May the tree climbing, dirt sifting and general hollering commence

Letting kids be kids outdoors

From left, fifth-graders Julian Charity, Paige Henke and Jackson Chuchvara work on setting up their kindling

On any other day after school, Julian Charity said he might be watching television or going to football practice. Paige Henke would be doing homework, she said. As for Jackson Chuchvara, “Probably nothing that would involve being outside,” he admitted.

But outside was exactly where the trio was headed after the final bell on a Tuesday a couple weeks before the first dusting of snow fell. They were headed into the woods behind Highlands Middle School, along with 20 or so other fifth-graders as part of Adventure Leadership Club.

Khloe Potts makes her way up a steep hill in the woods behind school

“This is way more fun than watching TV,” said Elyse Turowski-Fix as she arranged twigs in piles according to size.

Once across the soccer field and through a leafy trail that led to a small clearing, students were broken into three groups to take on that day’s challenge: to safely build a campfire.

“Everybody start breaking up small sticks and put them in piles,” instructed Lincoln Chalmers, one group’s leader. “Let’s go, people.”

Stick-piling commenced, as did tree climbing, bark stripping, limb dragging, hill scaling, dirt sifting and general hollering.

Besides learning to be safe and responsible outdoors, the sound of raucous exploration was music to Adviser Rich Youngberg’s ears.

“They get to be kids, and they get to run,” he said. “It’s great watching their imaginations set free.”

Club adviser Rich Youngberg, left, helps Alivia Carter and Alex Raglawd set up kindling safely inside their fire pan
Elyse Turowski-Fix made piles of small, medium and large fire kindling

Still Young, and Already Growing

The after-school Adventure Leadership Club got its start three years ago. It emerged from an initiative by Superintendent Scott Korpak to promote development of the whole child.

Youngberg, district outdoor experience coordinator, started with 25 or so Highlands students in fifth and sixth grade. This school year, there were 150 applications to participate, so a second session was opened and 50 students were chosen at random, 25 from each grade.

Besides campfire building and cooking, club members work on team-building, tent setup and teardown, shelter building, and map and compass reading — all while learning about taking care of the natural world around them.

The year culminates in a feast day, where Youngberg said he fills backpacks with special challenges that students have to tackle before they share a meal outdoors.

“They do great with them,” he said. “You always wonder how much they’re listening, and it’s like ‘Hey, they really were.’”

The goal is to establish the club for fourth-graders throughout the district, and to do a continuation of skills already learned once students reach seventh and eighth grade, Youngberg said.

He would love to do an overnight camp-out with students, and said he welcomes parent volunteers willing to help make that happen.

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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