Getting My Inner-City Students Into Nature’s Classroom!

As more kids spend their time indoors – faces glued to televisions, computer screens, and video games – it is no surprise that researchers are noticing the effect the lack of outdoor time has on children. This is a particular problem for urban kids, as they don’t necessarily have the same access to nature as their more affluent or rural counterparts. Having grown up in the same inner-city in which I teach, I know all too well how hard it is to get from pavement to a hiking trail. Because of this, I started an outdoor adventure club last year. Partnering with the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Youth Opportunity Program, I was able to get my students hiking, camping, snowboarding, and orienteering.

Having seen firsthand the benefits of getting my students outdoors, I now spend a lot of time fundraising and grant writing to help subsidize our trips. When I found out the AMC was offering a Youth Mountain Adventure Program this summer, and that my students could go FOR FREE, I signed us up for August 21-24! This is the trip report of our adventures…

Mr. Simba Swag Daddy, Jr.

Mr. Simba Swag Daddy, Jr.

On Tuesday morning, Jaime (our AMC guide), picked us up at the high school. From there we traveled to the AMC’s Cardigan Lodge at Mt. Cardigan in New Hampshire. After a quick tour, we dropped off our bags in our rooms, ate sandwiches, and prepared to head out on our first hike. The AMC provided all the gear, so my kids had hiking boots, wool socks, Nalgene bottles, rain gear, and nifty daypacks in which to carry everything they needed. Before we left, we talked about what everyone wanted to gain from their experience, and made a group contract, which we wrote on a blowup lion that the kids named “Mr. Simba Swag Daddy, Jr.” He became our mascot for the remainder of the trip.

Ready to hike to Welton Falls!

Ready to hike to Welton Falls!

We took the Lower Manning Trail to Welton Falls – a fairly easy hike with minimal elevation gain. During the 45 minute hike there, the kids were in charge with one assigned to lead the group, and another to act as sweep. When we reached the river and had to decide how to cross, two of the kids scouted a location and as a group we agreed it was the safest place to climb over the rocks to the other shore.

Crossing the river.

Welton Falls, NH.When we arrived at the falls, the kids were awed by the sheer beauty of the water rushing down the narrow rock crevices. They were more than happy to don their swimsuits and play in the water. On our return trip, we talked about lightening, and how to best respond when faced with a storm while in the outdoors.

Upon returning to the lodge, we packed up for the following day. Again, the AMC provided the gear, issuing each kid a hiking backpack, fleece jackets and pants, more Nalgene bottles, wool hats and mittens, and headlamps. When our gear was ready, we had an amazing dinner of vegetable soup, pork and chicken stiry fry with rice, homemade bread, and salad, followed by a type of banana bread with chocolate chips. The cooks at the lodge are quite the chefs! After cleaning our plates, we sprawled out in the common room, sipping hot chocolate as we reflected on our day and whether or not we stayed true to the group contract. By 11pm, I was fast asleep, trying to rest up for our long day of hiking.

After an incredible breakfast of french toast and sausages, we prepared for our hike up Firescrew mountain, and Mt. Cardigan. We assigned roles to each kid, including lead, sweep, hydration specialist, motivator, time checker, photographer, and navigator. It was a great way to get everyone involved in some sort of leadership capacity.

Ready to backpack up Mt. Cardigan!

We made excellent time as we ascended the Manning Trail, reaching the top of Firescrew mountain by 12:30pm, where we stopped for lunch. It always amazes me how good a peanut butter and jelly sandwich tastes when you’re hiking. The clear day made for excellent views of the White Mountains surrounding us.

The view from Firescrew Mountain in NH.

With full bellies, we continued our hike up the Mowglis Trail to the summit of Mt. Cardigan. The kids were elated, and proud, when we arrived at the fire watchtower.

The summit of Mt. Cardigan in NH.

It was a surprisingly cool day for August in New Hampshire, making our stay at the top particularly lovely. As we snacked, we discussed the principles of Leave No Trace, and the kids performed hilarious skits to illustrate each one. The most exciting part of our summit experience was watching a military helicopter make two landings on Firescrew. We spent a good deal of time debating the backstory for the landings. (It turns out they were checking out good areas to land because they need to bring lumber and building supplies up the mountain.)

Military helicopter landing on Firescrew in NH.

After resting up for a few hours, we headed down the Clark Trail and then the Hurricane Gap Trail to the AMC High Cabin.Heading to the AMC High Cabin on Mt. Cardigan.

Filtering water.

Once there, Jaime helped two of the kids cook dinner, while I took the rest of the group and taught them how use a filter and iodine tablets to purify water in the backcountry.

