A summer of exploring, learning and develop a sense of belonging…

Ten sets of eyes are peeking from behind the trees, and little giggles burst out here and there. We are playing “Camouflage”, which is one of the favorite games for the eleven children in Session III of SOLE’s Junior Naturalist Experience SM summer camp program. Children ages four through ten are hiding in the forest, looking at the game leader, who is trying to spot them.

“I see you, Rhys!” says Sophia, our current leader. Her brother, a bold four-year-old, comes out smiling from behind his favorite hiding spot.

“What type of tree were you just hiding behind, Rhys?”  Rhys smiles and wiggles and tells me that it’s a western red cedar.  I then ask him, “how do you know that?”.

“Because of the bark, and the way the branches bend!” We high-five, and Rhys whispers to his sister that he can see somebody that she didn’t find yet.

The Junior Naturalist Experience SM Program is a 3 to 5 day place-based experiential education program, designed for children between the ages of four to ten to unplug and reconnect outdoors via exploring and learning in their local natural surroundings. Despite the noted age difference you might say – there’s a method behind the madness.  First, Nature Detectives (ages four to six) attend for the first three days, and Nature Explorers (ages seven to ten) come for full five days.  Secondly, I noticed how beautifully intentional how committed the older children were to their roles as leaders and responded towards their younger peers. When given the opportunity to guide, model, and mentor the younger children Nature Explorers blew me away at every turn.  This also, allowed me to come to appreciate the intentionality of SOLE’s program design.

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“We are very grateful for your program, my son LOVED IT and just couldn’t stop talking about what he was doing each day!”  

~ Junior Naturalist Experience Parent, 2017

The purposeful program structure to provide leadership opportunities for youth in the Junior Naturalist Experience SM Program, and all of SOLE’s programs, is just one example of the intentionality of SOLE’s program design that I have come to appreciate.  The other is the purposeful curricula that they use in the field.

Place-based, experiential education lessons are also blended with outdoor free-play. The children aren’t just hearing about their world they are also seeing, feeling and even smelling the wonders of their natural world while forming long-lasting connections between natural science and positive experiences that they actual choose and create for themeselves with peers.  It is through these teachable moments, that allows youngsters to develop and sustain meaningful relationships and lead their own learning while simutaneously satisfying their individual curiosity, allowing each Junior Naturalists SM to have more than just fun in the forest.

That said, having fun is certainly at the heart of the Junior Naturalist Experience SM program. Through structured games and outdoor free play, students are gaining confidence in themselves, developing social and emotional skills, and getting comfortable spending time the natural world. Free play provides opportunities for children to explore and enjoy their environment in their own personal way; fort building is often very popular when providing opportunity for outdoor free-play.

Speaking of which, we have hiked down a favorite resting spot, and a young boy named James calls to his friends, “Hey everyone! Come see my fort!”

Little heads pop up across the forest floor.

“How many people do you think can fit inside?” calls James.

Time to find out! I help the children over one by one, until eleven sets of bright eyes are peeking out at me.

As a summer Field Instructor, I had a wonderful time exploring North Idaho with all of the Nature Explorers and Nature Detectives during SOLE’s 2017 summer season. As an educator, the opportunity to lead creative, place-based experiential education lessons at both Round Lake State Park and the University of Idaho Extension campus was tremendously rewarding.

In closing, I sincerely appreciate SOLE’s dedication to providing quality experiential education pograms, which was evident every step of the way, from the field to the office.  In the future, I hope to see the relationship between SOLE and the Sandpoint community grow ever more cohesive; who knows maybe the Junior Naturalists that I got to explore and play with this summer will go on to enjoy SOLE’s SnowSchool Experience SM program and even the expedition-based summer programs SOLE offers for teens which could even lead to these young adventurers to creating and leading their own programs for SOLE in the future!