Needed: Your Camp Stories!

Hi Readers! I’m going to be giving a speech next week at the Tri-State Camp Conference — country’s biggest convention for camp owners — and I’d love to include some stories about how camp helps kids come into their own. I didn’t go to overnight camp but my husband did and he said it was THERE that he got to become a “grown up.” (Well, if by “grown up” we mean young man who could admit he was interested in girls.) It took him about three years to catch up with his summer persona in the real world.

Spending a chunk of time away from one’s parents, however loving, does seem to present a great opportunity to become independent (and not just learn how to short sheet a bunk bed). Also, the summer is the time to get in touch with nature, and learn some new skills. So if you have any stories (that you can share) about camp and growing up, do tell!

Thanks and I will now let Red Rover come over. — Lenore

Let's hear it for kids, bunks, free time & summer.

How Very Welcoming!

Hi Readers! Here’s the sign a nature center director is about to take down from the local preserve where, for the record, there are no cliffs, no plunging ravines, no standing water, no wild animals beyond the usual squirrel-type thing, no snakes, and no evil trees. There IS some poison ivy. Anyway, as he put it, “It is really a welcoming sign, isn’t it?”

And a tank battalion, when possible.

There’s No Place Like Outside for the Holidays

Hi Readers — As a week of no school looms, here are some ideas for outdoor fun from Heidi Ahrens, a Colorado mom of two very active Free-Range girls. Heidi runs the website and social network community OutdoorBabyNetwork. You may also find traces of Heidi on NYC streets where she once played.

Me? I love Idea #4: How fun would it be to give out hot cider on a cold day? Fun! — L

Top Six Holiday fun Outdoor Activities by Heidi Ahrens

Don’t stay cooped up inside during the holiday season. Get some fresh air, play with the kids and introduce them to a new way of exploring their world:

1. Long Route: Go outside and walk to a local park or coffee shop but travel a different route then you are used to.

2. Do a transportation puzzle: This is an activity that families can do together to compare distances between two points. Your child selects a destination that she will go to using two different modes of transportation. Then she compares the two.

3. Giving and Collecting: Talk to your child about helping out and being generous. Go for a walk and have your child collect leaves, pebbles or recyclables. Go back home and have your child decorate these findings by, say, painting on the stones. Then have your child return these items in special spots outdoors for other children to find. [Sez Lenore: I love the idea of other kids finding hand-painted stones!]

4. Hot apple cider stand: This can be set up outside your house one day over the holidays to warm people up. No need to charge any money. The cider can stay warm in an insulated cooler or coffee urn.

5. Giving Tree: Have your child create little gifts to hang from a tree near your house. Then visit the tree every day to see what items were taken, or to observe people while they inspect the tree.

6. Races: The weather has been strange all around the country. Take inspiration from a blog post on OutdoorBabyNetwork and let your children go outside and explore even if the weather if frightful. If they need encouragement to stay engaged, have them try out funny contests, like who can bounce a ball in the rain the longest, or float the most cork boats in a puddle, or make the most snow angels.

Offering time in a natural setting where your child can have time to be free will make your holiday so much more enjoyable and meaningful. Head out in a park, a forest, a bike trail, a backyard or even a city street. — Heidi

Why Is This Thing in Every Preschool?

Hi Readers — This guest post really got to me. Maybe because I’m an American Studies major from way back, I love thinking about what our modern day artifacts say about our culture and psyche. Today’s author, Mary O’Connell, is the director of LifeWays, an early childhood center in Milwaukee, and she noticed a new item that has become a must-have in preschools and wondered: Why this? Why now?

Before I present her essay, let me add that she and Cynthia Aldinger wrote a new book, Home Away From Home: LifeWays Care of Children and Families, all about bringing a little relaxation, nature and normalcy into day care (or at least, that’s how I read it). To order the book or find out more about LifeWays, which offers training and support for childcare providers in the form of newsletters, consulting, workshops and child development trainings, please visit  And now — on to the essay!

