A new acquaintance of mine recently asked how I was so successful getting my kids to love the natural world as much as video games. I had to chuckle when she asked, because it was a clear indicator that our relationship was still new. My kids are no different than any other American child. To unwind they often head for the Xbox, unless I intentionally create opportunities for them outdoors. As they have become increasingly tethered to technology, I have become proportionately invested in un-tethering them as much as possible. It’s far from being an easy task and the tricky part is executing it in such a way that they perceive the natural world as engaging and exciting as the world of Minecraft.
Richard Louv, in his well-known book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, wisely states that “If getting our kids out into nature is a search for perfection, or is one more chore, then the belief in perfection and the chore defeats the joy. It’s a good thing to learn more about nature in order to share this knowledge with children; it’s even better if the adult and child learn about nature together. And it’s a lot more fun.” That’s all well and good, but the big question in my mind is often, “How do you do it?”
Last March, I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a fabulous opportunity that helped answer my own question–a family friendly scavenger hunt hosted by Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, an environmental education center on the Tennessee side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Thirty-two teams were registered for the hunt which was apparently a record. I knew there were seasoned teams competing as well as teams who had placed in previous years and were defending their titles as champions. Despite my ignorance, I was in it to kick some butt have fun. I am not an overly competitive person by nature, so I will never be the strongest person in my gym or care if I’m the top student in a class, but ask me to compete in a scavenger hunt and you’ll see my pupils instantly dilate from adrenaline coursing through my veins. Frankly, in the days leading up to the event, I think my family was even a little scared by my enthusiasm.
Friday afternoon finally came and the questions were sent via email. I skimmed through the list, patting the kids on the back for immediately knowing the answers to a couple of them, but my excitement was quickly quelled when I read, “Take a picture of your entire team in front of Mt. LeConte Lodge’s sign.” Ugh.
Feeling a little deflated that we weren’t going to be as fierce as I had planned but excited that it had finally started, we all piled in the car and headed towards the park to find as many answers as we could before night fell. We returned home that evening and my insomnia was put to good use as I researched some of the questions and mapped out our strategy until 4:30 a.m. The benefit: I learned all kinds of random fun facts. For instance, did you know a certain insect in the park is named for a senator from Tennessee who supported scientific research funding? It’s true! It’s the Cosberella lamaralexanderi.
|We didn’t hike to LeConte but we still had to hike in the backcountry for points!|
When I started seeing double on the computer screen I grabbed a few winks. Two hours later, I was rudely jolted out of my slumber by my alarm clock. I woke up my family and with a steaming mug of coffee in hand we headed out bright and early Saturday morning. We spoke with helpful park rangers, we pulled out our plant identification, park history, and hiking books, we took crazy pictures of each other in costumes (yes,even that garnered some points), and we hiked 3 miles to set up camp in a backcountry campsite and to hang a bag of stuffed animals from a bear pole for a photo op. The clock was ticking so there was no time to sit and enjoy the tranquility of the woods. We immediately broke down our camp and headed straight back down the trail to cross more questions off our list.
|Hoisting beloved stuffed animals so they’re not eaten by the bears (or child zombies)|
|Not much sleeping going on when the tent is only up for 5 minutes!|
|Horse poop on the trail–eeww!|
Before we knew it, we were back at Tremont, handing over our answers to the judges. The fine folks there served us dinner while we waited for the scores to be tallied. When they started to announce the top 10 teams, I shrugged wistfully and thought, “Well, we gave it our all and we had a great time. Maybe next year.”
Imagine my surprise when the third place team was announced…”Team Eastiopians!” If the truth be told, I wanted to run a victory lap around the outside of the pavilion singing, “We are the Champions,” but public displays of anything are just not in my DNA, so I saved my excitement for the car ride after we left!
If you’re interested in joining the fun this year, I can say for certain that you’ll have some stiff competition (ahem), but I can also promise you won’t regret your decision. You’ll develop a deeper love and appreciation for the amazing treasure we practically have in our backyards here in Waynesville, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, while supporting a worthy cause, Tremont’s scholarship fund for students who otherwise might not get to attend their amazing programs.
Your kids? Well, they’ll not only learn more in one day than probably a week in school (especially if it’s a week with snow), but you’ll also prove Louv’s theory to be true–that it is in fact more meaningful and fun to learn about nature with your kids…which is, of course, the biggest prize of all.
**The hunt takes place on March 20th and 21st this year (the first two days of spring–yippee!!). Here’s the link to sign up: http://www.gsmit.org/hunt.html