Three Moments

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Fern Boy and his friend were very proud of their fort, as they deserved to be.

One

I have a group of eight students. It is their first week of school.

We’re going to do some get-to-know-you games, I say. To start, let’s go around the circle and say our name and favorite holiday. You can go first. I gesture to my left. The boy shakes his head as he looks up at me.

You won’t know my favorite holiday, he says.

Try me.

Eid.

I know that one. Why’s it your favorite?

We go around the circle. Several kids say Eid. One says Ramadan. No one but me says Earth Day.

Those three are new to school this year, a teacher tells me as the kids take a water break. They’re refugees from Syria. 

We play another game. The children run back and forth, switching spots on the polydots.

You can leave the polydots on the ground, I tell one of the boys as he picks them up laughing. Just run from one to another. 

You said to steal them.

I pause. I did say that. Steal the dots meaning sneak onto them. It’s a baseball term. 

I never phrase the instructions that way again.


Two

We’re building forts at Red Fox Hollow. I let the kids choose their own groups, or work by themselves, if they prefer. I instruct them to use only dead and downed material, but one boy picks a handful of living ferns anyway to use as insulation. I know he’s been labeled as difficult by his teachers. I take the ferns from him and tell him to find something else.

At the end of the session, all of us tour the forts and the students explain why they built them the way they did.

Fern Boy and his classmate have the most impressive fort by far.

I was inspired by Winnie the Pooh, Fern Boy says. See, there’s this one episode when Eeyore is trying to build his house and it doesn’t work, and eventually all of his friends help him. But I remembered how they used one long stick between trees as the top, and leaned other sticks against them. And then all these leaves are insulation.

I ask all the kids to vote on which shelter they’d prefer to spend the night in. All but one vote for Fern Boy’s.

The kids tear down their forts as we head back to camp, but I let Fern Boy leave his up because I love it so much.

A week later I pass by it on a hike. It is still standing. I think of Eeyore.


Three

Minority high school students from Albany and Schenectady flood camp for the day. I lead seven of them on a hike to Stewart’s Ledges, a short but rewarding trip that offers beautiful views of Lake George. The leaves are bursting with color.

We pass several private residences on our way to the trailhead.

Look at those houses! Ryan remarks. They’re made from wood, actual real wood.

Two girls comment how their houses in Nigeria were made from concrete blocks and how you could never punch those walls.

Ryan is seventeen years old.

We take pictures and admire the view from the top. We have extra time, so I lead the group off the rocks and into the trees. Shelter building time. Only dead and downed material, I tell them.

Why is there grass up here? Ryan asks me.

What do you mean?

Why is it here? There’s no one to mow it…

One of the kids snickers. None of them call him stupid or offer an explanation.

It’s wild, I tell him. It’s probably a different type of grass than grass you’d find in a front yard, grass that you’d mow. Wild grass seeds are brought by animals or the wind and then it grows. It grows more over here because there’s no trail, no one’s walking on it. Animals keep it short so it doesn’t need mowing.

He nods and then wanders back to his shelter. He finds a mushroom and picks it to use as a doorknob for his fort. I don’t tell him that mushrooms aren’t dead and downed material. I let him use it. Ryan is seventeen years old. I want this world, the outdoors, to be as magical and welcoming as possible. I don’t want to tell him no. I let him use the mushroom.

Wild Child(ren)

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      “What’s this tree’s name? C’mon, we just went over it.” I point to a slender tree with gray bark peeling off like wallpaper. The kids look at it uncertainly.
       “I know it!” A girl exclaims, tugging on her braid. Her eyes widen in revelation. “A shaggy hickey!”
       I look at the shagbark hickory and stifle a laugh. “Not quite.”

Outdoor education is exhausting. Thirteen-hour days filled with sixth graders and mud and “No, that’s not edible!” Mashed potatoes with the consistency of Drano. Thin vinyl mattresses that you slip off of if you forget to put a sheet beneath your sleeping bag. There is never enough food, never enough sleep to fill me up.

This was supposed to be my in-between gig, a brief respite before my next full-throttle adventure. But then the lake water receded, the buds burst on the trees, and I dreamed less and less of faraway places. For the first time in years, I wanted to stay.

“Is Farrow your real name?”
“Do you ever wear make up?”
“Have you actually been to all those places on your water bottle?”

The questions flow ceaselessly. I answer them honestly. Most of the time. The kids distract themselves with their disposable cameras, taking pictures of half-eaten grilled cheese sandwiches and their own muddy boot prints on the tile floor.

“What time is it?”
“When’s lunch?”
“What would happen if I accidentally fell into the lake?”

