Thursday, August 6, 2020

Summer provides plenty of time for kids and families to get outside. Yet the school year often finds our kids indoors, walking down halls and learning in classrooms. Their focus changes from the much wider and diverse world of Nature, to a representation of the world on computer screens, in books and from a teacher’s curriculum. At most, they might find themselves taking a spherical object from one scoring place to another scoring place—occasionally in a grassy field. So how can we parents help our kids connect with Nature and their wilder selves? Here are…

5 Ways to Connect to Nature

#1 Pitch a Tent
Every kid loves sleeping in the backyard. It’s adventure with healthy safety nets. If it looks like a clear night, pitch a tent (or better yet, go tentless) to camp through the night. If the weather (or memories of Zombie Campgets too intense, they can come inside. Over time your children will begin to test themselves in more challenging weather. Who knows, someday you might be able to free up their room for your collection of Whedonverse memorabilia. Your backyard doesn’t have to be big—kids can even sleep on the back porch.

#2 Build a Yort (that’s a Yard-Fort)
Start by learning all the ways to set up a rain tarp, which also teaches useful knots. You can also move onto more complex structures such as a debris shelter (which they learn about at Trackers). Finally, if you’re really inspired, you can do something like this guy. 

#3 Make a Creature Map
Help your kids understand, your family is not the only one living in and around your home. From spiders to squirrels, many creatures share your territory. One of the best places to start this exploration process is with birds. Figuring out where that song sparrow lives takes it from being “a little brown bird”, to a being a familiar individual living alongside you. Try to identify each bird in and around your backyard. See if you can map out the current limits of its movements—a territory that might change with the seasons. Do the same with spiders both inside and outside the house. The goal is for your child to go into the backyard and ask, “What’s Bob the Robin up to today? Has he changed where he’s feeding?”

#4 Plant a Wilder Garden
Some of us have gardens, some don’t. But the easiest way to start one is by growing “weeds”. Many wild plants are super hardy and mighty tasty. Letting the dandelions grow offers edible greens, roots and flowers. A patch of stinging nettle will provide many a tasty stir fry as well as fiber for rope. Just remember, don’t spray pesticides or herbicides.

#5 Hoard Sticks + Knives
Don’t toss that yard debris! In fact, ask your neighbors for their “junky sticks”. Then give them to your kids. They need plenty of wood and limbs to saw and carve while making all manner of projects: Spoons, spirals and more. Tell them whittling is only allowed outside, while hanging out with Bob the Robin. You can even give them this how-to book that teaches carving to kids.

Bonus Make a Campfire
You will need something to do with all those wood shavings and extra sticks. Some areas allow campfire pits (BBQ areas) in the backyard. There are burn bans for seasons, counties, neighborhoods and more. Respect them. Ask your local fire department. Then go about roasting marshmallows, singing songs, and telling ghost stories (because you already binge watched Stranger Things).

Do It Better

We hope you enjoyed some clever alternatives  to orb-based recreational outdoor time*. Of course, since Nature is so epically diverse, the possibilities are only limited by our own imaginations and how much we choose to connect to and respect the wild.

*I took my 5 year old son to his first soccer game the other day.

Whenever May arrives in Oregon I get antsy. Each time I visit a farmer’s market that restlessness gets worse as I scan the booths. Why? It’s finally strawberry season!

strawberries-2At the beginning of the month the berries start trickling in and soon little pint boxes line tables and counters. I know I can easily go to the store and buy some giant strawberries shipped here from other, warmer places. But the briefness of the Oregon strawberry season is part of its allure.

I love everything about strawberries: picking them, smelling them, eating them until I feel slightly ill, then lounging in the sun covered in their sticky juice. These are memories I want to pass on to children: my own, as well as the children I teach here at Trackers.

Now that the Oregon strawberry season is in full force, we have been celebrating the harvest in many ways. Last week our After School students baked strawberry shortcake, then crushed berries, sugar and lemon juice to top their dessert. Today my daughter is traveling out to Sauvies Island with our Homeschool Program to pick strawberries (though I highly doubt many will make it into her basket). And next week there are rumors of a trip to the neighborhood farmer’s market and strawberry sorbet.

While all of these activities are delicious, they also viscerally connect kids to the seasonal rhythms of the year. In our year-long programs, we take kids outside through all the seasons. We watch how our small part of the world changes with the waning and waxing of sunlight and how that affects plants, animals and our own activities. Fall harvest, cider pressing, gathering acorns and making them into bread, winter fires, raising chicks, eating dandelions, and collecting the first bounty of summer are all parts of the Wilder year. Getting children elbows-deep in the cycle of the natural world is their first step to being connected to the Wilds around them.

