Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Importance of the Kitchen Table

My kids love to dance on the kitchen table. A different kind of energy is emitted when kitchen table dancing occurs. It's something unusual, exciting, taboo. It's great! I encourage everyone to dance on the kitchen table. 

There was a movement a while back promoting the idea that the federal government should supply every family in the U.S. with a kitchen table. It's a good idea. A lot happens around the kitchen table. It is a place to develop family value foundations. There are conversations, card games, craft projects, eating and cooking, being together, and slipping the family dog a treat. Homework and bills are done at the table. Holiday meals with family and friends make the kitchen table a hearthstone for family memories. It's a healthy place to be.

At High Trails Outdoor Education Center, the first meal we serve to school groups is always a mess. Many students don't have the chance to sit down with a family back home or have kitchen table norms to set expectations. It is loud, chaotic, messy, confusion over passing, and lots of refills. By the end of the week, students are working together at their tables like well-oiled machines (probably motivated by hunger). We hope students will be the impetus in their own homes to get everyone around the table for dinner or a little dance.

There is a great resource providing suggestions for how the kitchen table can influence child behavior and development.  

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Off The Beaten Path

As the last of the 24” of snow melted this week, I took a walk with my young sons in Olin Gulch in celebration of Earth Day. My four year old gleefully kicked slush at the dog in the two-track for a while before declaring his desire for “my own trail” and then setting off at a 45 degree angle from the main valley. Mom, infant brother, and wet dog followed.

As we walked, we identified tracks from ravens, rabbits, Sula (dog), ground squirrels, and even the tracks of a cross-country skier. And then my son stopped. “Mom. Look at THESE tracks.” I wandered up to where he was standing, staring down. “They are big,” he said. And they were. So I asked my standard question, trying to be cool and nonchalant, “So what do you think made these tracks?” No pause. “A bear.”

I agreed.

With all of our efforts to manage trash daily with off-site contained recycling and a bear-proof compactor, I haven’t seen much bear activity or bear “sign” around the ranch since my return to camp in 2001. But here was a set of perfect tracks in the snow; a post-winter, slightly pigeon-toed, long-clawed lumber headed straight toward the pond in the valley.


In the hour walk that followed, we kept talking about the bear—wondering where it lived, what it had been eating, and—of course—its size. We also talked about why we don’t usually see, or see signs of, many big animals or predators around anymore. We talked about habitat loss, weather changes, and our impact. With a four year old, when the conversation gets too heavy, suddenly he starts pretending he is a whale diving or a motorcycle jumping a ditch—but today was different.

He asked a lot of questions—hunting was a subject that both distressed and fascinated—but, at dinner that night, his favorite part of the day was, “The walk—and the big bear tracks in the snow.”

The slogan of my youth was, “Earth Day…Everyday.” And every day that we can get our kids, the Sanborn summer camp crew, our local school children, our country as a whole OUTSIDE, the more likely each individual will be to have a deep, authentic experience or interaction with the natural world. It is the best way we can create passionate stewards of our wild places; trying to do it through technology is a weak—and distancing—substitute.

Could we see bear tracks online? Yes. Could we watch a show about bears on Animal Planet? Yes. Would my son have run into his preschool classroom the next day and immediately told his teacher about “the really big bear that walked down to get some water after it slept for a long time and probably went to look for some bear berries or maybe some dead animal but not people because bears want their own space away from people because people hunt bears and I don’t like hunters but I like bears but they’re big….”? Probably not. And even though his teacher could only understand about 1/8 of his rambling story, she nodded and said, “I like bears, too. I want them to be around here for a long, long, LONG time.” And my son? He just smiled and said, “Me too.”

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Mr. Smith Goes to Camp?

I don’t watch TV much but the other night one of those old-fashioned movie channels was playing “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and it caught my attention. I couldn’t believe that I had never seen it before. After all, I’m one of those retro people who watches “It’s a Wonderful Life” every December. I know all the characters, every plot twist, every line and still tear up when Clarence gets his bell.


So, I was casually watching Jimmy Stewart when I was electrified by the fact that he was introducing a bill in the Senate to create a summer camp. (OK, to be honest, he was proposing a “Boys’ Camp” but that’s forgivable because the movie was made in 1939—I’m sure that today he would be proposing a “Girls’ Camp” too.) I watched in amazement as he identified the skills and ethics the boys would learn at camp and pitted them against the corruption, greed, and dishonesty in Washington. And then he engaged in his heroic filibuster (really, who besides Jimmy Stewart could make a filibuster heroic?) based on the highest ideals of America.


