Nature Is the Best Teacher
By Catherine H. Knott, Ph.D.
My favorite photos from my teenage years include a photo of a good friend and me sitting on a rock slab overlooking a pristine lake in Northern Ontario, where we camped as part of our wilderness canoe camp, and a photo of another friend and me with our bikes loaded with camping gear on the Jasper to Banff highway in Alberta. In both pictures we are fit and tan, relaxed and smiling proudly, surrounded by nature. Yet, we are so at home in these wild landscapes that we seem unaware of how extraordinary our setting is. I remember those summers as some of the happiest in my life.
Experiences in the wild, whether at summer camp, hiking or biking with a club or scout group, or even traveling and camping with family, provide teenagers with a chance to challenge themselves and become self-reliant and create vividly indelible memories. With months away from the demands of school schedules, summer offers an opportunity to provide these experiences for our children. We do not have to spend a fortune to ensure that our children experience wilderness and the challenges and joys of coping in the wild and learning from nature.
Finding the Opportunity that Fits
If you don't have a plan already, parents should sit down and start brainstorming right away. Summer is here and many campgrounds, summer programs, and camps fill up fast. Decide together what fits your family best: family camping trips, clubs and local programs, camps for your teenagers, or a combination of these.
Take a look at everyone's schedules and interests to determine whether a family camping trip or wilderness experience will fit this summer. But be creative: A short trip can be just as memorable as a longer one, and if dates are not meshing, perhaps you can change your work schedule, too. Even if interests and ages diverge among all the siblings, a family trip, complete with squabbles and reconciliations, could be the best choice for everyone, and provide for a shared delight in wilderness experiences that will last a lifetime.
While gas prices are becoming prohibitive for cross-country travel, even an extended vacation in one state or national park near you can provide a beautiful setting for wilderness activities. Most state and national parks provide some ranger programs and hiking trails. Some are near whitewater rafting and canoeing opportunities, and other nearby outfitters may offer rock-climbing, fishing, or other chances to learn a new skill in the wild.
It isn't necessary for everyone to engage in exactly the same activities. Family members may enjoy choosing their own activities each day, and sharing stories about them around the campfire at night. Plan to take enough food and gear for everyone to be comfortable, and cameras, art supplies, and journals for recording the experiences. Sharing each person's different recollections later can provide hours of happy reminiscing and sometimes more than a few humorous moments.
The state parks along Oregon's beaches have provided our family many days of enjoyment. Later, we got in the habit of taking a two-week camping trip every summer to explore the many wonderful campgrounds in the Olympic National Park in Washington State. Now that we live in Alaska, we make a point of camping and hiking in Denali every summer, taking all family members who are able to get away from work for at least a few days.
Even if you do not live near the Pacific Northwest or another dramatic wilderness area, a short trip to your town's Visitor's Center, American Automobile Association, or the public library will provide information about where you can travel for an experience in wild nature.
Summer Programs and Clubs
If you and your partner cannot get away with the family this summer, find some local programs and clubs that offer opportunities for teenagers to get out in the wild, either for day hikes or overnight camping. Your City Parks and Recreation office should provide catalogs of activities. If you are in a very small town, try the next largest town near you.
Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts and similar programs often provide the best opportunities, combining many decades of experience guiding young people through challenging activities in beautiful places. Perhaps your inexperienced or reluctant teenager will suddenly discover an interest in scouting when she sees some pictures of the amazing camps the Scouting organizations own, or attends a local presentation with you.
Other local programs may include Sierra Club hikes and outings, which you and your teenager can attend together. If you can find a helpful adult sponsor, your teenager may even be able to go on outings when you are too busy to go. Biking clubs offer another alternative in which you do not necessarily have to participate; your teenager may discover a whole new set of interests on his own. Some outdoor gear stores offer fishing clinics that could provide a shorter introduction to wilderness areas nearby.
Rather than forcing your teenager to accept or reject only one or two choices, spend a little time figuring out what your town or county has to offer, and then sit down with your teenager to see what interests him. If your teenager is willing to participate in looking for activities, he may be able to experience wilderness in a whole new way.
Summer camps may require more research and involve more expense than other summer activities. But camps also offer some of the best opportunities for a life-changing experience, immense personal growth, and learning new skills in beautiful wilderness environments. Most teenagers can handle two weeks or a month away from home, and enjoy the new experiences they find at camp. The challenge for you is to find one that fits your teenager and your budget.
Fortunately, there are many ways to research camps. Start by looking on the Internet or in local mailers. Many midsize and larger towns also have counselors and teachers who provide consulting or counseling services to help your family pick a suitable camp. And do not forget to consult your teenager early on. The more she feels a part of the process, the more likely she will be excited to have a camp experience this summer. In addition, she may have heard of excellent camps her friends attended. Once you narrow down the options, you can request brochures and talk to staff to get a sense of the camp experience in each place.
Ultimately, a summer wilderness experience will have ripple effects across your teen's lifetime. New skills, new friends, new places, and a sense of accomplishment and confidence are just the tip of the iceberg. Deep down, your teenager is connecting with nature, a place of renewal for life, and the best teacher of all. Your teenager will establish a relationship with nature and a connection to an inner source of strength that should be there for the rest of his life.
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