A New Relationship with Nature and Travel

In her new book, "The Urban Bestiary," Lyanda Lynn Haupt explains that most people's relationship with nature has gone from that of being a romantic wanderer (think John Muir or Henry David Thoreau) to that of being "present, involved, touched and touching, in a journey of reconnection between daily life and wilder earth."  While we still yearn for the days when nature was truly untouched and to walk within it was completely different than our everyday lives, that has changed quite a bit, as anyone who as visited Yosemite Valley or Yellowstone in the high season can tell you.  My home in Marin County feels more relaxing (especially when no ones using a chain saw or a leaf blower).

The palpable sense and evidentiary proof that we are losing species and places due to our own actions makes every interaction with nature seem that much more important.  We can no longer take wild places for granted.  One way to make that trip into the wilderness that much more meaningful to you and your family and restorative to the Earth, is to plan a service activity that can be done as part of the trip.  The local ranger station or a "Friends of" group can point you in the right direction.  Choose lodgings where the proprietors are involved in taking care of the place that is sustaining them.

So the next time you consider going into the woods or to the seashore, consider planning for that quiet time that fuels your creative spirit, the fun with family and friends that creates a life well lived, and don't forget that restorative action on behalf of the wilds that will soothe your soul.

Service Projects Help Restore the Earth and Kids' Connection To It

One of the unique features of Marin GreenPlay's program is that we make sure that kids learn the ethic of not just using our beautiful wild places but giving back to them as well.  We follow famed local naturalist Elizabeth Terwilliger's mantra to "leave places better than the way you found them."

Those who have studied service learning have demonstrated the benefits of taking children outdoors and giving them meaningful, non-abstract projects to work on.  By giving kids real projects, they become engaged and feel their power.  They understand that their voices are being heard by adults.  Instead of focusing on problems a world away, we give them problems to work on that they can see with their own two eyes and do something about.  As Arthur Ashe once said, "start where you are, use what you have, do what you can."

When we connect kids to their communities, to both human and non-human aspects, they understand that they are part of a larger enterprise where all must pull together.  Kids crave ways to distinguish themselves, and they can do this by making a difference in their community and establishing relationships with community partners, who make the community come alive for them.

Kids want to make a difference and when we give them opportunities to do that they benefit academically and socially, become civic leaders and develop skills that would be unavailable to them in a classroom setting.  Marin GreenPlay ensures that the projects we work on are developmentally appropriate so that the kids' exposure to problems does not scare them but rather engages them in what we hope will be a lifetime of being involved citizens. 

Here are just a few of the projects we have worked on in the past and will continue to work on in the future.  For kids K-2, mulching the Terwilliger Marsh plantings, weeding common areas of the Mill Valley Community Garden, picking up litter in our local parks and along local streams, and pulling small Scotch broom plants in Marin County Parks lands.  Our older kids have worked with organizations like the Golden Gate Parks Conservancy and Marin County Parks to remove non-native plants and plant native ones, to water new plants in the dry season, pick up marine litter and collect data for citizen science projects.

What Makes Marin GreenPlay Different?

For parents interested in connecting their kids to nature, you have many choices in Marin.  The number of opportunities to connect your family to nature can indeed seem overwhelming at times, which speaks to the rich dedication of individuals in our community to preserving our lifeblood, the Earth.  A gift, for sure.

But indeed, in this richness, there are differences that we think make our camp a great choice rather than just a good one.

Why aren't we a nonprofit?  Nonprofits rely on grant funding that is tied to the mainstream thinking and economic realities at play at any given time.  Often the programs offered are created around the funder's priorities, not what the nonprofit identifies as the best connection points with its constituency.  Often the funding comes from state or national sources that have no real identification with the actual issues that face the community to which the camp speaks, i.e. the connective tissue that gives all of this relevance - "sense of place" - is lost.

By relying on what is essentially crowdfunding, we ensure that entirely local dollars support entirely local programs.  And by embracing sustainability principles to limit overhead and administrative costs to essentially nothing, we have the ability to offer scholarships and support schools and make sure that our local funding stays entirely local but at the same time supports kids from all economic backgrounds in our area.  We continue to seek new collaborations to make our camp more and more accessible.  Our small camp donates more than $10,000 worth of camp experiences on an annual basis to support local schools and kids in need.