And though I love sharing each and every season with my students, not much beats a sun-ripened strawberry picked by happy, dirty kids.

Make: Strawberry Shortcake

These cakes are made in muffin tins, which is easier for little hands and means industrious kids can even bake them in a toaster oven.

For the Berries: Rinse and take the tops off of about 1 lb strawberries (about 4 cups). Mash together with ¼ cup sugar and 1 Tbsp lemon juice. Let sit while you make the shortcake.

For the Shortcake:

1-1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup butter either softened or cut into pieces
1 large egg
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 F. Mix the flour sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl. Use a fork or your hands to work the butter into the dry ingredients until the mix is grainy.

In a second bowl, beat the egg, heavy cream and milk with a fork until they are mixed.  Add vanilla.  Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour in the cream mixture. Mix with the fork until the dough is evenly moistened. If the dough seems dry, add more cream or milk, 1 tsp. at a time.

Fill greased muffin tins halfway and sprinkle tops with the remaining 1 Tbs. sugar.  Bake until the muffin tops are lightly browned and a toothpick comes out clean, 10 to 15 minutes.

Whip 1-2 cups heavy whipping cream. This can be done with a mixer, or for more fun you can put it in a large lidded jar and shake it until it is whipped.

Slice cooled shortcake and top with berries and cream. Best eaten while sitting in the sun.


It is one of those spring days where big fluffy clouds drift across the sky, making the afternoon a patchwork of cool breezes and glorious sunshine that hurts your eyes and warms your back. Afternoons spent teaching after school at Trackers are some of my favorites: I get to teach, play, and explore in a way that is relaxed and more open-ended than some of our classes.

stealth-archery-and-wilderness-survival-week-4-summer-2014_8Today I am out with six boys ranging from ages seven to ten: Our goal is to find a nice patch of nettles to harvest for cooking later that week. As we exit the van everyone is restless. These kids have been in school all day, and because it was rainy recess was held indoors. They told me on the drive to the creek that most of them had not been outside all day. We set expectations for boundaries and as soon as we hit the trail they are testing the edges of them, filled with energy that can finally be released. After a few minutes of walking they settle and before long are all traveling in a tight group.

Two who have been to this spot before lead the way. Tangles of trees and brush have been given names: The Fairy Meadow, The Forest of Death, The Log of Doom. I am not sure if they realize that they are reciting a story map, a tool we teach campers for mentally mapping the wilds. Eventually we make it to the nettle patch, where we don gloves and harvest. We take only what we need, careful to help the patch grow and thrive in a reciprocal relationship with the nettle. We harvest the tops of the plants at a node so they will continue to grow.

After the nettles are gathered, I notice that the energy level is starting to rise again and we decide to explore further.  We want to see how far we can get down the trail before it is time to head back. I first set a quick pace, and then slow as the boys once again settle down and start to notice their surroundings. By the time we are in new territory, our pace is down to a crawl. We note blue elderberry that will get visited next fall, and small beaches along the creek that need exploration. There are discussions about fishing and boat building projects that we might take on in the coming weeks.

Under the bridge and along the creek we stumble upon a tiny cove. A huge log lays half in the water with its roots on dry land. Two boys immediately sit on it, leaning into chairs made of the huge exposed root ball.  A tiny side path of water runs under the roots before joining up with the creek again and one child points to a few areas in the main creek that might make good fishing spots. Rocks are skipped, tiny dams built and pretty agates discovered. It seems like no time has passed before my watch tells me we need to head back.

wilderness-survival-adventure-2012-week-8_2The walk back goes quicker. We return the way we came and our new landmarks are given names. As the last child climbs in the van and buckles up, we unanimously agree that we will revisit “our” beach and explore even further down the trail next time.

Afternoons like this are one reason I love Trackers. Curiosity and experience lead to deep learning and the development of relationship with the land and its inhabitants. When we intersperse hard skills with relaxed exploration I am constantly amazed by what is retained. Our After School students move through the woods with a relaxed familiarity, noting plants and tracks, and marking memorable landmarks without even realizing that these skills were new to them not long ago. Compared to many classroom experiences that I’ve had, working outdoors is calm.

The expansiveness and freedom of movement lets kids focus in different ways.  So when we eventually move indoors to cook our nettles, their time outside gains more layers of meaning. And for once the kids are eager to eat their greens.

-By Elaine Kinchen, Trackers Parent & Instructor

Learn more about Trackers After School programs