As I thought about it later, I realized that maybe things have not changed so much in the 70 years since Mr. Smith Went to Washington. Summer camp still stands as an antidote to the dysfunction and partisanship of many of our political systems. The goal at camp is to build a community based on respect for everyone, an appreciation of diversity, honesty, and teamwork. The goal at camp is to learn to appreciate the natural world and to interact with nature in ways that leave no trace. The goal at camp is to challenge ourselves together and to achieve great things like climbing mountains or camping in the wilderness. The goal at camp is to help young people to learn the social and emotional skills, which will help them to become happy, ethical adults.


Is it possible that if every politician had a camp experience as a youngster, the tone and attitude in Washington would be more functional, civil, bipartisan, and inclusive than it is today?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Sanborn Community Service

With the success of our SOLE (Sanborn Outdoor Leadership Experience) Program for 8th and 9th graders over the past few summers, we've decided to develop a new program specifically for our 9th grade campers to help build on their previous experiences and give them the tools to become leaders within their high school communities. This program will be known as CORE, or the Community OutReach Experience.


We are happy to introduce CORE in the summer of 2009. As we understand that community service is increasingly becoming a part of high school graduation requirements, we are glad to offer our campers a chance to meet some of the service requirements while they are here during the summer and are a part of a great summer camp experience. We hope that as part of the experience, campers will learn that community service can be a fun and rewarding experience, and that they will take this new attitude home with them. 


CORE will be a transition between the SOLE Program (which will be offered to our 8th grade campers) and our Junior Counselor and Outbacker Programs (for 10th grade campers), and help complete what we refer to as Peaks-to-Performance Program. This program is dedicated to helping develop environmental awareness as well as the confident and well-equipped leaders of the future. 


If you are interested in learning more about any of these programs or our summer camp experience in general, please visit our website Sanborn Western Camps or call 719-748-3341.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Sanborn In the Snow

Ranch Manager Sam Carkhuff was clearing some of the 24 inches of snow we received this weekend for the cattle and horses out at Witcher Ranch. When it snows this much in April...all we can think about is summer camp!

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Camping to Parenting: The Top 10 Things I Have Learned as a Summer Camp Professional That Make Me a Better Parent

Part II

The second edition of the two part series about skills I learned while working as a summer camp youth development professional at Sanborn Western Camps. These top five are, in my mind, some of the most important tools to practice...but they are also some of the hardest parenting, and counseling, skills remember. In the end, if we screw up (which we will), a genuine apology, a good hug, and time spent together in the outdoors will make the challenges and bad feelings evaporate--and give everyone the room they need to breathe. Enjoy!

5. Respect their individuality. Making comparisons between children (siblings, bunk mates) is a terrible mistake. Very few of us deliberately say things like, “I wish you could be MORE like Alice…” but plenty of us are guilty of saying, “Look at how well Alice cleared the table…” with the sibling or the rest of the children filling in the end of the sentence, “…and YOU didn’t.” Appreciate each child’s unique gifts. Know each child’s unique gifts. Celebrate those gifts in a one-on-one setting, don’t put one child on a pedestal in front of any others. Don’t love equally, love uniquely.

4. Never forget: It is the ACTION, not the person, you need to modify through discipline. There are no “bad kids” only “bad choices”. It is hard to emotionally remove yourself from a situation that has you incensed…but you must. That said, it is equally essential to voice your feelings, “We all have been working as a group to stop gossiping about other campers, because it is very hurtful and damaging to our community. The rumor that you started IS hurtful and damaging. You are not a mean girl, you just made a bad choice and I want to understand WHY you made that choice.” Tantrums (pre-school or pre-teen) are an outstanding time to practice empathy, not judgment.

3. Kids need time to simply be themselves. To simply be kids, to simply be playing, to simply be silly, to simply be curious, to simply be grumpy, to simply be happy, to simply be thoughtful, to simply be alone, to simply be playing with others, to simply be outside, to simply be strong, to simply be scared, to simply be human. Never underestimate the power of unstructured free play in the outdoors—kids will learn more about themselves and others in that environment than during a lifetime of soccer games. Boys, mine especially, really love taking long walks outside while singing silly songs, running races, picking up pinecones, inventing games, and actually talking to their momma.

2. The ability to manage and control one’s emotions effectively is a trait that many happy, wise successful adults all have in common. Providing children tools to practice emotional management is vital for creating a healthy, well-balanced society. A parent’s job is to raise a child that she wants to “release” into the world…and to begin that slow release the day the child is born. Beware of enabling behaviors that seem like safe alternatives. Make challenging situations into positive learning experiences. Promising a homesick child she can come home if she “hates camp” before she even arrives strips her of the ability to work through a tough experience and be proud of the resilience she developed on her own is no different than promising candy if you can make it through the grocery store without a fit.

