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 children in SOLE’s Junior Naturalist Experience SM summer camp program. Children ages four through nine 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 nine to unplug and connect 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 nine) 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 educational philosophy and program design.
”ReWild Your Child isn’t just SOLE’s Junior Naturalist Experience program catchy tagline – it’s a health-conscious choice that allows parents and educators alike to unplug and connect youth to develop a sense of belonging an affinity for nature.” ~ Dennison Webb, MA | SOLE Founder & Executive Director
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.
SOLE’s Field Instructors also have a wonderful time exploring North Idaho with all of the Nature Explorers and Nature Detectives every summer. As non-traditional educators in an outdoor education setting, SOLE’s Field Instructors lead creative, thematic, place-based experiential education lessons Round Lake State Park every summer.
In closing, I sincerely appreciate SOLE’s dedication to providing quality experiential education programs, 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 tweens and teens which could even lead to these young adventurers to creating and leading their own programs for SOLE in the future!