Back when Christine Hughes-Prince was a child growing up in the Midwest, she spent many a summer running with a gang of siblings and cousins on 17 acres at her grandparents’ house in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
“We’d play kick the can, go fishing in the brooks, swimming in the lake,” Hughes-Prince recalled recently. “We would leave the house and my parents wouldn’t know where we were until dinner time.”
Hughes-Prince, who lives in Eastham, teaches Spanish at Chatham Elementary School to kindergarteners through fourth graders. And this summer, for the first time, she is offering week-long outdoor programs for children ages 7 to 12 through the TimberNook program. These programs, limited to about 18 children per session, introduce children to unstructured play in nature—something their parents experienced but they might not have.
“It’s all about the way we used to play when we were younger,” she says. “Kids need to play with other kids.”
Hughes-Prince grew up moving from state-to-state in the Midwest. “Instead of an Army brat, I was a Sears Roebuck brat,” she says. When Hughes-Prince returned to the Midwest after those magical summers in New Hampshire, she remembered birch trees, babbling brooks, trout-- things they didn’t have in the Midwest. “I knew eventually I wanted to come back east,” she says. She met her husband Adam, who was from Maine, on a blind date. The couple moved to the Cape eight years ago and she is now the mother of a daughter, a senior at Nauset Regional High School and a son, a third grader.
Children these days are generally plugged in to some kind of device. Younger children are playing games while older children are following social media. Today families are smaller than they were a generation ago, and particularly on Cape Cod it is an unusual neighborhood where you can find gangs of kids. (Only three other children live within a half mile of Hughes-Prince’s son.) Children might go on a play date with one other child. School is structured, and in some schools, recess and gym have been cut back. After-school hours can also be structured with after-school sports, lessons and other activities. TimberNook’s founder, Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist and a mother of two, began observing that as result of all this indoor time, children are not as strong as they should be. Their balance can be underdeveloped, and both fine and gross motor skills lacking. The answer: have children play in nature and “utilize all of their senses to the fullest,” as the TimberNook website words it.
“This means having amazing benefits going out in nature—even kids with sensory issues, autism,” Hughes-Prince says. Last February she led her first TimberNook group to the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. In April, a second group spent a week in Nickerson State Park in Brewster in “Going Wild—‘A Bug’s World.’” The children experienced moss, sand, pine needles. Accompanied by two counselors, Hughes-Prince led the children to their destination in the woods. While they spent some time doing a craft, they then had two and one half hours of free play. Some children may hesitate. They say they’re bored. But Hughes-Prince then encourages them to find something to do. What results is “deep play.” They swing from tree limbs and climb logs. “They basically go off and do whatever they want to do,” she says. “They break into tribes—they have wars. They have secret codes.”
Unlike in other settings, such as school, Hughes-Prince lets arguments play out. For example, her son, Coleman, and another boy were arguing over each one’s right to a certain stick. An older boy stepped in and suggested the pair settle the conflict through playing “rock, paper, scissors.”
“My son lost finally but his feelings were hurt,” she says. After he pouted for about 20 minutes, Hughes-Prince told Coleman that the other boy was also sad. At that point the boys reunited.
“That would never had happened at school,” she says. And “most parents would have intervened and told them to apologize.” The lesson learned was about feelings, problem solving, making up.
Risk-taking is a part of TimberNook, and for some adults this concept of letting their children take risks is scary. But “risk-taking for a four-year-old is different from what parents think,” Hughes-Prince says. For example, a youngster might observe an older child jump off a log, but the younger one will not jump from the same height as the older one.
Hughes-Prince trained in New Hampshire under Hanscom and is now a certified TimberNook provider.
This summer Hughes-Prince will offer seven different sessions, each with a different theme. The first one, “Barefoot and Buckets,” will be held in Eastham. It will run from July 5 to 8 for three hours each day, and is offered to children 4 to 7 years old. The fee is $200 for the four-day session. The final session will be held again in Eastham from Aug. 22 to 26 for six hours each day. This is offered to children ages 7 to 13 and the fee is $350.
TimberNook “lets kids be kids,” Hughes-Prince says.
For more information visit www.timbernook.com, click “See Camps” and go to “Cape Cod, Massachusetts.”