November 22, 2019 Category: Stories

Hiking: An Outdoor Education for Kids and So Much More

“It felt like we were walking for seven hours,” Tyler, 12, of the Bronx said. “But even though it was really hard, it was a great experience, and one that I’ve never had before.”

That new experience was hiking, an integral part of every camper’s time at our six overnight camps in New York’s Lower Hudson Valley. Campers go on shorter hikes in preparation for an overnight hike where they learn outdoor skills, like making a fire and using a compass.

Outdoor education for kids opens up new opportunities for our campers. With nature as their classroom, they learn more about themselves and the environment.

“We slept in a lean-to and there was a rock with a great view nearby,” Justin, 14, of Queens said. “It was a fun experience to share with my friends.”

Campers don’t only learn survival skills, though. Hiking allows campers to experience nature in a way they can’t in the city. “On one overnight hike the boys were struggling to get up to Pawnee,” Katie Toole, Program Coordinator at The Fresh Air Fund’s Sharpe Reservation, said. “It’s a big hill, but when we got to the top, there was a simultaneous, ‘OH MY,’ and their awe and appreciation of the view of the sunset was amazing. The boys were so excited.”

While hiking, campers get to explore nature, look under rocks and logs, and see animals they have never seen up close before. Katie says one of her favorite moments is when kids find salamanders “because it makes them forget how tired they are.”

Mya, 11, of the Bronx also loves the natural beauty and the peace she finds spending time outdoors. “It’s nice having a break from my phone and just having peace and quiet,” she says. “I get to look around and appreciate my surroundings.”

The participants in the Counselor-in-Training (CIT) program face an even more daunting challenge: a four day, 32-mile hike along the Appalachian Trail. Throughout the summer, CITs complete a series of shorter hikes to build up endurance before they are ready to tackle the Appalachian Trail. They also learn to cook their own food over a campfire.

“Camp has improved my understanding for other people’s situations, their problems and their places for growth. It’s made me more open minded. It’s also motivated me to want to achieve more. It’s pushed me. For example, on our 3-day hike – I never thought I’d accomplish that. The experience made me bond with other campers and was exciting when we finished,” said Chinenye, 16, CIT.

Kayla, also a CIT, said, “It’s awesome to be at camp – the s’mores, the overnight hike, swimming in the lake and seeing the sky go dark are some of my favorite memories. After the first hike, I had this feeling of ‘I did it!’ I had great counselors when I was at camp, and I wanted to be a CIT to be able to help someone like someone helped me.”

Like the younger campers, CITs develop an appreciation for nature, develop confidence and build a network of support as they prepare for the hike. The hike is more challenging for some campers than for others, and an essential component to the experience is the group working together as a team to help every camper finish the hike.

Hiking teaches campers life skills they will take with them throughout their lives. Katie says the biggest skills campers develop are confidence and tenacity.

“At times kids don’t believe they can do things that are hard or physically taxing, and many of them will want to quit just so they don’t fail. Being able to complete a hike, whether it’s four days or a few hours, shows them they can do more than they believe they can.”

An overnight hike is also full of fun camp activities, like roasting marshmallows, making s’mores and telling stories by the campfire. It was while sitting around a campfire that Katie was approached by a particularly shy camper. He told her, “The hike was hard, and I actually didn’t want to do it. But this is so fun! I love the campfire, I love s’mores, and I love this camp.”

Help to equip our campers with a backpack for an exciting overnight hike next summer, where they will build confidence with each step they take. Make a donation today.