At Trackers Earth, all weather is good weather. We believe encouraging resiliency in all kinds of weather teaches kids how to face challenges throughout their lives.
Wilderness survival, archery, blacksmithing, kayak building, fishing, or animal tracking! Students come to Trackers to learn skills forgotten or ignored in modern life. They feel compelled to engage with the primal physical world, not a digital representation of it.
These hands-on skills bring mental puzzles. You carve wood that doesn’t have perfect grain. You make a fire in wet conditions. Crafting leads to craftiness—a capacity for thoughtful strategy to navigate a complex world. Even more important is that the deer is not a coded object in an online game. As you track the doe, she forces you to understand that she too has a passion to live, breathe, and survive.
This all leads to the “invisible skill” of Trackers—our version of Outdoor Leadership. We teach a means of community stewardship that has existed since humans first walked the planet. At Trackers, the best leaders are actual “trackers”—individuals who deftly listen to the land they care for and the people they serve.
This ability is not gained just by following a textbook or teacher. Each student needs challenges that only the diversity of nature and forest craft can bring about. I know excellent leaders who are accomplished at negotiating the human world, but it is a rare leader whose personal intelligence also extends into the more-than-human world. Such individuals are guided by a radical awareness and profound empathy.
At Trackers, this version of Outdoor Leadership makes our courses and community greater than the sum of the skills we teach. Yet it is often invisible, threaded through the ongoing experiences of our students and families.
After much internal conversation at Trackers, we realize we need to do even more to nurture this “invisible skill” in our future leaders, the younger members of our community. Over the next year, the majority of our teen mentoring programs will feature a greater emphasis on Outdoor Leadership training.
Central to many upcoming courses is a dialogue with our Apprentices that addresses these deeper qualities of Outdoor Leadership. This includes our Rangers, Wilders, Mariners, Artisans, and Archery apprenticeships, along with our Homeschool Outdoor and After School programs for middle and high school age students.
Our goal is to foster the next generation of teachers and leaders for Trackers and beyond. We seek to grow a community through awareness, empathy, and strategies for equity. We hope to show our Teen Apprentices how tracking the deer leads us all to greater care for our shared village and the Earth on which we live.
Trackers Earth, Founder
Disclaimer: This blog is from a mom who happens to know her individual kids very well. It does not necessarily reflect exactly how we teach at Trackers Camps.
By Molly Deis, Trackers Founder & Mom
Remember when Calvin, from the Calvin & Hobbes comic, bellowed at his mother to watch TV, ran amok around the house, or, as Spaceman Spiff, blew something up? After which, Calvin’s mom promptly tossed him outside.
When my own kids start to lose it, I do the same thing. Minus the actual tossing.
Love or hate it, most of us have used the classic “time out” when our kids get challenging. However, being sent to your room can be a strange mix of punishment and reward: there are toys, but also four walls (like a classroom… or a prison).
On the other hand, Time-Outside is different. The blue sky doesn’t respond to tantrums. The trees are unmoved by screams. The bugs could care less about your bad mood. There is no audience. All that remains is an outlet for self-creativity in the form of sticks, grass and mud.
There are many pathways to challenging behavior. Maybe the child is bored. Maybe they’re too reliant on us parents for their perceived needs. Maybe they’re bouncing off the walls as a plea for freedom. Or maybe they just choose to be selfish that day. These are all human problems that Nature could care less about.
When you go back far enough, we all had hunter-gatherer ancestors who raised their kids in a world not defined by four walls. Instead, a child’s playroom stretched to the horizon, filled with rivers, meadows, and forest. Children are supposed to start out as selfish with other humans in the family. A child who vocalizes her needs is employing a survival strategy that ensures the tribe feeds and cares for her. Some researchers even suggest crying could be a natural mechanism that helps stave off the birth of additional siblings—additional competition for resources (a phenomenon I’m sure many parents will vouch for).
Parental proximity amplifies this selfish instinct. Research shows that children cry more when they know a parent is around. As vexing as this can be, it demonstrates a healthy and instinctive dependence on essential caregivers. But nature also provides a balance for this. Survival skills for the wilderness helps pull children into autonomy and competent adulthood.