A GRAIN OF TRUTH by Mary O’Connell

I have recently been scratching my head over what has become a compulsory item in the modern preschool classroom: the Sand Table, an indoor table filled with sand that children can pour, dump and run their trucks through.  It seems that what began as a novel concept some 20 years ago has become a necessity in a quality preschool program.  When early childhood colleagues from conventional childcare settings come to visit LifeWays, the early childhood program in which I work, they ask, “Where’s your sand table?” as if the absence of one is a red flag that we’re not providing our young apprentices with all of the vital experiences they need.

Now, as a caregiver of small children, I love sand play. But as a caretaker of the space the children inhabit, I’m not sure who thought it was a great idea to provide it indoors.  After all, how many homes do you know that have a sandbox in the living room?

Here’s the question that seems reasonable to ask: Can’t children play with their sand outside, the way they’ve done for generations, along with the sticks, mud, puddles, ice, and other great tactile experiences that Mother Nature provides for them?  I’ve come to the conclusion that a sand table, however incongruent with a clean and tidy living space, has become a requirement in the early childhood classroom because it’s the only experience many children have with the natural world. Sadly, most children do not experience daily outdoor play in nature.

If it’s drizzling, chilly, or anything less “desirable” than 75 degrees-and-sunny, most preschool programs keep children indoors, opting for the sand table and the other modern miracle of childcare, the “Gross Motor Room” — a cavernous space with padded walls, riding toys and an overwhelming din, as children expend their energy in a frenetic McDonald’s playland fashion.

When I was young and my friends and I began running around with this level of energy, my parents promptly sent us outdoors to play, where our shouts, cries and adventures were met with wide open spaces, and where our play often became more purposeful and less frenzied.  The natural environment invited us to do more than run around like chickens with our heads cut off. We made mud pies and potions, created games, poked around in the creek with sticks, climbed trees and took physical risks that taught us a lot about our own strengths and limitations.

How unfortunate that we have so removed children from their roots they are being raised under “house arrest.”  How sad that we feel we need to provide every possible experience in a manufactured, synthetic way because we’re too afraid, too controlling, or just too lazy to bring them out into nature.

I am so grateful for LifeWays, a group of childcare centers and homes across the country where children play in nature on a daily basis for long periods of time because it’s considered as vital to their development as a healthy diet and enriching learning activities.  We go out even when it’s raining or snowing or hot or cold or anything else less that “perfect.”  The benefits are immediately visible, as the children at our centers are often more coordinated, independent, verbal and imaginative — and less hyperactive — than their Sand Table/Gross Motor Room counterparts.

My dream is that we’ll come to a place in parenting and early childhood education where we’ll all realize the virtual world we’ve created indoors is a poor substitute for the natural world right outside our homes and classrooms.  In my dream world, early childhood colleagues and prospective clients will enter a preschool classroom and inquire, “Why aren’t the children playing outdoors?” — M.O.

What's right with this picture?

Great Park News!

Hi Readers: Here’s something very nice: America’s 392 national parks are suspending their entrance fees next week — April 17-25. Moreover, a bunch of them will have kid activities.

In truth, I had no idea our national parks charged entrance fees at all. But it’s nice to learn that they do at the very same time I’m learning that they’re being suspended. Here’s how to find a park in your area. And April 24 is Junior Ranger Day. Click on this to find out about Junior Rangers and how to keep them from getting eaten by bears.

No. Wait. Apparently it’s a link to find out about what parks are holding Junior Ranger activities.

Anyway, it’s nice when the First Lady says to “Get Moving,” and the next thing you know, all the parks are open for families and kids to do just that. Part of Free-Range Kids is the idea that once kids spend some time in nature, they end up loving it and wanting to spend more time there. Here’s a chance to make the introduction. Have fun! — Lenore

Outrage of the Week Update: Teacher Who Let Kids Climb Cliff on Trial

Hi Folks! Remember the case of Lia Grippo, the California mom who runs a day care center with a focus on nature? Her plight constituted our first Outrage of the Week. She let three of the kids in her care — two of them her own — climb a cliff while on a field trip to the beach. (The cliff was not above the water.) Though her kids had climbed this cliff before (as have kids since time immemorial — climbing used to be a normal part of childhood), onlookers freaked out and called the cops. Child Protective Services was alerted, and pretty soon Grippo’s day care license was suspended. Now here’s an article about her from the local paper, the Santa Barbara Independent, bringing us up to date. She is due in court this Monday. According to the paper:

