January 19, 2022
“Would you like some Oreo Spaghetti?” The question came from a young camper as I walked into his secret fort in the wilderness preserve. It was carefully guarded by the Diamond Emerald Adventurers consisting of twelve 6-year-old boys and their counselors.
I looked down and saw his huge grin. Further down, his two hands were covered in what the untrained eye might describe as weeds – long, thin leaves intertwined with a few sticks.
The camper called his buddy/restaurant partner over, and they shared that Oreo Spaghetti is their specialty – “We’re famous for it!” – and that I was going to love it. I was lucky I came to their fort when I did because they had sold out yesterday.
There was only one response to give. “Yes, of course. I’d love some!” I exclaimed. I knew how to play this part. I’m the director. I’ve done this for many summers. Prior to the pandemic. Prior to the world shutting down. Prior to the “I guess I took that for granted” feeling we all experienced.
The two boys motioned for me to stick out my hands, and I dutifully did so. Mounds of dirt were placed in them. “That was your plate,” they explained…because how could one not imagine soft, clumpy dirt as a fancy plate?
Atop the dirt, they put the famous Oreo Spaghetti – tangles of stringy leaves and pokey sticks. “Do you want whipped cream?” They asked. I nodded eagerly, and they put some tiny rocks on top, smiling happily to themselves as they admired their creation. “Sorry, no forks,” they added. “Do you have your leaf money?”
I paid them and thanked them, taking a step back to observe. As I “ate” my fork-less spaghetti with my hands, I saw 12 boys who would enter 1st grade in the fall. With them were three smiling and engaged counselors – kneeling, creating, affirming, asking questions. The counselors looked over toward me knowingly as they saw the mangled creation in my hands. They’d already tried the famous Oreo Spaghetti.
“It’s delicious,” one the junior counselors yelled over. He was a teenage boy who, in another environment, might have been viewed as cool or athletic. He was confident and outgoing. But, in this context, his quick exclamation was filled with a new blend of pride and humility. Pride because he’d helped the kids create something new and unique and silly. And humility, I suspected, because young children had unexpectedly taught him something new. He’d learned to experience nature through their eyes. A rock as a coveted treasure, a large leaf worth a million leaf dollars, and weeds and sticks that make delicious, high end meals.
For many kids, fort is the most exciting part of their camp day. There are no toys or cords or screens. There is no Wi-Fi, no chat function, no animation. Just a nook in the beautiful Los Penasquitos nature preserve.
When I saw children playing this summer, it could have been twenty years ago during Outpost’s first summer in 2002. Before each kid had a cell phone or a Nintendo Switch or a gaming console. Before kids knew what Zoom was and used the words “virtual” or “online” regularly.
I am happy to announce that the pandemic has not made nature boring. This happy fort situation played out over and over every day, all summer. Kids’ imaginations were thriving and alive and well. Some campers might have taken a few minutes, maybe even a day, to warm up. Yet, there they were. Bemoaning that fort time was almost over, making plans for their next time in the preserve, and bargaining about who “owned” which rock or stick or leaf.
Kids need nature. They love it. They thrive in it. It provides space to create, to imagine, to collaborate.
This summer at Outpost, we look forward to creating and witnessing this process again and again. It never gets old. To see kids unlock their creative superpowers. To see teenagers reawaken a lost part of themselves. To see adults playing and laughing and remembering why we run camp in the first place. We can’t wait!
Dr. Kelly Jones
Executive Director, Outpost Summer Camps
“We don’t have to do all of it alone. We were never meant to.” Brené Brown
(This is part three of a three-part series about what kids need most.)