Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Outdoors -- commentary

The common reaction I get from people when they find out I spent 30 years in Alaska is "I'd sure like to go there sometime," and I wonder, "Have you checked out Arkansas lately? "The Natural State" is not just our motto; it is also a reality. Arkansas can be just as spectacular as Alaska. Summer is a good time to take the kids and explore our wonderful state.

Since coming to Arkansas 20 years ago, my wife and I have explored the four corners of the state, staying in many of the state parks, as well as Corps of Engineer parks. When travelling alone, I often tent and when travelling with Pearl, we stay in our RV. Either way, I have been happy to see the parks being used by families enjoying the out of doors: kids on bicycles, swimming, boating, fishing, hiking and camp cooking.

Thirty-one state parks offer campsites, four of them have lodges, 11 of them offer cabins for rent, and three of them have golf courses. There are also many National Park Service camp grounds in Arkansas, many Forest Service campgrounds, and many National Forest campgrounds. These various facilities cover the spectrum from most amenities a camper could want to primitive sites with basic outhouses and no washroom facilities. Our state parks include much more than camping. Many of them incorporate museums and scientific attractions. Some of them sponsor educational events to help people enjoy the out of doors even more. It was at Lake Charles State Park several years ago that I took a class in Dutch oven cooking. The class included a Dutch oven which I use regularly.

A web site that will help you plan an outing to our parks is ArkansasStateParks.com. A good book to help in your planning is “Arkansas Adventure Guide.” It can be obtained at various tourist centers or from the web site Arkansas.com. The adventure guide lists the many campsites of the various agencies as well as private RV parks. It lists innumerable hiking and back packing trails and a number of multi-use trails for ATV’s, mountain bikes, and motorcycles, including maps. If you want to get out into nature but aren’t fond of hiking, there is also a section on back country drives along with maps.

There are serious reasons to get our kids out into nature. In 2005, Richard Louv published “Last Child in the Woods.” A quote by Bernice Weissbound, contributing editor to “Parents” magazine, appears on the cover and says, “Nature is a key factor in children becoming sensitive, expressive, and essentially human.” Louv says we need to save our children from “nature-deficit disorder.” There are serious mental health reasons to do so.

Louv says, “A widening circle of researchers believes that the loss of natural habitat, or the disconnection from nature even when it is available, has enormous implications for human health and child development. They say the quality of exposure to nature affects our health at an almost cellular level.… humans have an innate affinity for the natural world, probably a biologically based need integral to our development as individuals.”

I can’t help compare my own nature rich boyhood with the video game environment of today’s youth. We lived on the edge of town in my pre-school and early elementary years. My brothers and I went out the back door, across the alley and we were in the woods where we spent hours and hours discovering periwinkles, tad poles, pine tree pitch, and how to dam a stream. We climbed huge sand stones and wore out our shoes and trousers sliding down them. Even when we moved, we were never far from the woods where we spent hours of free time.

How different from what Louv points out: “Children’s Hospital and Medical Center in Seattle maintains that each hour of TV watched per day by preschoolers increases by 10 per cent the likelihood that they will develop concentration problems and other symptoms of attention-deficit disorders by age seven.”

In another quote, he says, “We can now look at it this way: time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children’s health.”

The state and federal governments have spent millions to make it possible and easy for families to make “The Natural State” more than a motto, and there are very serious reasons to do so.

In a recent cartoon, Ziggy was standing on the scales and his doctor was saying, “I’m taking you off the food channel and putting you on the exercise channel.” This summer, let’s help our kids do more than just change channels. Making time to play in the great Arkansas outdoors is a terrific way to get them away from the inactivity of TV, their video games, and their computers.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Survival Stories -- commentry

I enjoy reading survival stories to students, but I also like for kids to find practical applications from what they read. This is a little harder to do with survival stories, but in at least three such stories I use, there are lessons that can be applied to the students’ lives: “Hatchet,” by Gary Paulsen, “The Cay,” by Theodore Taylor, and a movie, “The Earthling,” directed by Peter Collinson.

In “The Hatchet,” Brian, a 13-year-old boy is flying in a small plane to Canada to be with his father. As he leaves, his mother gives him a present, a hatchet. The pilot has a heart attack and dies as they are flying over a wilderness area and the boy crash lands the airplane into a lake. He now must survive in the wilderness with nothing but his hatchet. It is an exciting story as Brian learns to build shelter, hunt for food and hope for rescue.

In “The Cay,” 11-year-old Phillip lives in the South Pacific with his parents during World War II. His father works in an oil refinery and German U-boats are attacking the oil tankers and freighters. His mother insists they return to the states. Since she is afraid to fly, they take a ship. The ship is sunk by a U-boat and Phillip finds himself stranded on a small island with an old black man and a cat. Phillip received a tough blow to the head as they were abandoning ship, and he soon goes blind.

In “The Earthling,” the young, pampered Shawn Daley is with his parents in the Australian outback. The father accidently drives their RV over a cliff and the boy alone survives. In the area of the wreck, an old man is making his way through the wilderness back to his childhood home. He has cancer and wants to get back to the abandoned homestead where he can die in peace. If he guides the boy back to civilization, he can’t get to his destination before he dies. If he takes the boy with him, the boy won’t survive on his own after the man passes.

In each situation, the young person finds himself in an environment in which he is unprepared to cope. The survival stories are important to our kids because soon they too will be cast into strange environments.

One time I read the following and I believe it involved an Eskimo and a white man: “You are not stupid if you don’t know what I know. You are stupid if you don’t know what you need to know to survive in your environment.”

In each of these stories, survival of the boys depends on how fast they learn. And in each case, they learn in different ways.

Brian is on his own with no adult resources to call on. He takes the one thing he has, a hatchet, and learns how to use it by experience. He also learns by closely observing his surroundings as he struggles to get food and create shelter. He is the consummate self educator.

In “The Cay,” Phillip has a different problem. His roots are in the old South, so he has to overcome prejudice and learn to trust the black man. The old man becomes his teacher and mentor and their key to survival is not education, as Timothy already knows what they must do. Their key is preparation. There is work to be done, but Phillip isn’t used to working and tries to use his blindness as an excuse not to do anything. With a sharp slap to the face by Timothy, Phillip comes to realize he now lives in a different world with new rules and he begins to play the game a new way.

In “The Earthling,” Shawn Daley also has a teacher, but he is a hard teacher. The old man knows the kid has a very limited time to learn his lessons and if he fails, there will be no second chance. There is no time for nurturing and softness. It is the Spartan approach to education; learn or die. He is harsh and demanding with the kid, but he knows what awaits the kid if he fails.

These stories give us the three things our kids need to survive in the world they will inhabit: the ability to learn from experience and observation, a mentor who helps them prepare but will give the equivalent to a slap in the face when needed, and the demanding teacher who knows that most of us will only get one try at success.

These survival stories are more than just entertainment; they show our kids what it takes to survive in the hostile world in which we all must live.