In the hunter-gatherer world, no matter how hard you cry the fish won’t jump onto your hook, the deer won’t walk into your arrow, and the cattail root won’t leap out of the mud and into your basket.
Nature does not reward behavior with the same attention as a parent. While we’re genetically coded to tolerate (to some degree) the pleadings of our own offspring, the rest of nature have no such ties. Birds don’t ask, “Are you okay?” when you’re throwing a fit. Nor do they say, “You’re bad.” They might see you as a threat, watching you and alarming from the trees until you calm down.
Any child attentive to wildlife soon recognizes the importance of attuned senses, stillness, and blending in (camouflage). Thus, by sparking even the most basic interest in Nature, parents can help these “animals teachers” transform their child from human dependent to wilder diplomat.
So, even though nature doesn’t give a fig, it’s incredibly engaging. From the worst tantrum, it rarely takes more than 20 minutes for my kids to calm down once they get outside. Usually far shorter, especially if I’m not right there to be their foil.
The improvement is swift and impressive as four-year-old Annie quickly forgets she needed to watch Wild Kratts. Instead, she embarks on a creature-power-adventure with the actual squirrels in her own yard. The bonus? I have some much-needed peace and quiet to get some work done, like writing this blog! (Though I do peek my head out every so often to confirm she and her brother are still alive.)
In reading this, hopefully you don’t think I’m a callous mother, abandoning her children’s emotional plights to a world of spiders, moles and squirrels. My goal is freedom for my children. Freedom from the stuff in their room. Freedom from me telling them what is right or wrong. Mostly importantly, freedom to discover their own resilience.
Time-Outside works so well, sometimes I give myself one. When I realize I’m not handling parenting as well as I should, I head outdoors to keep the goats company and watch the barn swallows feed their own begging chicks. However, time out in nature shouldn’t be limited to parenting challenges. There are countless reasons to head into the unspoiled, rural or urban wilderness. Go watch the stars. Garden in the dirt. Play in the sprinkler!
When the weather is warm, children should stay outside as much as possible during daylight hours—maybe beyond. Set up a blanket for picnic lunches. Hang a hammock. Suggest they build a stick fort if they crave the “indoors”. The more you keep them outside, the less you’ll see that selfish front kids put up for us as parents. The more you’re outside with them, the happier everyone will be.
So if you do come to my house this summer, please take the driveway slowly. Beware the feral children roaming amok with a certain stuffed tiger named after a comic sitting in their currently empty room.
Like many of you, Tony and I are working parents. And sometimes we work from home. While watching the kids. While taking care of the goats. While not getting enough work done. While our kids holler, “M-o-o-m! D-a-a-d!”
Not only is it distracting, but it also means that if you get a call from me you are likely to hear a lively discussion about “whose stick it is” in the background. For the record, it was originally Robin’s stick (6 years). But he put it down. So it became Annie’s stick (4 years). Meanwhile Maxi (1 year) makes off like a bandit with said stick while her two siblings argue.
This is parenthood. I can job-clean-nurse while wearing my child ankle weights. I know that 5 minutes of alone time in the bathroom isn’t guaranteed. Though sometimes I ask, why do Tony and I seem to have a gravitational mass that pulls in our children? Why do they require us to entertain them?
And I have to remind myself, this need not be a constant state. A simple change of venue can do the trick. Go outside! In the house, we parents are often the most interesting object available. The kids ricochet off the walls and into our near-Earth orbit. But outside, children can manage escape velocity.
Of course, there is the “parent addiction” (read: won’t leave you alone) that can afflict all children (at least before their teenage years). Once outdoors, kids may not be ready to see that the walls have vanished. While they work it out, we can get back to work: Sitting on the grass with our laptops, puttering in the garden, or watching the juncos flit through the trees.
And while ignoring little ones indoors is rarely possible, once in nature they invariably wander off to find rocks, mud puddles, bugs, grass, shovels, weeds to eat, dinosaur bones, knives, clouds, and squirrels. Or they may choose to help with your garden puttering.