They start off a little shy, uncertain about me as an instructor. But then their caution melts. They smile as I play off of their Vine reenactments. Their eyes widen when I reference the twisted towers from Fortnite. Their eagerness grows as I tell them yes over and over again, boundaries from their daily lives slipping loose, delivering them fresh and breathless into the wild.

Small acts feel like gifts. Can I put mud on my face? Yes. Can I lick this tree? Yes. Can I get my shoes wet? As long as you don’t complain later. The kids splash unceremoniously into creeks and hold salamanders in their hands. Tree branches crack as boys beat them against rocks. Girls rub sand into their hair.

There’s a sense of pride I get from being the one to say yes, the one to give them this tiny sliver of freedom and wildness. How strange that it’s a luxury to get dirty. How odd that climbing rocks feels like a privilege.

“So that’s poison ivy? Can I eat it?”
“How do snakes poop?”
“A crawdad? The counselor over there told me it’s a lobster.”

People say to dream big, but I’m dreaming smaller these days. A clean thermos, a book, and a child brave enough to interrupt me during a lecture to tell me I have a tick on my face all feel like bliss. Some days this is enough.

EarthWorks Institute

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Kids running wild, as they should, during one of EarthWorks’ summer programs. (Photo courtesy of EarthWorks Institute)

The quintessential American childhood is built upon exploration. We see it time and again in children’s literary classics, such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Bridge to Terebithia, and the Little House on the Prairie series. More often than not, the freedom of exploration is linked with the outdoors. Even when the kids are housebound, they often find a way to circumvent their situation—say, via a secret garden or an enchanted wardrobe—and hidden, natural worlds once again are theirs to pursue. Nature is the most accessible landscape for—to borrow a line from Dumbledore—the flighty temptress adventure.

I don’t need to tell you that kids spend a lot of time in front of screens these days. If you haven’t witnessed it yourself, then you’ve definitely been bashed with a dozen or more headlines about it. Like the debate on artificial sweeteners or millennials choosing avocados over houses, screen time for children is a hot-button issue that never lacks in “news” coverage.

It’s something Lindsay Cray has noticed, too. Lindsay is the Co-Founder and Executive Director for EarthWorks Institute, a nonprofit that focuses on connecting residents in the Greater Rochester, New York, area with the world and community around them. Typically this is done through developing a closer connection with or a better understanding of the outdoors. Although EarthWorks offers classes for a variety of ages, its emphasis is on kids.

“Kids are lost,” Lindsay told me in a phone interview. “I’ve met children who literally don’t know how to climb trees, or don’t know how to cross a creek. And I’m not talking a raging river creek. I’m talking a creek that’s five or six feet wide with stones to step on. I’ve worked with children who have stopped dead in their tracks in front of a small body of water and looked at me like, ‘what do we do from here?’”

Before dedicating herself to outdoor education, Lindsay worked as a research scientist studying facets of the human condition, knowledge which influences her work today.

“We’re not as far away from our primitive ancestors as we like to think we are,” said Lindsay. “Doing things like climbing trees increases your balance and also helps you become good at math. Being outside and learning how to push your physical limits helps you to control your mental limits as well. Kids who are constantly dealing with sensory overload don’t understand how to process information and that information can either be schoolwork, or it can be social emotional learning, or it can be critical thinking skills. They’re losing that because they don’t physically challenge themselves in ways that are healthy.”

EarthWorks has many programs designed to get kids reacquainted with nature. They offer courses in tracking, foraging, primitive tools, zombie slugs, and even a Jedi-themed summer program where kids will learn “the true power of the FOREST AWAKENED.”

And the programs are working.

Lindsay says that the response from participants—both kids and adults—has been overwhelmingly positive: “A lot of people tell us that the work we’ve done with them or their children has changed their lives, that the children have become people that the parents didn’t even realize they could be, or that it’s brought them out of their shell. Kids beg to come back, especially for our forest school and our summer camp program.”

In 2016 alone, EarthWorks reached 2,180 participants. They conducted around 700 hours of programs, 620 of which were oriented at children.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would’ve been a very different story if Huck had been given an iPad in the beginning. Forget building a raft. He could have rented a kayak and booked Airbnbs along the way. But where’s the rip-roaring adventure in that?

We need adventure in our lives, especially the wilderness variety. As adventurer and indie vanlife god Chris McCandless once wrote, “I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong. To measure yourself at least once. To find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions.”

So let the kids run wild. A little bit of mud never hurt anybody.

(Interested in learning more about EarthWorks? Click here!)