At a time when parents are encouraged to allot sufficient outdoor activity for their children, Grippo said she has been stripped of her childcare license for hosting a program which embodies outdoor exploration. “I think that there is a growing trend toward risk aversion in our society that has really gone over the edge,” Grippo said. “We live in a time that both our children and ourselves must be as safe as possible, rather than as safe as necessary.” According to the allegations by the DSS, Grippo violated the personal rights of children in her care by “not providing adequate care and supervision” to three children while they were “climbing a cliff approximately 125 feet high while naked or partially clothed.” Additionally, the DSS allegation states that Grippo allowed children in her care to be “expos[ed] to natural hazards (cliffs and ocean fronts), thereby placing the daycare children in substantial danger.” Grippo claims the children climbing—two of which were her own and one, a child of a close friend—are avid child climbers who had scaled the beachside cliff before.

…Lizelda Lopez, Public Information Officer for the Community Care Licensing Division of the DSS, said the department will continue to seek the revocation of Grippo’s license in spite of the appeal. “What happened could have killed these children, so we take this very seriously,” Lopez said. “That’s why we are seeking the revocation… she failed to protect these children from the potential of becoming seriously hurt.” Currently, there are 50,000 licensed childcare facilities in the state. The DSS only pursues revocation against only one percent of these facilities on average per year. “It is not our goal to shut these programs down,” Lopez said. “It’s our goal to make sure that our children are in safe environments.”

…Grippo has fashioned her career by emphasizing exploration of nature in her programming for children. “When we keep children from testing their own abilities at a young age, I think we are doing them a great disservice,” Grippo said. “Our culture has become so litigious… children aren’t being allowed to get muddy, climb boulders, or play in the creek.”

No one at Free-Range Kids wants to see children get hurt — especially not plunging off of cliffs. But if these kids have climbed this thing before, AND Grippo was watching them AND we agree that there is a difference between sending our kids off to the beach without any supervision versus encouraging them to do some of the things children (and animals) have done since the beginning of time, like climb and explore, under our gaze, THEN we have to wonder why the state is so dead set on ending this nature-based program. Especially since the parents of the kids IN it have supported Grippo.

The state is right, “What happened could have killed these children.” Then again, so could tripping over a Thomas the Tank Engine, or falling down the stairs at Child Protective Services.  Can we please remember that not everything a child does has to be on a mat? — Lenore

Fetch Me A Worm! (And Other Ways to Get Kids Outside)

Hi Readers – Over the summer Judy Molland gave me an advance copy of her book, Get Out! 150 Easy Ways for Kids and Grown-Ups to Get into Nature and Build a Greener Future,” which is filled with the kind of tips I like: Simple ones I hadn’t thought of. Now the book is out (and about). May her tips work for you! 

Get Out!

by Judy Molland

As an advisor to a couple of parenting sites, I’ve received several notes along the lines of, “When I tell my kids to go outside and play, they come back five minutes later saying they’re bored, they don’t know what to do, and there are no other kids out there.”

 I’m guessing most parents can relate. So here are a few suggestions from Get Out! Most of these are for young children, so they involve parents getting out, too. 

Find squirrel highways. Most squirrels stay in a relatively small area, usually about an acre, their whole lives. They know that area very well, including every branch of the trees they roam. If they didn’t have the branches memorized, they couldn’t skitter along them at the high speeds they sometimes do—when escaping a predator, for instance. Watch the squirrels in your yard or at a park for a while and see if you can identify the “squirrel highways.”

 Invent your own treasure hunt. Make a list of natural things likely to be found in your neighborhood or play area. Make copies of the list for each kid or team, hand out paper bags to collect the loot, and send them on their way. Kids will be more engaged if you include several weird or gross items on your list, so here are a few list-starter ideas: a dead bug, a bird feather, a leaf bigger than your hand, a worm, moss or lichen, a seed or pit, a stick shaped like the letter “y,” a smooth rock, and a cup of mud (bring your own cup). Remind the kids to respect natural surroundings. You could even put “five pieces of trash” on the list.

