Outdoor Adventures of a Literary Kind

From the Archives – Living Education (Winter 2014)
Literature often inspires nature activities, and it’s fun to carry literary themes into the outdoors. My Side of the Mountain (Jean Craighead George) tells an amazing story of a boy who decides to live in the wild, and he finds a hollowed out tree to make his home. In Pippi Longstocking (Astrid Lindgren), the inimitable Pippi uses a hollowed out tree trunk to hide goodies for herself and her friends to find. Maybe you can find a tree hollow to find goodies in, or a hollowed out trunk to claim as a play space or picnic spot.

Photo credit: The Lugo family. (Oak Meadow archives.)
Photo credit: The Lugo family.
(Oak Meadow archives.)

Older readers may have been intrigued by Call of the Wild (Jack London) or Hatchet (Gary Paulsen), both of which describe in great detail survival skills. Such literary prompts can lead to grand outdoor adventures and the development of important practical skills, including fire building, archery, woodcraft, camping, orienteering (using map and compass), tracking, wildlife identification, and other winter survival techniques.
One great survival skill that’s fun to practice anytime is building a temporary shelter out of leaves and sticks, often called a debris hut. These shelters are easy and quick to build and surprisingly snug and warm. Simple instructions follow. For more detailed instructions and information, check out these two articles from Boys Life and Wildwood Survival.
Building a Debris Hut
The most basic debris hut consists of piling leaves and pine needles into a pile three feet high and longer than your height. Cover the top with branches. Burrow into the mound feet first (or head first, and then turn around so your head faces outward). The forest debris will provide a layer of insulation that traps your body heat and keeps you warm.
ou can build a temporary shelter by using a fallen tree as a supporting framework. Prop branches onto the tree trunk in a tent shape, and then cover the branches with pieces of bark or more branches. Pile leaves on top of the branches and inside the hut to provide a layer on top of the ground. Depending on how big your shelter is, you might be able to invite several friends inside for a snack and a story.
If you have a large rock or boulder nearby, you can use it as the “back wall” of your shelter, propping long sticks or branches against it in a teepee formation. Cover this structure with branches and leaves, and pad the floor with more leaves and pine needles. If you build your shelter against a rock, it will not only provide a sturdy backbone; if you build a fire in front of your shelter, the rock will absorb and reflect back the heat.
Fun fact: Snow shelters are called quinzee.

Tips and Tricks for Getting Your Kids Outside

Spending time in nature is a fundamental part of learning, development, and healthy living. At Oak Meadow, we encourage families to spend as much time as possible outside and learning in nature. As Oak Meadow founder, Lawrence Williams, says, “Being immersed in the natural flow of plant and animal life cycles, weather patterns, seasons, and the intricate dance connecting everything helps us find our own balance in the flow of life.”

Photo credit: Katie Kline (Oak Meadow Archives)
Photo credit: Katie Kline
(Oak Meadow Archives)

For some children, unstructured outside play is naturally very compelling, with sticks to brandish, mud to stir, rocks to pile, dirt to dig in, flowers to pick, bugs to identify, water to splash in, and trees to climb. But for others, these activities do not come as easily or may even be overwhelming.
Embracing nature may also be challenging for children who are new to homeschooling and have become accustomed to spending most of their day indoors, either in school or at after-school activities. Some schoolchildren spend very little or even no time outdoors, as recess is cut back to make room for more academics in the school day. Children who are used to spending lots of time with electronic devices can find it challenging to turn their attention to outdoor activities. It can take extra effort and energy to break out of a familiar habit and adapt to something very new and different.
Photo credit: Dru Guberman (Oak Meadow Archives)
Photo credit: Dru Guberman
(Oak Meadow Archives)