How are our methods different and cutting edge?  Maybe you have accompanied your child's class on a nature-oriented field trip at school or have attended a nature activity offered through one of Marin's nonprofits on the weekend.  You may have noticed that during a lead up to the actual outdoor event a nature educator described what you could expect to see so you could be prepared to see it.

Our method is essentially the opposite.  We invite our campers to make all of the observations they might - about everything. The creatures, the ecosystem, the off-the-wall sighting incapable of categorization.  And then we let them tell the stories.  And ask questions.  That we are not going to answer.  How do we know what a creature does and why it does it?  Almost nothing compared to what could be known about what and why the natural world does is known.  Every observation made and question asked is not just valuable but invaluable.  Kids are powerful.  They can see what adults can't see.  They can make observations that we can't make having shut off the ability to recognize the amazing as impossible given what we know.  We'll never tell your child that he or she didn't just see what he thought he saw.  The power of observation.  The power of concentration.  Uncensored.  Unchecked.

This is one main reason why our program is developmentally appropriate.  We don't tell your child that they're wrong.  We congratulate them instead for making the observation that is unique in this moment.  And we ask them to look some more.  Our hope?  They'll never stop looking.  And loving the Earth.

Small Children Learn Naturally Through Outdoor Play

Changes happening at the national level in the United States are creating a previously unforeseen expression of ideas and opinions. It seems like a perfect moment to begin to explain the basic, time-honored principles behind nature education and what Marin GreenPlay strives to achieve with its programs.

Children are not little adults. Like all other young creatures in the animal world, they are born with a genetic code made up of adaptations to the world in which they have been born. For the vast majority of human existence, this world consisted of interacting with nature and all of the other non-human creatures existing within it. And so children are born connected with nature, what the preeminent scientist and scholar E.O. Wilson calls "biophilia". Only later, due to the influences of modern society (the economy, technology, social norms, etc.), do they tend to differentiate themselves from the rest of nature.

When we intentionally bring adult-centered societal influences to our children in babyhood, toddlerdom, or later, the child's development is indisputably affected. Play, on the other hand, is a universal part of the development of all creatures (and when discontinued as adults, brings imbalance). It is understood that through play, non-human animals "try out" many behaviors and learn in a cause and effect fashion, what behaviors are workable and which are not.

For example, on a visit to Katmai National Park, where coastal brown bears (larger than grizzly bears) live and roam free with human visitors, we learned that the most feared bears were the juvenile ones because they are the most unpredictable. A mother bear with her very young cubs, on the other hand, would predictably avoid humans to prevent harm to the cubs. The juvenile bears, weaned and struggling to learn to survive in their surroundings, would sometimes approach humans too closely and engage in behaviors that were not necessarily beneficial for them. Often they were engaged in what (if we weren't so afraid to be near) was thrillingly similar to human play.

While it seems more efficient to teach children everything they need to know directly, saving them the bumps, bruises, disappointment and more that comes with learning what works and what doesn't through play, children are not equipped to learn in the abstract. They aren't ready to take what we say as fact. They need to experience it for themselves, primarily through play. Like the juvenile bears, human children need this play to figure out for themselves what is and isn't acceptable to others, what makes them happy and sad, how things work, etc., in short, what and how makes life livable in community with others, including non-human creatures and other organisms.

For our smallest campers in Grades K-2, we employ what is essentially the forest kindergarten model in our camps. This means that our activities are interest-led, inquiry-based, with an emphasis on social and emotional development. We bring place-based themes and knowledge of the place, that when combined with play, results in teaching kids how to problem solve and work cooperatively with camp friends, encouraging excitement about learning, and promoting a willingness to take risks and persevere, among other very important lessons.

While some parents may shy away from this model and enroll their children in what they view to be more "academic" or "concrete" programs like learning a sport, a musical instrument, how to code on a computer or how to build the beginnings of a circuit, this decision largely misunderstands that at this age, play and not adult-centered pursuits are the academics of young childhood. We hope that those who make this choice will do so with as much traditional unorganized, child-directed outdoor play mixed in as is possible.  

Marin GreenPlay Camp provides developmentally-appropriate experiences for kids at every stage. We can't wait to watch your children be radically amazed by the beautiful place called the Earth that we all share.