Create a water patrol. Give your children responsibility for watering plants, yards, gardens, patio planters, or window boxes. This gets them outside on a regular schedule, and they’ll feel good helping out.

Adopt a tree. Choose a favorite tree you can visit often, and have children take notes by recording the diameter of the tree’s trunk, the reach of the branches, and anything else they’d like to jot down. They can also make bark rubbings using crayons and paper, smell the flowers, and gather the seeds. Take a photo of your tree every week or every month, and put the pictures in a series to see how it changes over the course of a year—or longer. If something interesting happens, like a big snow or a wind storm, take more pictures!

Build a bat house. Did you know that a single brown bat can eat up to 1,000 mosquitoes in an hour? You can attract bats to your neighborhood by building a bat house, which will provide you with natural pest control and provide bats—many species of which are endangered—with a safe home. Bat houses can be many sizes, from about 2′ x 3′ and up. Place yours in the sun and at least 12 feet off the ground to prevent predators from gaining entrance. For free bat house plans, check out

Have fun! 

Adapted from Get Out! 150 Easy Ways for Kids and Grown-Ups to Get into Nature and Build a Greener Future by Judy Molland (© 2009). Used with permission of Free Spirit Publishing Inc., Minneapolis, MN: 800-735-7323; All rights reserved.

 Thanks, Judy!

Kids Freaked Out By Grass, Squirrels and Playing Outside

Hi Readers — A fellow named Brian sent in this note about kids and nature. It sort of dovetails with a study just released in England that found an alarming percentage of kids are spending so much time indoors, they can’t identify things in the natural world anymore, including daddy longlegs. I’m no huge fan of spiders, but daddy longlegs seem like they should be part of everyone’s childhood, one way or another. (Just not laying their eggs in Bubble Yum.)  — Lenore

No Child Left Inside

by Brian

Last year I had the opportunity to work at an Outdoor Education facility in Texas. It was an amazing job and I do miss it.  We took fifth graders for four days and taught them about conservation and ecology, but mostly we just had fun.  A few things struck me while working there:

First, very few of these students had ever been outside before. Really. Unmanicured lawns and overgrown trees were exciting to these kids. They’d encounter a squirrel and freak out.

Second, and scarier: The kids were afraid of EVERYTHING. Dark roads? Check. Not being able to use their flashlights on an illuminated pathway? Check. Sitting on the ground during daylight hours? Yup. The worst were the things they had been warned about by their parents: Wolves and bears and other large animals that NO LONGER even exist in this part of the country and haven’t for decades, if not a century or more. We spent the week teaching these kids not so much about the water cycle, as planned, but that nature (and the world in general) shouldn’t be feared.

One of our activities was to boat our group of kids out to an island and let them have free play. Yes, we had some rules. They had to (sorta) stay within sight of an adult and have a partner with them. You probably won’t be surprised by their initial reaction: they did nothing. The first ten minutes were spent staring at each other. Absent direct adult instructions these kids had no idea how to play.

Third, and worst: I’ll just give examples here. One student was sent with a suitcase full of little plastic bags. Each bag was labled “First Night Pajamas,” “Second Day Outfit,” “Extra Shirt, Second Day.” I’ve never seen a kid smile so big as when I told him to just throw his dirty clothes into his bag. This child had zero ability to think for himself.

Another of my students came from an extremely low-income area. (Actually, most of them did). He arrived with his classmates on Tuesday. He was a little homesick, but nothing bad. Day two went fine, homesickness was easily dealt with. He was integrating fine with the group and was enjoying himself by lunch. Day three, Mom arrives out of no where and takes her son home. Her reason?  Her SON couldn’t handle being away.  He would be home in less than 24 hours, but HE couldn’t cope. Now, our facility is over two hours away from their school. His mother hired a cab to take her to our facility and back. We priced out the trip from the company website: $400+, because mom couldn’t deal with her lack of control.