Some children have personality or sensory challenges that cause them to feel overwhelmed by the outdoors. The brightness of a sunny day can shock our sheltered eyes. The sensation of the wind blowing on us can challenge every pore. We might experience powerful smells and sounds that are very different from those inside our homes. Adjusting to the outside temperature might demand a significant amount of bodily energy. These challenges may be true for parents and caregivers, too.
For some parents, wanting our children to spend more time outdoors presents us with a challenge to adopt a new way of approaching life and learning. We may have spent a number of years going back and forth between climate-controlled homes and climate-controlled offices. Some of us grew up in families where television was central to daily life and most, if not all, of our waking hours were spent indoors. It may take some extra effort to develop a habit of spending time outside, for both parent and child.
So what can we do?
You, the parent, must lead the way, but at the same time remember that you are also learning and growing alongside your child.
Photo credit: Michele Kay (Oak Meadow Archives)
Photo credit: Michele Kay
(Oak Meadow Archives)

For children who are reluctant to go outside, make a gentle transition.
If the outside world feels too big, too loud, or too bright, create a sheltered space where your child can be comfortable outside. A lean-to, tarp, or fort might be just the right kind of transitional space.
If your child has fears about what they might encounter outside, try turning anxiety into curiosity. What are they afraid of? Will information and some gently led encounters relax their fears?
Develop the habit casually. If it’s possible to walk or bike a short distance instead of driving, do it as often as possible. Make a regular “outside playdate” with a friend whose children are comfortable playing outdoors, and perhaps your children will join right in.
Don’t make a big deal out of it. Spending time outside every day is healthy and desirable for children and adults. It may help to just go outside without a plan or a formal agenda. “Just being” is enough, and it will allow them to be free to observe all sorts of things that might not otherwise have come into view.
If your home is more urban than rural, scout out some nature-rich locations nearby. Parks, nature preserves and sanctuaries, public gardens, and hiking trails can provide good opportunities to explore. Choose natural areas with trees and rocks for climbing, rather than manufactured play areas.
Photo credit: Cindy Wallach (Oak Meadow Archives)
Photo credit: Cindy Wallach
(Oak Meadow Archives)

Consider the outdoors an extension of your living space and move indoor tasks outside. Handwork, schoolwork, art, reading, playing with toys, food prep, snacktime, mealtime… Arrange an outdoor space that can substitute for the kitchen table or the playroom floor. Lead by example and encourage your children to be outside with you while you go about your daily work.
Make note of anything your child finds particularly interesting outside, and foster their interest in that thing. If a family of birds is making a nest on your porch, keep checking it — at a secure distance — for eggs and hatchlings, and do some research on birds and their life cycle. If your child absolutely loves berries, plant some, tend them, and enjoy the fruit when it is ripe. If your child is very active and needs a lot of space to run around without the critical prying of neighbors or passersby, find that sort of space and let them run free.
Give them ideas and materials for fun, open-ended outdoor play or projects. Mud, water, sand, and a variety of containers can be a good starting point. If you need ideas, check out Oak Meadow’s Pinterest boards for loads of fun suggestions.
Ask your child what stops them from going outside. Make a list of their complaints and brainstorm ways to ease them.