We feasted on a meal of rice and beans with peppers, onions, and sliced yard o’ beef (that was the actual name of the summer sausage we used – I could not make that up), played cards, told stories, and prepared our bunks. The high cabin is pretty awesome – just below the tree-line of Mt. Cardigan, it has room for 12 people. With a small kitchen stocked with the basics (pots, pans, dishes, silverware, camp stove, and propane), a wood burning stove, and an outhouse, it’s a great place for small groups to spend a night or two.

Having fun at the AMC High Cabin at Mt. Cardigan.

As the sun began to set, we headed back up the Hurricane Gap Trail to the South Ridge Trail and had dessert on South Peak.

You can take a kid out of the city... ;)

You can take a kid out of the city… ;)

Mr. Simba Swag Daddy, Jr. got first dibs on the cheesecake.

Mr. Simba Swag Daddy, Jr. got first dibs on the cheesecake.

When the stars came out, Jaime gave an impromptu lesson on the constellations. It was incredibly peaceful, just listening to the quiet sounds of nature and watching the twinkling stars – something my kids can barely see through the polluted skies at home.

The nighttime sky at South Peak in New Hampshire.

On our walk back to the high cabin, Jaime taught the kids about Triboluminescence using two pieces of quartz, and then by having them chew on wintergreen lifesavers. If only every science lesson could be that fun…

The next morning we woke up, had a quick breakfast, and then hiked back to the Mt. Cardigan campsite via the Clark Trail, the Holt-Clark Cutoff, and the Holt Trail. After dropping off our gear, we headed to the Newfound Audubon Center and canoed on the lake. We took a break from paddling to go swimming, and taught the kids how to play Marco Polo – only two of them had ever heard of the game! Eventually, we tired ourselves out and relaxed in the water. That was when we discovered the freshwater mussels! The kids decided we needed to cook some for dinner, so they collected a bunch in their bandanas.

When we were rested, we climbed back into the canoes, had some races, and then taught the kids how to do T-rescues. (I think they had more fun tipping the canoes over than they did learning how to do the rescues!) We also tried to identify the loud bird call we kept hearing, but no one could figure it out.

As we paddled back to the dock, I was elated to see Addie and Kendra. They had driven up to spend the afternoon, and Kendra had walked in the water to where we were, trying for an hour to get our attention. Turns out she was the bird we were trying to identify! Oops!

When we were dried off, we spent some time in the Audubon Center learning about the various animals of the region, and their habitats. The staff was super-friendly and informative, both entertaining and teaching the kids some really neat stuff.

Back at the campsite, we prepared dinner, including the mussels! I was super impressed with the kids – they really knew how to cook them well.

Freshwater mussels from Newfound Lake in NH.

Addie got into a small tussle with Mr. Simba Swag Daddy, Jr. showing him just how she felt about being replaced as the club’s mascot.

Addie with Mr. Simba Swag Daddy, Jr.

We spent our evening just outside of the lodge, listening to local amateur astronomer Barrie Sawyer explain the birth of stars, quantum mechanics, the history of the universe, and more. The kids loved every minute of it, eagerly looking through his telescope and binoculars to get a closer look at the stars above them. They decided that I need to incorporate astronomy into this year’s club activities, and they want to make star charts.

After the lecture, we returned to camp, made a fire, and cooked s’mores. Most of the group slept under the stars, hoping to get a glimpse of Uranus and Neptune as they rose into the sky later on in the night.

We woke early the next morning, packed up camp, and headed home. It was an incredible trip, and for me, it further cemented my belief that nature can do many wonderful things for kids. In the space of just four days, my kids gained confidence, leadership and outdoor skills, learned a lot of science and astronomy, built their muscles, and had fun. My only regret… that I couldn’t take all of my kids.

At the AMC High Cabin at Mt. Cardigan.

About Jen

Outdoor adventurer and traveler. Writer, Photographer & Communications Professor. Wife. Mom of twins plus one. Tubbs Snowshoes Ambassador. Blogger at

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8 Responses to Getting My Inner-City Students Into Nature’s Classroom!

  1. Janeiack August 26, 2012 at 4:09 pm #

    What great photos of the trip. That night sky is amazing! Thank you so much, Jen, for addressing the environmental deprivation that exists today. Your students look like great potential leaders.

    • Jen September 7, 2012 at 9:11 pm #

      There is no doubt in my mind that they will be great leaders!

  2. sjcourchesne September 2, 2012 at 9:01 am #

    I applaud you! Would we could reach every single this way. We can at least continue to try. Great post!

    • Jen September 7, 2012 at 9:11 pm #

      Thanks :) I am glad you enjoyed it!


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