Worst of all, there were kids we never got to meet — friends the students would talk about whose parents refused to give permission. Kids whose names we’d call out, only to be told by their classmates that their parents had pulled them off the trip at the last minute.

Working at this facility made me a believer in your cause. Thank you.  –Brian

Outrage of the Week: Teacher Lets Kids Climb Hill, Cops Come Calling

Hi Readers — Here’s the latest outrage. Lia’s nature-oriented nursery school/kindergarten might not be for everyone, but it certainly is for some kids. Or at least it was.  — Lenore

By Lia Grippo

My name is Lia Grippo.  I am an early childhood educator with 20 years of experience.  For the past 11 years, a large part of my work here in Santa Barbara has been taking young children into local wild spaces where we forage, track animals, climb trees, build forts, etc. For the last two years I have been running a small school that meets at my home 3 days a week and in the woods 2 days per week — safely.

I have two sons, age 7 and 4.  My 7-year-old has been climbing to heights since he was a baby. My husband and I mentored this skill early on first by staying close while pretending to watch something else, and later by having some simple guidelines. For climbing trees, our guidelines include teaching children to know how to tell a dead branch from a living one, and then teaching them never to climb on dead branches or any limb “thinner than your arm.”  We never help a child to climb up but are willing to help as much as necessary on the climb down.

 A few weeks ago my school met at a local beach.  The beach is sandwiched between the ocean and some steep hills and bluffs.  The hills sit in the sand, not above the water.  My 7-year-old and his 6-year-old friend – an equally competent as a climber and also the son of my dearest friend and school teaching assistant — climbed to the top of one of these hills.  As they climbed they chatted, and moved at a steady pace, which meant to me that they were not at the edge of their abilities, which would have been evidenced by their silence or by announcements of fear, tense body language, or frequent stops in search of how to proceed next.  In imitation of the older boys, the younger children began to climb the hill as well.  

I stopped them by saying, “That’s high enough,” when I saw they had reached the point where they would not be able to come down by themselves if they were to continue.  The three younger ones (ages 4, 5, & 5) stopped and began to climb down.  By this time, a group of people had gathered to watch.  My 4-year-old son slid a little down the hill on his bottom. I was right below him to catch him should he continue to slide.  But with the combination of the sliding and, I believe, a frightened group of strangers staring up at him, he became too afraid to come down the rest of the way.  So I climbed up and coached him down, staying  just beneath him. He calmed down to the point where we were laughing and joking as we made our way down.

As we neared the bottom, I noticed there was a lifeguard beneath me on the hill about 3-4 feet off the ground.  When we reached him he asked if I wanted to pass my son off to him and I did and he put him down on the ground.  Then the lifeguard told me he would take the trail around the side of the hill to get the other boys down and I agreed, not because I thought those boys couldn’t make it down on their own — I was certain they could — but because of the fear of the folks watching.  We went around to meet the kids as they came down the trail.  The lifeguard seemed annoyed and said, “Don’t do that again,” before walking off.

During all of this the police were called.  The police officer took a statement from me and left.  As the parents arrived at the end of our morning, I told each one the story and each of them said, “I’m so sorry that happened to you. Why are people so afraid these days?”

A few days later the agency that licenses my school came to my door to begin an investigation. This included calling all of the parents at the school, who were all in complete support of me and thought the incident was blown completely out of proportion.  Each parent called me afterward to lend support and to share their outrage at this agency.

At the end of this process, the agency has revoked my license saying that I endangered the children by “exposing them to the natural hazard of the hill and the ocean front,” and by allowing them to climb, made worse by the fact that I allowed them to climb in beach attire, and my son was naked. (As result of ditching his freezing wet pair of jeans.)  

The families have surrounded me with support and outrage and are willing to help pay attorney’s fees to appeal this process.

A couple of nights ago, my 7-year-old said to me, “Mama, I know why those people were afraid.  They couldn’t climb that hill themselves.”

I could use whatever support, resources, or ideas, folks might have to offer.  Especially helpful would be an attorney who had had experience with this sort of situation or someone who works in California’s Community Care Licensing Division who may be able to offer advice.

Thank you,