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Raising Tomorrow's Trail Stewards

The Homeschool Stewardship Squad allows kids and parents to volunteer, play and learn together outside. Heidi Watters organized the squad in 2011, and we asked her some history and tips for encouraging your own little ones.

Heidi Watters created the Homeschool Stewardship Squad in 2011, aiming to bring together her passions for nature, community, and service. Meeting twice monthly, it allows kids and parents to volunteer, play and learn together at work parties hosted by local non-profits and government agencies across the Seattle Metro area and in surrounding green spaces. We asked her for a little background on the group, and some tips and tricks to organizing your own group like this.

by Heidi Watters

Room to be wild, find common ground

When I created the Homeschool Stewardship Squad, nature, community and service were on my mind for several reasons. Firstly I simply love being outdoors; I believe it is crucial for wellness. I also wanted to build community and find kindred spirits.

I found that my children, then five and three, got along better with groups of other kids when they were outside with an abundance of space. Nature provides the freedom to decide whether to jump in and play or to hang back and watch, not to mention plenty of room for being wild.

Additionally, group work outside provides a rich medium for communal engagement. While side by side on our knees in the mud, we are likely to find commonality. It is lovely to chat with other kids and adults while we work, and I value this for my children as well. Seeing them learn from new friends and other parents is part of the wholesome "it-takes-a-village" experience.

It’s terrific overhearing an eight year old and sixteen year old discussing their favorite books while planting a wee cedar that will someday grow one hundred feet tall.

planting a tree heidi watters
Photo courtesy Heidi Watters.

Passing on a core value: stewardship

Finally, it is a core value in our family to serve the natural environment as well as its inhabitants. We celebrate and honor nature by taking care of it. We also serve our community by providing responsible access to nature, which enhances both human and wild quality of life by kindling appreciation, respect and environmental responsibility.

After grabbing a tool, sweating and getting dirty, the visceral sense of responsibility children develop towards caring for their nearby nature is conspicuous. They become aware of the broad network of wild lands scattered inside the city, as well as what surrounds it.

The kids on the squad have a sharp eye for stewardship. It isn’t uncommon to hear such comments as:

“Look at all that ivy! We need to get in and rip that out!”

“That planting is awesome, someone did a work party here!”

“Hey, we need to have Squad at this one spot I saw last week, the blackberry is bad!”

My heart nearly bursts when I hear such animated assertion of environmental responsibility. I witness these sentiments at work parties when a child bites her lip while fervently scrubbing down a shovel or squeals of delight are heard somewhere off in the bushes.

Cleaning the tools Heidi Watters
Photo courtesy Heidi Watters.

Learning what works, and how to fix what doesn't

That said, it isn’t all giggles and glory.

I tell new folks that my kids spend about 20 percent of the work party snacking, 15 percent whining, 50 percent working and 40 percent playing. That's an estimate though, depending on the day, sometimes the ratios are totally different.

One November event in the mountains was so cold that halfway through we noticed all the kids were huddled-up together in shivering heap! That time we left early, and I learned to wear regular winter mittens rather than work glovesthey wash up just fine and keep your hands warm!

On another occasion it began to snow, but we were able to warm our hands in a steamy mound of potting compost. During summer events I work with our event partners to find sites that have swimming opportunities afterwards, which is a big hit.

In the record heavy rain this winter, we had an event so muddy that on three occasions, some boots became so thoroughly stuck they required a group excavation. After such adventures the kids enjoy the bragging rights about the hardships they have endured.

Staying comfortable outside: food and clothes

One of the most important aspects of a good day outside is ensuring everyone feels comfortable. Here are a few hints that are great for work parties, but might be helpful on a day hike as well.

  • Over-pack the food. When you’re outside and working, this sensory pleasure goes a long way.

  • Have a special trail food that you only eat on hikes or at work parties. Ours is ‘deer poop’ (chocolate covered raisins). The joke never gets old.

  • Warm food or drinks are amazing in temps below 55. Thermoses come in many sizes and can go in the dishwasher. One simple meal is warm rice and soy sauce scooped-up with toasted seaweed pieces, perhaps with some canned fish and mayo. Warm pesto noodles and fruity tea are popular with my kiddos. Another favorite is dipping tortilla chips in refried beans with cheese on top or quesadillas. Chickpeas with marinara sauce is another.

  • Warm gloves for temps below 50-55 are important. Wear puffy ski mittens and wash the mud off afterwards. Liners can under work gloves are good for moderate temps.

  • Rain gear is crucial to have on hand for most of the year. The best kind is non-vinyl, non-sprayed types made out of breathable barrier fabrics, such as Grunden’s Zenith or Abeko and Puddle Gear, particularly the bib styles with stirrups. You can find these at Bootland, Fisherman’s Terminal or on Amazon. You can sit right on the wet ground!