“It’s too sunny and bright.” Would sunglasses or a special hat help? Make the most of times when the sun is low or the sky is cloudy.
“I don’t like to get wet.” Would head-to-toe rain gear or a fancy large umbrella help make it easier? Having a comfort routine for drying off and warming up after playtime can be helpful.
“It’s too hot outside.” Water and mud play are fun ways to cool off outdoors. Make sure they can easily duck out of the sun into a shady spot. Create shade for them if it’s not readily available, perhaps with a portable pop-up tent or large umbrella.
“It’s too cold out there.” Do they need more or different clothing to compensate for temperature? Lightweight woolen long johns make a helpful base layer for maintaining body temperature.
“I don’t like the wind.” Can you find or create a semi-enclosed area to provide shelter from the wind? If there are no natural windblocks in your yard, homemade wind-walls can be made using sturdy fabric and pipe.
“It’s too loud outside.” Can you find an area that is more quiet and/or private? Ask your child to help you scout out their own special nature sanctuary or a comfortable sit-spot where they can sit quietly, surrounded by nature. Read more about Sit Spots in the Spring 2013 issue of Living Education.
“I don’t want to stop what I’m doing.” Does your child have trouble transitioning from an indoor activity to an outdoor one? Routine can help. Set a consistent time of day for going outside. Some children are more open to challenging experiences in the morning; others do best after rest time in the late afternoon. Develop a particular sequence of steps that are followed before you go out. (Here we sit to put on our shoes; here we put on our outerwear; here we choose a hat; now you open the door and walk out, and I close it behind us; now we look at the bird feeder to see if there are any birds, then we look to see how things are growing in the garden, then we ask ourselves what we’d like to do next…”)
“I don’t like the spring/summer/fall/winter.” Is your child happy outside in some seasons but not others? Make the most of the time of year or type of day when they are most comfortable outside.
“I want to be all by myself” or “I don’t want to be alone.” Would they prefer to have you outside with them – or not? Honor their wishes for support or solitude as much as possible. If they only want to be outside when you are with them, plan regular times in your daily or weekly rhythm to make that possible. If your child is too young to be unsupervised but wants to feel independent, establish an activity for yourself away from their play space. Maybe your garden will get extra attention from you this year!

What about older children who may not have developed a relationship with nature when they were younger, or who may have left it behind once they learned to read or started using an online device? It’s not impossible to develop a love of being in nature as an older child or adult, as many parents can tell you!

Photo credit: Wendy Hawkins (Oak Meadow Archives)
Photo credit: Wendy Hawkins
(Oak Meadow Archives)

Encourage them by making an inviting space for them to enjoy their usual pastimes outdoors, perhaps on a porch or in a hammock. Create one or more semi-sheltered outdoor nooks where they feel they have some space of their own. This can be especially helpful for teens in a large family with a small house. A tree house is always a favorite, and building one might make a great family project!
Photo credit: Crawford Family (Oak Meadow Archives)
Photo credit: Crawford Family
(Oak Meadow Archives)

Set out a picnic with enticing assemble-your-own ingredients so they’ll be engaged longer than it takes just to grab a handful and run back inside. Perhaps it would be helpful to mandate that certain juicy or drippy snacks, such as watermelon or popsicles, are only allowed outdoors!
If you have a fire pit and feel safe doing so, allow older children to build and tend a fire — and then cook their own snack or lunch on it. Fire needs to be tended, and someone needs to be outside tending it if they want to have the fun of cooking on it!
If your child is still reluctant, be flexible in your expectations and consider any time outside to be a success. Be patient and persistent. The natural world is can be very compelling. Once your child develops the habit of being outdoors, they will carry that with them for a lifetime.

Nature and Physical Activity: Antidotes to Anxiety

by Chris Mays
Anyone with a teen at home has probably worried about how today’s young adults are affected by the stress of modern life. The rise in anxiety levels of students in their teens and early twenties has grown to an alarming level. Leading research confirms that the number of teens experiencing unhealthy levels of anxiety in modern America is estimated to be five times the rate it was in the 1930s, a time of high anxiety for our country. We have much work to do to interrupt this pattern.

While many teens are able to process daily stress effectively, for some, the stress lingers and builds. Pervasive anxiety can be debilitating, often leads to depression, and creates avoidant behaviors, which further stress family systems, promoting even higher levels of anxiety. Students who struggle with anxiety often seek escape from the uneasiness of social, environmental, and academic stressors by avoiding situations and retreating to their rooms or home, appearing to be unmotivated or uninterested in the larger world. Many opportunities are lost for expanding their perspectives and life options.

Why is this happening? Several key factors contribute to this trend. They range from an overabundance of choices, social media influences, suspect diets, lack of physical activity, and a shift from intrinsic goals to extrinsic goals. Neurological changes take place as a result, and some of these changes are not for the better. Those of us working with high-schoolers level know how important it is for students to achieve self-regulation and engage regularly with the larger world. It is important to first understand these issues and then take effective action through a coordinated plan that actively involves the student in the solution.