As with any parenting advice, this is easier blogged than done. Yet sending our kids outside need not stem from our frustration; it can come from our empathy. A life spent indoors doesn’t set children up for success in exploring beyond the limited perspective of their parents (that’s us with our limitedness). Nature provides a far grander and more diverse landscape.
So next time we seek that sense of calm, but our kids aren’t letting us have it, let’s try stepping outside with them (or send them out on their own—that’s how I wrote this blog*). There we shall find a world with fewer boxed-in boundaries, less parental gravity. And enough sticks to for everyone!
See you outside,
Founder & Mom
*Picture the mom from Calvin and Hobbes.
Animal tracking is an incredible way to explore Nature with kids. While glimpsing a coyote or deer might be rare, their tracks are not. You just have to learn how and where to look.
When you find a track with your kids, have everyone take care not to step on any other prints that might be in line with it. Encourage kids to get down close by getting on your own knees to examine it.
Bring your faces close to the print. Tracks have a couple of key features that help you identify “who” the animal is.
Count the toes The number of toes in a track helps you narrow it down. For example, deer or elk hooves show two toes, while weasels like mink and marten show five toes.
Check for claws Look for the presence or absence of claws. People often overlook tiny claw marks, so look carefully. For example, dog tracks show claws and cat tracks don’t (they keep them sheathed).
Look at pad shape Pad shape also helps you key the track out. For example, cats have a distinct m-shaped pad that is all one piece, while squirrels have a pad that is made up of many parts.
Compare size Once you figure out it’s some kind of cat, the size of the track will help you identify if it’s Fluffy the house cat or the local cougar that ate Fluffy (hey, cougars gotta eat).
There are other track features you can learn about, such as symmetry, webbing, hair on the foot, gait, and negative space, which will give you more clues to identify the animal.
Bring a notebook for drawing and writing details down, along with a small pocket tape measure. Many excellent field guides offer average measurements for tracks. We recommend Mammal Tracks and Sign by Mark Elbroch. You can also find many great resources online.
When you first start tracking, it’s best to begin with clear prints. Look for ground (substrate) where the foot can leave behind as much detail as possible. Good ground to search for tracks are sandy or silty floodplains, beaches near forests, or snow-covered ground in winter.
Identification is just the start. At Trackers we teach the 5 Fingers of Tracking. These are series of questions kids ask to learn more about the animal they are tracking.
Thumb Who is this animal?
Index How was this animal moving?
Middle When was this track made?
Ring Why was this animal here (food, shelter, etc.)?
Pinky Where is this animal now?
Stay tuned for more blogs how to share animal tracking with kids. Plus, our new upcoming kids book, Animal Tracking.
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…
#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 Camp) gets 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).
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.
Stories from each week of Summer Camp:
“The circle is now complete. When I left you, I was but the learner, now I am the master.” – Darth Vadar to Obi Wan Kenobi
Kids can teach parents. They go out into the world and discover skills to bring home. We smile when parents tell us how campers share their newfound knowledge with their families. It empowers them to feel Truly Helpful. Children have an innate desire to contribute to the well-being of their community. We can cultivate this through camp.
