Outside Every Day: Kids Spend their Summer on the Trail

By Aberdeen Leary, Ice Age Trail Alliance Outreach, Education, & Engagement Program Intern
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Kennedy Heights elementary schoolers pose after conquering their first hike at Badger County Park in the summer of 2019. Photo by Aberdeen Leary.

When the students at Kennedy Heights Community Center in Madison signed up for summer camp, it’s safe to say not one of them planned on spending every day of their summer outdoors. Yet, as part of the Center’s new initiative, they got to do just that!

Kennedy Heights Community Center is located on the East side of Madison, about a six-minute drive northwest of Warner Park. The Center’s mission is to “create a community support network for low to moderate income families,” while providing resources for programs that can help to improve the lives of all community members.

Kennedy Heights educators made the conscious decision to plan programming that got the students outside for the majority of the day… Every. Single. Day.

Each summer, part of this community support manifests as a daily summer camp for students from first through eighth grade. Five days a week, students from the neighborhood meet at the Center from noon to five for lunch and guided learning and activities, typically ranging from computer work to arts and crafts. However, last summer, Kennedy Heights educators decided to change it up. They made the conscious decision to plan programming that got the students outside for the majority of the day… Every. Single. Day.

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Students at Kennedy Heights participated in a summer camp where students would be participating in field trips and activities in the outdoors each day of the camp. Photo by Aberdeen Leary.

When considering this new initiative, it’s important to understand the income demographic of Madison, Wisconsin. The average income for families in Madison is roughly $54,000 a year, which means an average of 16.9% of the population lives below the poverty line in most of the city.

However, when looking specifically at the Kennedy Heights neighborhood, the median household income is just under $31,000, and the number of residents living below the poverty line jumps remarkably to 27.7%, over 10% higher than the city’s average!

This matters when we look at what’s known about lower-income communities in relation to outdoor time. Lower-income neighborhoods typically consist of more apartments, meaning fewer backyards for kids to spend their time in.

There also tends to be less safe space in general for kids to play outside, with busy roads taking the place of parks and playground equipment. Further, because of the lower wages, parents in these neighborhoods tend to work more hours, meaning kids spend more time in the home.

This new outdoor learning initiative Kennedy Heights devised was created to combat these issues head on. When planning summer programming, they decided to designate each weekday to a new outdoor activity. This is where the Ice Age Trail comes in! While certain days were set aside for swimming and others for canoeing lessons, the Ice Age Trail took over Tuesdays. Each Tuesday, students and teachers hopped in their big white van and drove to a new segment of the Ice Age Trail that the students would spend the afternoon exploring.

As the Outreach, Education and Engagement Program Intern for the Ice Age Trail Alliance, I got the job of working with these brand-new hikers… and I mean brand new. When I first met our hikers, I asked the elementary schoolers if anyone knew what “hiking” was. You could hear the crickets chirping (literally, since we were in a prairie). Most were surprised when I said, “hiking is walking, just more fun!”

“Hiking is walking, just more fun!”

The first goal of our hiking trips was to remain local. After a classroom presentation in late June to prepare the students for what they’d see on the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, our weekly hikes began at Badger Prairie County Park in Verona. This was followed by the Cross Plains Segment, where the students got their first taste of a tough ascent as we climbed uphill off of Hickory Hill Street, an area of much grumbling for the middle schoolers and a race to the top for the much more energetic elementary students. Our third hiking location took the students to Indian Lake County Park, where they discovered frogs of every shade of green and wound their way around massive puddles after a heavy rain. Finally, our Tuesday hikes culminated in a picnic lunch and hike at Devil’s Lake State Park, where the students proudly used their Ice Age Trail bandanas as makeshift umbrellas to fight off some unfortunate rain.

Over the course of our hiking adventures, the students worked hard to accomplish our second goal for the summer: building hiking stamina. From under a mile at Badger Prairie County Park to two-and-a-half miles at Devil’s Lake, the students became faster and more confident hikers with every visit to the Trail. This was easily seen when the students who had attended all of the hikes were surpassing me by our Devil’s Lake trip!

Our third and final goal (beyond having fun, of course!) was to get the students learning about the outdoors. Through various activities, they activated their senses and observed what they could see, hear, smell, and feel on the Trail. This included identifying flowers, counting the natural sounds they heard, and drawing and painting small features that don’t always get noticed. We had thrilling discussions about how big a forest might have to be to support a bear and why nature might smell a little like cleaning supplies.

By the end of the summer, more than thirty new students had gotten out on the Ice Age Trail. Hikers who attended every trip covered almost nine miles of Trail! Together we explored four new Wisconsin locations that the students may never have seen otherwise and learned just how much you can see in your own backyard.

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An elementary school student's depiction of a clover in Cross Plains. Photo by Aberdeen Leary.
This article first appeared in our Fall – Winter 2019 Mammoth Tales Publication.