Why Climbing Rocks Matters

Marin GreenPlay is privileged to roll out our expanded outdoor rock climbing program for Summer 2017 for kids aged 8-18 which is being offered every week of the summer.  It has been an amazing experience collaborating with passionate rock climbers who share a love for nature and for climbing and understand the benefits to younger climbers to create a comprehensive and state-of-the-art program.

All young adult climbers wish that they had started climbing at a younger age.  But they recognize the limits.  Only when children have started to differentiate from their parents and (usually unbeknownst to them) are beginning to establish their unique identities is a very individualized pursuit like outdoor rock climbing appropriate.  That's why we offer rock climbing to kids beginning at age 8 or the later elementary school grades.  So what are the benefits?

Building self-esteem.  It can't be stated too often that in a rapidly changing and competitive world our first impulse as parents is to protect our kids from perceived dangers so that "they don't make the mistakes we made" or have an easier time of life.  We know that we are preventing them from learning lessons on their own but we justify it as more efficient or so that we can expose them to more opportunities.  Our outdoor rock climbing program comes to your rescue in this dilemma in teaching kids that they can accomplish goals in spite of apparent danger.  They receive excellent instruction but they still have to complete the climb, drawing on strength that comes from inside themselves, often strength they never knew they have.  Your child's inner strength makes one of its very first appearances.  We're humbled to witness that moment.

Connecting to nature.  In another blog post, we explained that all kids are born with a natural biophilia - or love of nature - but "life happens" and a separation is created.  Rock climbing brings kids back to the Earth quite literally as it is impossible to climb without developing a profound respect for the tissue of Earth where you are placing your hands and your feet.  And when we take down that separation, we become truly citizens of our home, willing to protect it with the natural talents that through experience we come to learn that we possess.

Protecting the Earth.  When the Earth provides us with experiences that change us forever, we instinctively know that we must protect it.  During a week of climbing, we learn that giving back to the places we climb is critical.  We must leave the Earth better than the way we find it if it is going to continue to sustain us.  This might take the form of non-native plant removal or litter reduction around a crag or another restorative activity at least once during the week and potentially more.

We invite you to find out how our outdoor rock climbing program can teach your child about giving back, increase self-esteem and connect them to the most fundamental of the building blocks of their DNA -- nature.

It's Easy to Create a Custom Camp for Your Group

Every so often a group of families contacts us with a problem.  Their kids have a week off from school but no organized activities are offered that week, or at least nothing that interests them.  In every case, we can help!  

Every year we put together at least one "custom camp" for such a group that meets their needs in terms of offering age appropriate nature activities in locations that work for the families involved.  This year, for example, we have put together an exploration of the creekside areas in the Ross Valley for a group from the Bacich School.  

Within a few days of the lead family contacting us, we had created a plan for engaging activities for their kids in Grades K-2 that would give them a meaningful week of experiences in nature the week before they return to school.  We set up an easy way for the families to enroll on our website so that the lead parent needed to do nothing more than distribute the link to her friends.  The only requirement was that they recruit at least 10 children to join the program. Once they started spreading the word, the numbers easily exceeded that.

In the past we have created customs camps for families from Tamalpais Preschool and other local schools.  We can't wait to design a custom camp for your group!

The Importance of Citizen Science

This summer we are offering several camp sessions for kids in Grades 3-6 which will enable them to get directly involved in the emerging discipline of citizen science.  What is it?  

As you might expect, scientists can't be everywhere all of the time and so miss out on collecting a ton of data that could be collected if there was a virtual army of people available to do that work.  It turns out that that army exists and is growing everyday. Scientists are not necessarily using the data collected by citizen scientists to support their studies but rather use it as a "haystack" which can inform them of hotspots or possible trends around which they can design studies.  In other cases, citizen scientist collected information is directly requested as part of the design of the study. 

Native peoples were the first to engage in citizen science, and they did that for centuries.  Without taking note of the seasonal changes in local plant and animal abundance, they would have starved.  They were experts in collecting this information by necessity.  Since then, people have collected incidental observations about seasonal changes for purposes ranging from determining when crops should be planted to choosing the best times to fish and hunt.  More recent examples have been bird counts and bioblitzes, which attempt to catalog all of the species in a given area.  iNaturalist and other apps and interfaces make data collection a straightforward process for lay people.

