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Trails of Tradition 

Several years ago, three parents in New Paltz, seeking to augment the nature-based summer camp prospects available for their children, decided to start their own. They took 20 kids into the woods for two weeks and taught them plant and tree identification, shelter construction, fire building, and other Native American skills.

That was the beginning of an organization called Red Fox Friends, which now offers year-round training in nature awareness and survival skills to about 150 youths. Most are ages 6 to 13, although there are also programs for kids 4 to 6 and for young adults 18 to 25. The programs usually meet one weekend day each month—some meet weekly—with occasional overnights. Over 100 kids are expected to attend this year’s summer camp.

“Our program is all about three things,” says David Brownstein, one of the original founders and currently treasurer of the board of trustees. “Connection to the Earth, connection to each other, and then connection to ourselves.”


While modeled on various national and international wilderness and survival programs, Red Fox Friends is also developing its own instructional philosophy and core teachings based on the needs of the community and young people it serves. Unlike the planned lessons of the traditional classroom, the “open schoolroom” of nature offers much less predictability, and thus a greater opportunity for children to interact with its wide variety of experiences.

“One thing we try to teach, almost in a meditative way, is being in the moment,” says Chris Victor, also an original founder and president of the board. “It’s one of the greatest teachings of nature. It’s the place where all animals are. We try to inspire that in the children, and we have to follow the same principle to be effective instructors.”

This approach requires instructional flexibility and changing plans when necessary. If fire making is scheduled but it’s too cold, the kids didn’t have enough breakfast, or they’re just not responding, the instructors then make a transition to other activities that will inspire passion and curiosity, which, says Victor, are two of the essential elements of the program.

“Inspiring their curiosity, inspiring their passion, are like gas in their gas tank,” he says. “We are constantly trying to facilitate that.”

And one of the methods the instructors use to reach that goal is the art of questioning, a philosophy of teaching that opens the field of learning by steering clear of providing direct answers.

Victor gives this example: A child comes across a tree that fascinates her and wants to know what it is. If Victor simply tells the child it’s a shagbark hickory, the conversation ends there. But if he uses that moment to see how far and in what directions the child can be drawn out, the possibilities of learning—not only about trees and the surrounding habitat but also about oneself—are greatly expanded.

So, instead of supplying answers, the instructor asks questions: Does this tree look like other trees? What does the bark look like? Does it seem to like shade?

Victor admits that the method can be frustrating with older kids, who are sometimes impatient for an answer, but if it’s done well it can stimulate curiosity, particularly with younger children.

“And as an instructor I don’t know where it’s going to go,” he says. “All I know is, I want to take that passion, kindle it like a little fire, and see what flourishes out of it.”

On a frigid Saturday in February, on a property along Clove Valley Road in the heart of the Shawangunks, groups of boys and girls gathered for their monthly day of instruction. They slid and slithered across a frozen parking lot with the ease and joy of seals. Later, the boys formed a circle and scrambled after a tossed ball, sometimes diving into the snow, as they answered a mix of questions—some easy, others more progressively difficult—called out by an instructor: Is a squirrel a mammal? How about a bat? What is a marsupial?

A short distance away, a group of girls formed a circle and shared their favorite kinds of sky: moonlit, snowing, streaked by dawn light. Then they began to climb a classic Shawangunk slope, scrambling under and over the boulders, leading the way for the adults. At one point a child discovered ice in a dark crevice, and the children gravitated toward the find, exchanging excited shouts as they climbed down to explore the tight space.

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