Thursday, March 21, 2019

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.

When Thursdays, 6:30 PM – 8:30 PM | September 17, 24 & October 1, 8
Where Trackers Earth Portland | 4617 SE Milwaukie Ave (main parking area)

In September & October Trackers instructors will collect fibers during our Thursday Skills Evenings. Also, consider joining our Skills Evenings ($5 entry) where you can learn different skills such as fire with no matches or weaving. Or you can loose arrows in the archery range.


Trackers loves to teach making cordage (rope) from natural fibers in our camps and programs. The uses for this rope are essential and includes wild craft projects, shelter building, bowstrings and much more. In an effort to use more local sources, we invite our community to responsibly gather plant materials to bring into our first annual Fiber Drive!

Many of these plants are often pruned and thrown out while landscaping. Some might grow in your own backyard. Consider harvesting to share with our students. We really appreciate the gift! Above all, put caring for the plant and the natural world first.

How-to Harvest

During the fiber drive, drop-off is outside in our main parking area (Thursdays). Below you’ll find descriptions of the different fiber plants we’re looking for. Along with helpful hints for caretaking and harvesting.

By Moriori (Originally uploaded to Wikipedia, here.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Modification cropped and contrast.

Yucca

The best yucca leaves for fiber are the largest, longest ones. Harvest from the outside, these are the oldest. Only take a few to not stress the plant. Cut at the base of the leaf at a downward angle away from the plant with a sharp knife or pair of scissors (follow knife safety). If your yucca bloomed and seeded this year, you can collect the dry seed pods to start new ones! Also, feel free to bring in the any flower stalks that are straight and sturdy (we use these for hand drills—tools for fire with no matches). Learn more about Yucca.

 

By Emőke Dénes (WWT London Wetland Centre). Modified cropped and contrast.

New Zealand Flax

This fiber rich plant can grow to be very large and is cared for in a different way than yucca. Many people thin the leaves of their flax plants by identifying older leaves and removing them. Very old leaves start to yellow and should be removed first (although the fiber inside may be compromised at this point). Identifying a new fan of leaves and only harvesting the outside leaves, leaving the three tallest middle leaves of this fan, is another way to thin. Never harvest from a plant with a developing a flowering stalk as it will cause too much stress. Learn more about fiber from New Zealand Flax.

Stinging Nettle

A great time to harvest stinging nettle for fiber is after it’s produced its seeds (for food is at a different time). At this point, it’s beginning to transition the energy into its roots or rhizomes for Fall and Winter. Stinging nettle has little micro needles that can cause a sting (irritating but not dangerous). Make sure you wear gloves and clothing that protect your skin while harvesting. Use a knife or pair of sharp scissors and cut the stalk at the base, just above the ground. Remove the leaves, which are full of nutrients, and let them fertilize the land where you harvested, or put the leaves in your garden compost. Learn more about Stinging Nettle.

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.

strawberries-1