It turns out that another time of collecting information by necessity is upon us. Climate change is already changing the migration patterns of birds, precipitation patterns that affect the water supply and much more, and many other natural cycles.  By making sure that we are gathering information about these changes, we can document these changes which may lead to policy changes.

This summer we will collaborate with local organizations such as the Save the Redwoods League, the River Otter Ecology Project, SPAWN and many more.  With the Save the Redwoods League we will photograph and document the numbers, size and other details of sword ferns, and indicator plant in our coast redwood forests.  Finding evidence of otters through tracking their sign (tracks, scat and slips) as well as hopefully finding the actual animals helps to document population numbers.  And our work with SPAWN will include determining the numbers of Coho salmon fry who will spend almost a year in our creeks before migrating out to the ocean as well as creek health indicators such as the presence of woody debris and certain kinds of insect larvae.

Citizen science is an emergent field that is easy to share with kids and may just get them taking inventory of the creatures and plants that live in their gardens or their schoolyards.  For more information, check out Mary Ellen Hannibal's new book, Citizen Scientists: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction.

Why "Fun Facts" Have No Place in Nature Education

Recently, a parent of a camper told me that when her daughter hears a list of "fun facts" about a creature coming on, she shuts her ears.  What is this about?

You've probably had this experience yourself.  You and your family are being led by a docent on a tour of an aquarium or a zoo, for example, and suddenly you receive a download of the supposedly interesting facts about a creature, having nothing to do with what you are seeing now and likely relating to how the creature behaves in the wild.  Where is the attachment point for you to appreciate these facts much less remember them?

At Marin GreenPlay, we have given much thought to what connects kids with nature.  And we've given the "fun facts" a rest.  So where do we start teaching kids about nature?  First, we let them lead.  Starting with our young campers, we encourage observations.  Kids draw the best and most original conclusions from watching creatures in nature when they are not told what to look for or what they can expect to see.  And although much is known, it a baseline fact that no one knows everything about the creatures we see every day.  

A camper might exclaim, "I think it's so cool that water bugs can walk on water . . . they must have super powers!"  To then degrade that amazing conclusion with instruction on how water molecules work to form surface tension and how the water strider has adapted special body parts to make use of the above water niche adds nothing.  Indeed, water bugs do have super powers.  Our older campers, having ceased to believe in super powers, are more likely to see scientific reasons for the water strider's abilities.  And through experimentation that we make available, they can test out their ideas.  No fun facts necessary.  The learning happened organically, in a hands-on, non-abstract way.

We also encourage them to look at the ways that creatures are like us.  That mama bird that carefully feeds her babies and keeps the nest clean until they are ready to fledge.  She's a lot like a human mom.  The empathy born from realizing that many creatures exhibit similar behaviors to those of humans after watching them at work creates a connection that lasts forever.  And nurtures the ability to be empathetic, a critical aspect of development.

At Marin GreenPlay Camp, it's not likely we'll ever have a "Shark Week," mostly because it's nearly impossible for kids to observe sharks in the camp context in a way that would lead to their own original, testable observations and conclusions.  But what we will continue to do, year after year, is connect kids with the habitats that exist where they live, so that they understand them in a hands on way and want to protect them.  

So yep, they'll have their own ideas of why when millipedes eat their own eggs and poop them out covered with poop.  The camper's realization that "Gross!  No other creatures would want to eat those eggs" made all on their own will show them that they can figure out some of this nature stuff without the "fun facts" and with the benefits to self esteem that come from figuring things out for yourself.

Celebrating Seasonal Changes

It's hard not to be awed by natural phenomena, whether we've traveled to see the aurora borealis or simply glimpsed the beauty of the green flash as the sun set on another California day.  Although we are still completely dependent on nature, we don't notice it like our ancestors did when they had to be keyed in to everything that was happening at every season or starve.  Seasonal changes determined what was on the menu, where they should live, and predicting those changes based on years of observation provided a basis for preparation for the future.

Our genetic makeup is still connected to these changes because we lived in harmony with them for longer in history than we have with the modern conveniences that lessen their effects.  And so it brings out something in us that we identify as awe or wonder when we take in a magical natural experience.  These experiences are critical in restoring the historical connection to nature that humans had.  When that connection is nurtured we care for nature and thus help sustain what sustains us.  Everything comes from the Earth.