1. 80% of what children hear and learn is what they see. Humans learn through mimicry. Kids will only be as good at these skills as you are…and parents, camp counselors, and camp professionals should never stop trying to do these things at home, at work, with friends, and with family. Because, in the end, children will see all of you faults, and love you anyway.

If you are interested in more tips from the camp world about parenting, preparing your child for camp and for life, as well as some cutting edge conversations about youth development, please continue to visit the Sanborn Western Camps blog--and also check out Bedtime Stories for Parents and parent resources on the ACA website.

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Creativity In Nature

I’d like to expound on a concept brought up by Mr. McGowan in one of our Tuesday touch up letters. This is the concept of 10,000 hours. Basically, Ryan spoke of mastering a subject area by spending 10,000 hours in that field. He used Bill Gates as an example, in that Bill Gates spent a large quantity of time programming computers so he could master the subject of computers.

Now, I’ve seen first hand what the outdoors can do for a person’s creativity and sense of wonder, both of which cannot fully be explored in a classroom setting. The hard skills – math, science, and language – are the main focus of current curriculum in school systems, not excluding universities. Schools are increasingly pushing aside any sort of activity – dance, music, theatre, art, etc. – that involves the heart, the body, the senses, and a good portion of children’s actual brains. In The Element, Sir Ken Robinson attributes the lack of creative activities to the fact that “politicians seem to think that it’s essential for economic growth and competitiveness and to help students get jobs [in Industrial America]. But the fact is that in the twenty-first century, jobs and competitiveness depend absolutely on the very qualities that school system is being forced to tamp down…Businesses everywhere say they need people who are creative and can think independently. But the argument is not just about business. It’s about having lives with purpose and meaning in and beyond whatever work we do.”

I feel that people in our domain, that is, outdoor educators, have a social responsibility to use nature as an avenue to help children (and adults) explore their right-brain creativity, not only to build a stronger society and stronger workforce, but to help each individual find “purpose and meaning” in every facet of their lives. I believe that we can do this, but first must achieve our 10,000 hours in nature to really understand the means and ends of how individuals are touched by nature. I use the word “individuals” instead of children because, in my opinion, people of all ages can benefit from experiences in the outdoors. Everyone could use a little nature in their lives. On a very personal note, if I can facilitate that, well, then, that’s my meaning and purpose in life. I hope that outdoor educators elsewhere feel the same way.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Leadership from the Outdoors

I recently "Googled" high school leadership and received back over 17 million hits, youth leadership opportunities returned over 2 million hits, and organizational leadership found almost 3 million hits. There were Web sites for schools, leadership workshops, job opportunities, and organizations. The number of leadership opportunities available to children, high school students, and even adults is astonishing. Leadership skills are essential to one's success, especially in times of economic uncertainty.

There are different ways a person can further develop his or her own leadership skills. Options include reading books and articles, attending classes and workshops, and through practice. While the first two options will help people learn new techniques and skills, I don't think anyone can truly improve his or her leadership abilities without practice. The greatest leaders do not attribute their success to anyone or anything. To them, being an effective leader is just something they do.

Spending time in the outdoors is one way to practice these skills. This might be a confusing connection, but here is my logic. When a child (or anyone really) spends time exploring in the outdoors s/he becomes more independent. S/he doesn't need a screen to be entertained, s/he doesn't need to go to a parent complaining of being bored, and s/he can use her/his imagination to stay active. When you are independent, you tend to have more self-confidence. With confidence, the child feels s/he can accomplish anything. When confronted with an obstacle, s/he doesn't give up, but rather conquers it without question. Independence and confidence are two characteristics of great leaders. S/he isn't worried about what other people think, s/he does not second-guess her/himself, and s/he is willing to go the extra mile to achieve success.

How do you try to improve upon your leadership skills?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Camping to Parenting: Top 10 Things I've Learned as a Summer Camp Professional That Make Me a Better Parent--A Two Part Series

Part I

I love summer camp. Being a camper, being a camp counselor, being a camp director, being a parent—I have made summer camp a part of my life and, now, part of the lives of my children. That said, it is remarkable how quickly you forget some of the cardinal rules you learned while you were a 20-something summer camp counselor about working with kids when your own children are in mid-meltdown about the shark show that “Daddy promised!” they could watch if they ate all of their mixed veggies. Sigh.

In order to help me regain my sanity, I have compiled a list of some of the most effective tools I have found for working with kids in the summer camp (and home!) setting, whether the kids are mine, yours, your sisters’, your neighbors, or “that kid” from down the street. I would love to hear from wise parents, youth development professionals, and other summer camp believers about kid-centric tools and techniques you find have worked for you. Since this is a two-part series, you may see some of your ideas in the next post.

