My family recently participated in a multi-family school camping trip to Portola Redwoods State Parks in the heart of the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. We led nature hikes and presented outdoor cooking demonstrations.
Rain clouds floated overhead in the sky but they did not dampen the enthusiasm for a weekend in nature.
As families arrived children poured out of the cars to join classmates already playing in the campground. The children quickly found the remains of a fort and began to make it their own. Several fallen redwoods surrounded the camping area. These tall giants were up to four feet in diameter and more than one-hundred in length. They provided a convenient ‘fence’ for the children. Some of these logs had shattered when they fell creating long shafts of redwood bark – convenient building materials.
While observing the children one mother in the group commented, “Kids are more independent when they are outdoors.”
Several children – pretending to be mountain lions – were stalking human prey ready to pounce as their moms and dads walked by. The sounds of kids playing and laughing filled the campground.
The adults unloaded their equipment and soon a small village of tents rose underneath the tall redwoods. A short time later smoke from the campfire was wafting through the giant trees as families began preparing for a ‘pot luck’ dinner.
For families still arriving their senses were welcomed by the scent of damp forest duff, the aroma of food and the sounds of happy children and community.
We helped to make dinner an educational event by cooking with a Dutch oven. The Dutch oven is a cast-iron pot used by westward-moving settlers in the 1800s. One child was especially curious about this odd looking pot. When encouraged to measure ingredients and manage the coals (with supervision) he eagerly joined in. Everyone ate well that evening.
Raindrops began to dot the tents as children brushed their teeth and bedded down. The gentle rain steadily increased throughout the night and eventually tested the weatherproofing of all the tents.
In the morning everyone woke to a pristine world. The rain provided a much-needed bath for the forest after months of dry weather. As sunlight beamed into the damp woods rarely seen colors greeted the eye. In one instance the moss growing on the inside hollow of one redwood was an iridescent green. Within several minutes the bright colors were gone only to impress the viewer with another special sight several trees away.
After breakfast, I lead a nature walk to Tip Toe Falls. This short but visually-rich trail provided opportunities for exploring: redwoods, jumping rocks to cross a creek, visiting the falls, observing clusters of Lady Bugs, listening to chattering birds and rescuing an eight-inch Banana Slug from being stepped on. The park’s nature center provided a good place to conclude the hike. Everyone was surprised to have been away for over three hours.
In the late afternoon, the children continued to fortify their fort and defend it against imaginary creatures.
The second evening families worked on dinner, the Dutch oven demonstration drew increased interest from both adults and children. The chili was a cool evening winner.
After dinner, I guided a nature walk. One child stopped on the trail and pointed to a spotted salamander. Everyone observed this primal looking creature then let it continue on its way.
On the final morning, the parents enjoyed their coffee around a small fire – a few minutes of quiet before the kids woke.
In several minutes the solitude was broken by children emerging from their tents. They made a beeline to their fort. The results of their engineering work were becoming apparent – in addition to a tee-pee shaped fort was a seven-foot-long piece of redwood bark had been transformed into a well-balanced teeter-totter. Log ramps allowed the kids to move quickly up the side of fallen redwoods. Some rope had been tied to the end several logs to create a simple pulley for moving wood and supplies. Evidence that young children also became more creative outdoors.
During breakfast, several kids grumbled that they had to leave later in the day. As one-second grader finished eating he ran to the redwood fort. His Dad called from behind, “Come drink your hot chocolate.”
The second-grader immediately stopped and turned to his elder. Although frustrated by dad’s interruption, his tone was respectful, “No Dad – I can drink hot chocolate any time but I can’t always play out here.”
It was a very revealing comment about the power of nature.
The child turned on his heel and ran fast as a deer to the fort, eager to spend another few precious minutes in nature.