I was 14 years old and reading Walden. About three-quarters of the way through the book, I said to my parents:
This high school thing isn’t working for me, I need to do something different. I’m going to explore the wilderness.
They offered no argument and zero debate. Instead, they went about helping me figure out how to make it happen. My mother and father saw that I was suffering during my Freshman year. I found prescriptive education stifling, evidenced by my (possibly pretentious) interest in 19th-century transcendentalism. The strict compartmentalization of conventional classrooms felt painful. Moreover, I was consistently bullied and struggled socially.
But in nature, there was no edict limiting what I could explore and who I could learn from. There were no fluorescent lights pushing my face into a desk. And no one to tease me when I didn’t know the latest band or wasn’t a star Sportsball player.
Eventually, I discovered Forest Craft. My goal: learn the skills that bring me closer to the Wild. My family couldn’t afford to send me to a class across the country or buy books on the subject. Yet what they lacked in financial resources they more than made up for in love and encouragement.
Because Forest Craft is both so deep and so broad, it can be a challenge to learn without teachers. There were no outdoor homeschool programs that I knew of. This was long before bushcraft videos on YouTube. All I had was my bike and a library card.
That process of self-education often proved more profound than answers from a ready-made curriculum. Eventually, I helped assemble a growing community of like-minded folks who shared an appreciation for the natural world. Some also left high school with the same vision. We made primitive shelters, surviving the elements with no modern gear. We foraged through seasons of wild foods. We tracked the local bears, getting to know them like they were part of our own village. Together we learned challenging and epic lessons from the wilderness.
Conventional education failed to provide me with healthy social connections, wilder freedom, and deeper roots. My journey may have started out inspired by Thoreau’s solitary rantings by Walden Pond, but with the support of my big Italian Family, we evolved into a village. And, at some point along the way, we started to call it Trackers. Twenty-eight years later, I feel privileged to be part of that community with our staff and the families we serve.
I know there is a better way for children to grow and learn than the prescriptive education forced upon us. My own children learn through their connection to nature and the freedom it brings. Their “home school days” are often spent wandering the forest, sometimes without an adult. They talk about plants and animals in those woods like they are old friends. And they’re surrounded by more than just teachers, they have mentors who I consider their extended family.
That’s the goal of all our year-round programs, from our Homeschool Outdoor Program to our Weekend Apprenticeships: Give every kid a connection that goes beyond school. Help them find a vision that empowers many generations beyond their own adventures in learning.
See you in the woods,
Trackers Earth, Founder
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.
Recently I observed a group of outdoor educators discussing “play-based” and “child-centered” learning. I noticed an almost dogmatic and singular interpretation of how these concepts relate to forest schools—even how we parents should raise our kids.
For those not familiar with these terms, they can mean many things. Frequently, play-based learning refers to free play and exploration, especially in the outdoors. Child-centered learning is more vague, ranging from curriculum-based on each student’s individual needs and interests to children wholly choosing the subject and scope of their learning.
I’ll begin by affirming that play is absolutely essential to learning (and life) and working with students beyond a standardized educational model should be the baseline. Yet both concepts of play-based and child-centered learning are not often well integrated into the whole picture of how children learn to value nature or become adults who contribute to their community and the Earth.
The option to always (and only) play through life, even as a child, is a contemporary luxury and a toxic privilege that leads to self-centered adults. Unfortunately, parents or educators can often feel driven to make everything entertaining through “play”. This fearful obsession is fueled by modern culture’s inability to provide work infused with joy or play aligned with responsibility.
In order to grow into competent, healthy humans, children need to see adults “adulting” well. Relative to other great apes such as gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans, we humans possess an incredible capacity for intersubjectivity—the ability to quickly theorize what others are thinking based on information such as body language, expression, and more. Intersubjectivity is how humans evolved into master trackers: able to predict the whereabouts of their quarry with a mix of simple clues, knowing their landscape, and “thinking” like the animal they are hunting. It is also why children are so adept at learning by imitation, especially from their elders.
In the ancestral past we all share, children had time to explore the land where they lived. Certainly, they played, but they also engaged in vital responsibilities during such explorations: harvesting and cracking nuts, foraging tidal pools, gathering wood for the fire. When they wandered further from the family hearth or village proper, they might be relied upon to bring back berries, fish, or small game. Their caregivers would provide them with the physical tools and materials needed to carry out these expected tasks: baskets, knives, or hunting weapons. Or these elders would show them how to craft their own, sometimes through direct instruction and storytelling, sometimes through unguided imitation and trial and error. As children grew, their responsibilities became more complex (and more interesting), and ever more essential to their family or village.
They were not doted on by adults pandering to every precocious question. Rather, practicality, mindfulness, and resourcefulness were expectations as they walked with their parents, tending to the day-to-day needs of their family and the land they were a part of. With familial and communal survival directly at stake, there was no hard and fast rule for learning the “how-to” of a task. It was whatever mixture of methods reliably guided the child to be truly helpful.
This “work” of survival did not lessen how much a child intrinsically valued nature (the more-than-human-world). Instead, this “work” of livelihood provided a daily reminder of their dependency on and connection to the Earth—going far beyond what distilled recreation and play can ever hope to reach.
Explorations of our ancestral past and evolutionary assets can offer profound implications for the in vogue concepts of play-based and child-centered learning as applied to outdoor education and forest schools. A healthier and more balanced approach to child development should encompass the well-being of the community (village) and the more-than-human-world, even shifting the notion of child-centered to a multi-generational scope. Meanwhile, our play can involve meaningful work that reinforces and provides for these greater ecological and communal connections.
When we venture into the out-of-doors, give our children duties and responsibilities with meaning. Expand upon those opportunities with sage advice and, even more important, sage role-modeling. Then, with access to these cultural tools, physical tools, and the wilder world, let them play and explore. Responsibility to community informs their play. In turn, play informs their responsibility to community. Treat this as a never-ending cycle and you will discover the true school of the forest.
Interested in learning the skills of a Forest School Teacher?
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.
Happy New Year!
Our work moves in seasonal cycles. We recently finished up our Winter Break Camps (you can check out the photos here). Here are some events the Trackers Family is looking forward to in the coming year.
In 2017 the first Kindergarten Class of the Trackers Forest School will graduate and this September will feature both Grade K and 1. We are also adding something truly unique—an Outdoor Middle School (Grades 6-7). We follow an interdisciplinary approach and combine real-world skills with academic excellence. This is an exciting new direction in education for ourselves and our community.
But never fear: Our award-winning Summer Camps will return for their 12th year! Along with old favorites, we have crafted new themes for older campers such as pottery, rock climbing, and mobile overnights.
The summer program that has our educators most excited? The Tracking Through Time Traveling Roadshow: Solar Eclipse Edition. Campers traverse seven states in the American West, tracking wolves and antelope, checking out ancient cliff dwellings, and following 190 million-year-old fossilized dinosaur footprints. In Casper Mountain, Wyoming they will witness a once-in-a-lifetime celestial event—total eclipse of the Sun!
Finally, building upon our Guide to Knives & Woodcarving, Trackers Books will launch new field guides for kids that include archery, animal tracking, navigation, and fishing. All part of our ultimate mission to empower children and their families to make forest craft an integral part of their lives.
It’s been a busy year and this is only a short summary of what’s to come. I look forward to seeing you all at camp, school, homeschool, and other programs. I am grateful and excited to be on this journey with our incredible staff, students, and all the families we serve.
Trackers Founder & Mom
At Trackers we have much to be thankful for.
You, all the families who support us, are at the top of our list.
We wanted to share a short film about our family and 1-day at Trackers camp.
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.
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