Making it happen with happy kids

Perhaps your children march happily out the door when it's time to go, but I know mine exhibit considerable variability. Sometimes they are engrossed in play at home and don’t want to leave, other times it is just a grumpy day and getting out the door with all that food and gear seems like the last thing we can manage (let alone washing everything afterwards).

Girls hiking in on WTA work party Heidi Watters
Moods may change from morning to afternoon on a volunteer trip. Photo courtesy Heidi Watters.

With a few thoughtful strategies you can smooth some of the bumps in the road. If stewardship is central to fulfilling your family’s environmental values, consider making work parties regular and non-negotiable in the family schedule. Happily, most kids will get the hang of things if they are a fixed part of life. When they regularly expect it, everything becomes easier.

Get out the door

  • Large poly/tarp bags are your friend. Find zippered ones on Amazon or stock up on the dirt cheap blue Ikea ones. You can toss all your muddy layers in there and chuck the entire thing in the washing machine when you get home. You can also sit in it out on the trail.

  • Sort your dirty and clean gear into different bags before you get home.

  • If you pack the night before you will have a significantly easier time getting everyone out the door happily (but you knew that!).

Meltdowns and managing moods

  • Sometimes, getting dressed in layers and gear can trigger a meltdown. Don’t let this get in the way of exposing your child to the rewards and pleasures of outdoor stewardship. If you prepare for this extra step, you’ll feel more capable. You know your kid best, think about how you can plan for these situations.

  • If it's hard to tell when they might melt down, plan ahead on giving your kids the gift of your patience. This may be easier said than done, but anticipating it helps.

  • Moods change throughout the day. My children have been everything from thrilled to tantruming about going to Squad for the last five years. The mood when we leave the house has no correlation to how they will feel at the event, afterwards or in the years to come. One constant is that the longer we do it (and the older they get), the greater ownership they feel, and the more proud they are of it.

  • If it is a moody morning, remember that once outside your kid may actually feel better!

  • Celebrate your child’s efforts. Take pictures of their work, share it with friends and grandparents. Acknowledge them as ‘someone who takes care of things.’ Tell them the story of what they tackled and accomplished for the greater good. Reflect on what they have learned and contributed to the wilderness.

Virtually every time I’ve experienced a kid having a problem with gear or clothing, it passes and they enjoy the rest of their time. That said, sometimes they get itchy bark irrevocably far down their pants, maybe their first bee sting was just too much, or they are too behind on sleep, and then you call it quits early. Usually though, this percentage isn’t large, so don’t let the bumps keep you from all the good times.

Raising our future trail stewards

A recent participant shared with me that once her son donned the hard hat it really gave him a sense of inspiration and empowerment in his work. On the ride home he began inquiring about additional volunteering opportunities.

Having the opportunity to use exciting tools can be particularly fun for kids. One memorable work party in a warm dusty patch of Scotch broom featured a large heavy weed wrench. Operated by three kids, those ten foot noxious weeds popped right out by their tap root.

It is my hope that my children feel the momentum of the group effort and feel called to join in on their own accord. Sometimes they get distracted running off with friends and I invite them back to work before they play a bit more; a good balance of fun and work usually occurs naturally.

Homeschool stewardship squad Heidi Watters
Photo courtesy Heidi Watters.

That natural balance is what we all desire. We wish for our children to grow up with a sense of responsibility to their community and stewardship towards their environment. We want our children to be connected to nature and feel at home in the wilderness. Ideally we could all have this in our very own neighborhoods and backyards. In the meantime we can make that valuable trip into the outdoors to learn, serve and play together.

It has been a joy to meet such a quantity of like-minded families and work with such superb organizations, many of whom we’ve developed lasting relationships with. The world is full of passionate action-takers, it is wonderful thing to inspire children by involving them in efforts to support our local environment.

Get involved

There are many organizations and helpful government agencies in the Seattle Metro area who would love to host an event for your group, be it neighbors, friends, class groups or families.

Have a look at the Homeschool Stewardship Squad blog for a list of hosts to partner with. Most groups will find a time to work with you once you’ve gathered around eight or more people. You can also identify a location you would like to work and contact the land manager. They may work with your group directly, or direct you to join a work party through another group, like WTA. Keep in mind that for WTA work parties, volunteers are welcome ages 10 and up.

Girl on WTA work party Heidi Watters
Photo courtesy Heidi Watters.

I’ve always found hosts to be beginner friendly and some even have ‘rewards programs’ such as WTA's, where you get your own hard hat and more, the more often you come out. King Conservation District’s Wetland Plant Cooperative offers free native plants to volunteers, and The Nature Consortium may even serenade your work party with live music.

Seattle-native Heidi Watters is an environmental horticulturist, landscape architect, writer, educator, maker and homeschooling parent. Read more about the Homeschool Stewardship Squad on her blog, where you can also sign-up to receive notifications for the twice-monthly Tues/Thurs events. Squad is open to any youth with their grown-up(s). Summer is a terrific time for school kids to come and also to enjoy the swimming afterwards, bring your friends and meet new ones!

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