Happy New Year everyone! New Years is a time when we can reflect upon the past year. I tip my hat to the many lessons I learned in 2011, the people that I met, and the places I got to see. During 2011, I worked as the Nature counselor at Medomak Family Camp. And since this is a time for reflecting I would like to share my favorite experience working out-of-doors with children in 2011.
It was my first week at the family camp and I had been discouraged the first day with the way my lessons were going with the children. I had been teaching children outdoor skills for 2 years at this point and during those 2 years I had learned many lessons and really begun to crave the fulfillment of being an outdoors instructor. I’d grown to love the feeling of being with a group of kids and barely having a lesson plan. We go off into the woods and 75% of the day is improvisation. I end up surfing a razor’s edge. One side being the boring, exhausted public school teacher approach: with a rigid curriculum and a “have to do this at this time and that at that time and fit all this into one class session” attitude. The other side is the person who has no control over his group of children. They are running all around with no discipline, no boundaries. Children may injure themselves this way, get into trouble, and learn very little.
The way that I’ve been taught to run children programs from my mentors at the Maine Primitive Skills School is to be guided by intuition during the program to read the energy of the group and point them in the correct direction to maximize their learning. This is done by putting them into situations that are challenging, yet fun. Done correctly, this style of mentoring coupled with wilderness skills leads to adult human being who are self-actualized, passionate about their life, and able to maximize their own unique gifts. Is there anything more a parent can hope for their child?
So, getting back to the story. My first week at the camp so far was not going as I had hoped. No one was having fun. I wasn’t having fun, the kids weren’t having fun. I saw myself forcing lessons about ecology and biology onto them and got frustrated when they would rather kick a soccer ball around. When I brought them into the woods they complained of mosquitoes biting them. And on our way back to the field we ended up running into poison ivy patch after poison ivy patch, then we got stuck in a raspberry thicket. Things weren’t going well. By the time we made it to the nature cabin, my group of 4 children looked as though they had spent the last 4 days lost in the woods without food or water. Such was their body language, facial expressions, and their attitudes.
But then it all started to change. It started by letting go of any hope to continue with what I had planned to teach that day. When we got into the cabin I was immediately bombarded with questions about the stuff I had strew out around the cabin during staff training the week before. Inside the nature cabin was a nature museum! And what 11 year old boy can resist asking questions about a turtle shell laying about on the desk!
I made a nature museum inside the cabin knowing full well that children would ask me questions about it. I knew excitement would gather in them as they realized that the white thing on the table was really the skull of a wild animal! “What kind of animal?”, was the question asked to me. “Well, what kind of teeth does it have, do you think this animal eats meat?” was my response. And as I had hoped, the whole group transformed into detectives, searching and dissecting clues of the skull. I surfed the wave of answering each question with a question, pushing their curiosity deeper and deeper.
After about 15 minutes or so of questioning and allowing them to discover the different parts of the museum, their curiosity started to slow. The attention span of most children is not long. The shift was subtle, but I knew I had to do something fast, or they would be back in the field kicking at a soccer ball. This is where teaching is so much fun for me. I notice the group needed a change and for a short time I had no idea what was going to come next! The tension was building inside of me as I was racking my brain for activities while telling them a story about the deer skull on the table. Just barely holding their attention, I glanced over at the empty jars on the table. Got it! The group needs a change in environment, we need to go back outside. I asked the kids if they wanted to go exploring for stuff to add to the nature museum and handed each of them an empty jar. Then we spent the next hour crawling on our hands and knees through the fields and the woods looking for “cool stuff”. We were all rummaging through the grasses, breaking open logs, lifting up rocks. The children became engaged and we had a blast! We found salamanders, butterflies, shiny rocks, beautiful flowers. We even found a fox den! When the lunch bell rang each of the children went running to their parents and sibling excited to show them what they had found. There was no doubt in my mind that the children learned about biology and ecology that day just by being immersed with nature and having fun!
So as I look back on 2011, I do so with a smile at experiences like this one and look forward to more in 2012.