led programs and summer events such as jazz concerts and kite-flying workshops. Lifeguards staff the beach, which is rocky enough to require water shoes. “Collecting sea glass on the beach and then creating a temporary mosaic with a park ranger was a lot of fun,” Sadie said. “You can’t take any sea glass home, but you get to see what other people have found at the visitors center.”

4. Moose Hill Farm. Sadie loved the self-guided tour at this Trustees of Reservations property in Sharon, a quest that takes the form of rhyming clues and a map that leads to hidden treasure. She may have learned something about agricultural history along the way, but her focus was fun. “Going on a quest was like being a detective of nature,” Sadie said. “My friend and I ran around for more than an hour following the clues. It was a blast.”

5. Nantasket Beach. This 26-acre beach has been popular for more than 100 years, and the historic Paragon Carousel still thrills young children. You may also enjoy swimming (with lifeguards on site from late June to early September), playing in the sand, walking along the 1.5-mile promenade, and even taking public dance lessons. “I like sunbathing on the rocks here,” Sadie said, “and the beach is really pretty.”

Learn more

- Check out Outdoors with Kids Boston at AMC’s store.
- Meet author Kim Foley MacKinnon on Sunday, May 20, from 2 to 3:30 p.m. at the Boston Nature Center. This hands-on, kid-friendly event will include a “nature play date” and a guided nature walk.
- Learn about AMC’s Kids Outdoors online communities for Boston and New York City, set to launch in May. These sites will offer more tips and activities for families interested in getting outdoors.

Photo of Sadie MacKinnon and Kim Foley MacKinnon at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, courtesy Kim Foley MacKinnon.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine and Heather Stephenson. Heather wrote this post.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Map and Compass: Techniques for Teaching Kids

“What kinds of maps do you use?” AMC Adventure Guide Jerome Val Rios started the session with a question. Girl Scouts from Maine and New Hampshire had traveled to the Highland Center at Crawford Notch to learn outdoor skills. The girls had climbed Mount Willard the day before. Now Val Rios was teaching them how a map could show them where they’d been—and how maps and compasses could guide them on other hikes in the future.

The scouts gave Val Rios examples of maps they used—road maps, trail maps, weather maps. Val Rios passed around topographic maps—topo maps for short—of the area around the Highland Center. He pointed out “clues” on the maps: a symbols key, scale, contour intervals, and declination—the difference between true north and the “magnetic north” pointed to by a compass needle. Each of these clues could be used to help the girls connect the real-life landscape around them to the two-dimensional landscape on the map.

Val Rios gave the girls a scenario: Having hiked Mount Willard, they now wanted to hike up nearby Mount Avalon. What could they learn about the hike from the map? Would it be shorter or longer than their hike to Mount Willard? How would the hike be different?

The girls spread out their maps and studied them. They measured each trail and determined that the trail to the summit of Mount Avalon was slightly longer (1.8 miles each way) than the trail up Mount Willard (1.6 miles). They noticed that both trails ascended west-facing ridges to their respective summits. Looking at contour lines, they could tell that the summit of Mount Avalon (3,442 feet) was nearly 600 feet higher than that of Mount Willard. And because the contour lines for the final approach to the summit of Mount Avalon were closer together than those to Mount Willard, they guessed that it was a steeper approach.

They confirmed their guess by counting contour intervals: The last half-mile to the summit of Mount Avalon gained 800 feet, while the final half-mile to Mount Willard’s summit gained only about 300 feet. Their assessment: The hike up Mount Avalon would be slightly longer and harder than the hike up Mount Willard.

Val Rios then introduced compasses. Compasses were invented by the ancient Chinese and have been used for navigation for nearly one thousand years. The basic technology has not changed: A magnetized needle points toward the magnetic north pole, located near but not at the true north pole. The difference between the magnetic and true north poles is described in terms of an angle called the declination. In the White Mountains, the declination is 16 degrees W. This means, Val Rios explained, that to travel due East, or 90 degrees, they would need to set their bearings at 74 degrees.

One of the girls showed how her cell phone could be put into “compass” mode. Global positioning devices and other digital technologies offer additional ways for hikers to determine where they are, but it is still important to practice map-and-compass skills that have changed little over one thousand years. And because the newer technologies can fail (dead batteries, no satellite coverage, false readings), Val Rios and other outdoor educators strongly recommend using compasses and maps to back up and confirm digitally-based readings.

Val Rios has put his own map and compass skills to work on long wilderness trips. Some of those trips have taken him to areas of the world, such as Patagonia, where maps are still incomplete. “You really have to watch where you are,” he says. He offers the following suggestions to parents who want to encourage their children to develop these time-tested skills.

· Ask questions. On hikes, Val Rios pulls out a map and asks kids to describe what they see there. Then he asks them to find landmarks from their hike—a stream crossing, a ridgeline—on the map. “If I point all those things out to them,” he says, “they don’t learn as much as if I ask them questions and they do the finding and the talking.”

· Practice. At the end of his classes, Val Rios likes to take kids outside to take bearings. He asks them to see if they can come up with the same bearings on the map and from a landmark. It’s nearly impossible to get the same readings—but practice helps.

· Play games. Val Rios sometimes gives kids a series of bearings to follow for 10 paces—say, 90 degrees, 180 degrees, 270 degrees, and 360 degrees—and asks them to tell him what shape they create. (A square.) Such games help kids become familiar with using a compass.

· Pay attention. Teach children to notice what’s around them as they hike. Stream crossings, trail intersections, and other markers help you figure out where you are. It’s also important to pay attention to things that aren’t on a map, such as what time it is. Even where the sun is in the sky can be a simple but effective guide. On their imaginary trip to Mount Avalon, the Girl Scouts knew that if the sun was setting behind them as they hiked out, they were heading in the right direction.

More map and compass resources

- Teaching map-and-compass skills to children: “Mapping Middle Childhood

- Reading maps: “Between the Lines

- Staying found: “A Map & Compass How-To

- Determining declination

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine and Heather Stephenson. Kristen wrote this post.

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