10. The Power of Choice: Give kids real decision making opportunities by providing them with choices you can live with (i.e.: Do you want to clean the toilets before or after you make your bed? or What are your goals for this summer camp session? Do you want to climb a bunch of mountains or do you want to ride horses? Or Do you want to help mom set the table or do you want to make the salad for dinner tonight?). By doing this, you empower kids to take responsibility and ownership for their own actions.

9. Allow kids to define their own boundaries; facilitate the boundary creation. Give them ways to “frame” things in the positive: We’re going to the zoo today, what SHOULD we do at the zoo? We SHOULD stay together, we SHOULD wait our turn to look at the otters, we SHOULD have lots of fun. And what SHOULDN’T we do?.... “RUN!” “Eat too much candy!” “Feed the lions!” “Cut in line!” “Talk back!” You quickly learn that many children, even very young ones, have a great understanding of right from wrong…and by “framing” activities before they even begin, they can more readily “own” their actions and are more willing to respond if they accidentally do something they SHOULDN’T do.

8. If conflicts do occur, make kids right about what they need to be right about. “She hit me first.” “Yes. I saw that she hit you first. Why did she hit you, do you think?” Also, in heated situations, never make assumptions. Ask A LOT of questions and remember that most kids WANT to do the right thing…but sometimes they just forget how to do it. Don’t put kids in a box that they can’t get out of—during conversations, as they are growing up, socially, etc.. A great technique for getting a kid to talk is to MOVE. Children, especially boys, can have a hard time expressing their feelings if they feel like an adult is standing there, waiting for an answer, and “pressuring” them to say something. If you can remove the child from the situation and go for a walk (ideally outdoors), the questions you ask may elicit more than the standard, “I dunno” answers.

7. When they make bad choices, assign real and timely consequences. This one takes practice and you have to know your children or campers very well in order to assign a consequence that is neither too harsh nor too lenient for the action. I will often make sure I—with the help of the kids--have “framed” the entire experience so any resulting “bad choices” already have consequences assigned (i.e.: “We decided as a group that people who don’t help with clean-up today won’t get to have any of Emily’s cake after clean-up. SO…is everyone ready to win cabin clean-up today?”). That also takes some of the emotional volatility out of the situation. If everyone knows what will happen and when, I am not perceived as being arbitrary or unfair.

6. Give them plenty of opportunities to practice making both good and, inevitably, bad choices. Give them a safe framework to practice in…overnight camp is an outstanding, safe place to practice decision-making. Overnight camp provides a community with multiple supportive adults who genuinely want each child to have an outstanding camp experience. Through their interactions with other adults and children, who may or may not have similar interests and experiences, kids learn how to make and keep friends, practice perseverance and resilience, and gain a better understanding of themselves…all of which helps them become wise decision-makers.

Next time, Part II! I look forward to hearing your thoughts….

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Friday, April 3, 2009

“Free Play”: is this a new school activity?

On a Sunday evening this past summer I was hanging out with about ten 5th grade boys at a campfire where we were grilling up some hotdogs. One of the boys went over to grab an armful of firewood. When he returned, he mentioned that he had an idea for a game we could play. He explained that we could slide the lid off the firewood box to create a gap at the top. We all needed to find three pinecones. We gathered our pinecones and got in line. We each had three throws to see who could get their pinecones through the gap in the box. We played one round when another boy spoke up and said that we needed a point system. Two other boys then suggested that if your cone goes in the gap of the box you get 3 points, if the cone lands and stays on the lid you get 2 points, and if the cone just hits the box you get 1 point. The game went on for an hour. We continued to play this game every Sunday during the summer and every time I line up to toss my pinecone, I am playing with a new set of rules. This is what I call “Free Play.”

“Free Play,” as scientists call it, is vital for children. Many children today do not have time to just play. Some are scheduled every minute of the day. According to a paper published in 2005 in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, children’s free-play time dropped by 25% between 1981 and 1997. Some parents are concerned about getting their kids into the right colleges at age 5; they are sacrificing playtime for more structured school and sports activities. Pre-school children are being enrolled in after-school music and drama classes. This crazy busy schedule is reducing time for the type of imaginative and rambunctious interaction that fosters creativity and cooperation.

Let’s give our children time to play, create, and innovate. Let’s provide our children with a foundation which helps them grow into high functioning, healthy adults. Let’s take our children outside and hand them a stick, a ball, and a box and see what game they create. 

What is “Free Play” to you?