So, what can we do? The discovery of physical activity in aiding depression and anxiety is well known and has been monumental in helping those who are suffering. Spending time outside has also been linked to positive effects on the human psyche. Walking, hiking, biking, skateboarding, horseback riding, swimming, running, and any other active way to enjoy the outdoors has myriad benefits. As Richard Louv (2005) worded it, “Time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children’s health.” Engaging students in outdoor physical activity is a powerful way to address anxiety and other mental health issues.
There are many possible kinds of outdoor activity that can help students cope with anxiety and other challenges. One form of physical activity that has proven successful in healing and transformation as a therapeutic sport is surfing.

Surfing can promote physical well-being, combat discrimination, build confidence and a sense of security, as well as play an important role in the healing and rehabilitation process for all children affected by crisis, discrimination, and marginalization…programs with organized and supervised activities can offer important opportunities for leadership development, discipline, teamwork, and personal and professional growth” (Lopes, 2013)

Connecting students with the natural world through hard physical exercise challenges them physically and mentally in a way that can be life-changing. In fact, there are many programs for youth that focus on spending time outdoors because simply being outside in nature has a therapeutic effect.

Some students benefit greatly from a residential, outdoor-challenge-based program. Such programs can offer students a supportive environment for their emotional and physical needs while also providing an appropriately flexible educational program. One such program is the Point School in Puerto Rico, which provides an Oak Meadow education as part of their program for high-schoolers.

All students can benefit from the opportunity to learn while engaging in their natural environment, challenging themselves physically, and receiving support from encouraging adults. Incorporating regular physical activity and outdoor time can help every individual, regardless of age or circumstance, lead a happier, healthier life.  


Chris Mays is the CEO of The Point School, a residential community in Puerto Rico for young adults who need support and guidance to assist them in graduating high school and/or preparing for college. Chris has worked for over 30 years as an employee and manager of adventure-based youth development and treatment programs including sail training ships, Outward Bound programs, and private centers.

Immersing Yourself in the Emerging Spring – Part 1

Oak Meadow’s k-8 teacher, Sarah Antel, wrote this inspirational two-part article.
The light is winning over the darkness of night, the snow patches are becoming far and few between, and evenings are spent out on the porch again. While I am sitting watching nightfall, I find myself holding my breath and listening hard for one of my favorite harbingers of spring: the song of the spring peepers, a small frog that sings mightily this time of year. 1spring-peeper-frog_722_600x450
In the spring there are many events occurring, almost daily it seems, as plants and animals begin the annual spring awakening. One’s senses seem almost to explode with information from your outdoor environment. You can help your child to experience this sensory wonder through some favorite activities.
At the Water’s Edge
Creeks and ponds are beginning to swell with both plant and animal life. Take a little field trip to a creek, river, lake, or pond. Your child may see newts or tadpoles in the water; they may observe green leaves emerging on a pond’s bank. Many of the creatures living in the water are too small to see with a glance; most are insect larvae, or baby insects not more than an inch or two long.
You and your child can observe these fascinating creatures by creating a net to temporarily catch them with. All you need is a metal coat hanger, a stick, sticky tape, and an old pair of tights or nylons. Bend the coat hanger to make a diamond shape; take one of the legs from the nylons and stretch it over the diamond. Have your child find a stick outside about half his height. Unbend the hook of the hanger and tape the stick to it to make a handle. When using the net, make sure to scrape along the bottom in the mud, as this is where many of the smaller creatures hide.
Rocks are usually easy to come by along a river’s or creek’s banks. Your child can choose two rocks that easily fit in her hands; she can get them wet, and then rub the rocks together to see if they are soft enough to form ‘rock paint’. After rubbing the wet rocks together, have your child run a finger along one rock, if rock paint was made, she will see the colored natural paint on her finger. Your child can paint with it, or he can put designs on his face, hands, and arms.
Spring Shoots
 

^