Wilderness Survival Camps
The various camps Owen has done are quite different but none are like Trackers. He loves the adventure and outdoor skills learned. At home, he teaches us how to make fire and carve wood. We appreciate the enthusiasm of the counselors and his excitement for each day. – Jake, Parents
Mary loved both of the counselors in her group and left excited about her new-found fire making skills. We are going camping this weekend and just need to bring one match, maybe two. – Kathleen, Parent
Wizards Academy Camps
Every day has been an adventure for her. She’s learning skills that excite and challenge her. She is teaching me that I need to say “be careful less” and giving me another model for letting her challenge herself safely. – Leila, Parent
Zoey had such a wonderful experience today. We heard her excited stories about the portal, the river and her hike and her cool adventures. She is teaching us how to hand crochet, the secret handshake and we love her excitement. Thank you for her wonderful day. – Mary, Parent
Farm & Wild Craft Camps
Sam is having a great time. He was using his homemade salve on the way home and telling all it’s uses. – Karen, Parent
It is always difficult to find a camp that excites all 3 of my kids but Trackers delivers! My kids come home full of stories, new experiences, knowledge and enthusiasm. My daughter and I walked the dog in the open space this week and she let me know the tree we were passing was a black oak (a fact she learned at Trackers). I get the feeling you combine real learning about nature and survival with games and stories that spark imagination and excitement. Thanks! – Naomi, Parent
Stories from each week of Summer Camp:
Many of the skills we teach are inspiring: wilderness survival, farm life, blacksmithing and fishing. We recognize these fantastic possibilities bring kids to our camps. When you get into it, these skills can sometimes turn out to be more difficult than first imagined. Yet our instructors collaborate with kids to step-up. And that’s where the true magic happens. Discovering the power of resilience and gaining confidence in their capability to learn teaches kids to explore and live a great life.
Farm & Wild Craft Camps
Maya was thrilled she got to milk a goat today. She said, “It’s much harder than it looks to get the milk to come out.” She’s really enjoyed every day of camp, her leader (Skye) is fantastic, and she’s learning a lot & making new friends! -Marci, Parent
The instructors for, Apprenticeship of the Blade, have an enormous amount of skill and knowledge about how to forge blades and they understand how to communicate it to their students. It was refreshing to find a camp that offered such wonderful instructors. Often, teenagers share very little information, not so with this class, our teenager would share his completed pieces and the knowledge that went into it. So, thank you, it is so great to hear him speak with enthusiasm instead of sarcasm. -Karen, Parent
Wilderness Survival Camps
Sebastian is normally a kiddo who doesn’t like to get dirty or wet. You can imagine my delight when I came to pick him and he was covered in charcoal “camouflage” after spending a good portion of his day out in the rain and had a blast! All he talks about is all the cool things he does including shooting “real arrows like the big kids.” Thanks for making it a super fun week for him. It’s worth the drive -Kimberly, Parent
Claire has really loved this camp. I went in to wake her yesterday and she was sobbing in her sleep. I was worried and held her while she woke up to tell me she was having a dream that she couldn’t go to zombie camp that day. Good job guys! -Robin, Parent
My workdays at Trackers can be a hectic blend of emails and phone calls from my home “office.” I always hope the background noise of my kids asking questions or the babbling baby doesn’t intrude into the conversation when I’m talking with you, our parents. Working in a family business means I sometimes get to be at home with the kids, and I also get to answer emails or phone calls on weekends, evenings, and even holidays.
The biggest challenge for me (and Tony) is taking the time to unplug and get Robin, Annie and Maxine outside. Ironic, I know. Like many parents it can be hard to limit screen time for not only my kids, but especially myself. Too often I look over my computer to see Maxine playing on the floor, happily chewing her toys (a branch used in a primitive fire-starting kit). When my baby girl gazes towards me I’m reminded the glow of the Apple brand on the back of my laptop is a common sight for her 10-month old eyes. Grr arg! The inner-demon of mommy guilt rises.
It can be hard to close the computer and quickly usher the kids outside and towards the barn of chickens, ducklings, goats, and the “bear fort” my five-year old son, Robin, had made from sticks. There’s always one more thing of work to do. I try to remind myself how important it is for me personally to unplug and connect with my kids. I try to walk the Trackers talk.
It’s hard for all of us. More and more our work and social worlds demand we login through cables, bluetooth, or Wifi. I’ve never been one to resent technology. I could always use “one more minute” to send an email or cast a self-spell for my online role-playing game (a text based MUDD) while campaigning for my Kingdom.
I also understand that I can’t be too hard on myself. As a mom who also serves the families of Trackers, my job necessitates me to consistently engage that virtual world. While I also realize that in the day-to-day flurry of life online, I often need simple reminders to just be outside, unplugging and connecting with my own children. So I apologize up front if I ever miss a email or call. I promise to eventually get to it… right after Maxine and I feed the ducks. Probably just before. Or during.
Trackers Earth, Founder