All of our camps, and our Camp Solstice in particular, nourishes those natural connections by celebrating the changes in the seasons that occur in Marin.  The bright green grass of spring turns to the gold of autumn, plants go to seed and trees fruit, many of the birds fly north to take advantage of the explosion of insects in the arctic and so fewer birds and insects are seen here, upwelling along the coast leads to clear mornings and afternoon fog which then subsides to reveal a warm second summer where even the great Coast redwood trees begin to brown, stressed and waiting for the return of the rainy season. 

Campers are encouraged to take note of these changes and have hands on experiences with plants that often involve creating artistic celebrations of summer.  Tie dyeing with natural dyes they make themselves, singing songs while playing instruments they built from recycled materials, and stopping to listen to the sounds of the grasses while practicing yoga moves, are just some of the experiences that help kids slow down and nurture that natural connection to nature that is within them.  As I watched a camper carefully sanding and yarn wrapping a beautiful walking stick in the making that would be used all summer long and beyond, I felt awe, knowing that that child was coming into tune with what is truly central to all of our lives - nature.

Sense of Place

Sense of place.  It's not a technical term of art.  It's deep within you.  When you visit the place where you grew up, it's that memory that flashes in with a certain smell or a visit to a special spot.  It's so tied to who you are.  It is you.  

Sense of place is critically important today.   While many of us have moved once if not many times away from the place where we spent the majority of our childhood due to economic demands, the lure of adventure, service to family or country, or simply to reach closer to our dreams, the place where we grew up will always be with us.

There are so many demands on today's family and on our children but we should never forget that connections are being made between our children and this place every day.  And in the making of those connections, children will shape their ideas of how place matters.

When we talk about place, we're not just talking about that amazing forest we loved to hide in or the tree we climbed every day after school but also the people who made the place meaningful for us.  When you choose to send your child to Marin GreenPlay Camp, you are actively encouraging your child to form the connections to both the natural world around them and to the community members who actively protect our place through advocacy and service.  Your child will always have a sense of this place, and through our program, we believe that they will get closer to its truths, its essence, its inherent goodness.

So wherever your children end up in the future, their memories will be magnificent and their ethic of protecting the new place they have adopted will be well-developed.  They will intuitively understand that their new place is not just a name, not just what it has been advertised tp be, but a community that they know exactly where to begin in making a new connection - to the trees or the beach or the urban green spaces and those who protect them.

 

What is Biomimicry?

For Summer 2017, we will offer a series of camps connecting kids to nature through biomimicry.  Janine Benyus coined the term biomimicry and defines it as "a practice that studies nature's best ideas, and then emulates these designs to address humanity's most important technological challenges."  It's all about innovation.

By studying a plant or animal's adaptations, we can discover solutions to every day problems that are often extremely efficient (and "green") because nature cannot afford to be wasteful.  We're willing to bet that your child can think of a problem that needs solving.  And there's probably a resource intensive solution that depends on fossil fuels.  But what if instead of using nature (that's what we're doing when we harvest fossil fuels), we emulate nature?

In our camp, kids will study the adaptations of the creatures they are actually seeing and then draw and describe them, whether they are something that the creature is doing or a physical feature of the creature.  The kids will then use one or more of their studied adaptations to propose a solution to a problem that they identify.  And, then, using mostly recycled or low impact materials, they will construct a model that demonstrates the solution.

During a prior summer, we piloted this program.  Imagine my surprise when a camper who had just completed second grade invented a new way to separate the 101 as it crosses the Golden Gate Bridge with moveable dividers built to look like bromeliads (making it prettier than the yellow poles that existed at the time, and the grey "Lego" wall that exist now, I might add), that would both purify the air with an internal fan and filter system, and collect rain water in its cups and release it slowly along a channel that would divert it to plants at either end of the bridge.  She had fallen in love with the bromeliad and its adaptations when we visited the Conservatory of Flowers for inspiration.  And she had noted the problem crossing the bridge to and from an after school class in the car with her mom every week.

To say that I can't wait to see the models that will be built by this year's biomimicry session campers is an understatement. : )  We'll be playing tons of games to get the biomimicry concept across in a kid-friendly way and looking for inspiration in some incredibly inspiring places like Green Gulch Farm, for example.