Thursday, March 21, 2019

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,

Tony
Trackers Earth, Founder

Dress your kids for success to have fun this winter! Keeping kids comfortable outdoors in all weather helps them appreciate nature and stay active. We put together a handy video and infographic on how to layer to stay warm and dry in cold weather.

Watch the Video

In this video, the Trackers Gear Fairy teaches parents and kids about essential winter clothing.

Read the Infographic

Use this infographic to double check all your layers!

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.