Go green! Everyone has heard the slogan. Even my tween son knows the term, and better yet, he understands it. When his classroom was in charge of “Earth Day Celebration” ideas at his elementary school, he proudly organized a pick up trash hour in our neighborhood (with his mother leading the expedition, of course). It was a great lesson, and I hope that my son and his class will think twice about littering because of that experience.
But how about thinking bigger? Perhaps going green with—of all things—your child’s actual school?
It’s not such a far-fetched notion. Just ask Kirsen Kinzler, director of the Natural Science Academy in St. Paul Park. “Science is all around us, and it’s how we understand our environment,” stresses Kinzler. “When kids say they aren’t that good at reading…they still have to read. When kids say they aren’t good at science, well, the science is all around them. It’s how they are going to understand their environment, and it’s what happens in our world. Children need more of that in their background.”
The Natural Science Academy is a local environmentally focused charter school that opened in 2007 in Woodbury with an enrollment at 38 students. The school re-located to St. Paul Park after two years, and student enrollment holds steady at 55. “We’re a small community,” explains Kinzler, “so our biggest challenge is letting folks know that we’re here.”
Science, science, science is the name of the game at the Natural Science Academy. Kinzler says in other schools, children are lucky to be able to explore the topic once a week. “We do science every day, at least 45 minutes or more,” she explains. “In our school, that’s the focus. Biology science, earth science, and natural science.”
Nature is tough
When I tagged along during one particular class, the second and third graders were heading to the outdoor classroom to play a game that involved wolves and rabbits and deer. No, not real animals. Each child was issued a tag for their coat that labeled them as Deer, Wolf, or Rabbit. As the teacher was explaining the class activity—“do wolves always catch prey the they are after?” I noticed a group of boys already fist bumping that they were “wolves”—the top of the food chain in this game. The “wolves” were to hunt the deer and the rabbits; they could catch a deer with two hands, and rabbits with one. When the teacher blew the whistle, I’ve never seen so many “animals” scatter so fast.
“They know how hard it is for wolves to catch their prey,” says teacher Laura Ferguson, “and we are talking more about wolves for the next week. They’ll also learn about what happens if wolves don’t get their prey, and what happens if something happens to their habitat.” When I was leaving, I noticed the pack of boy-wolves looking a little disgruntled; hunting turned out be harder then they thought, perhaps. No more fist bumps for these wolves. Nature is tough.
A quick look into the kindergarten room (otherwise known as “the owls”) showed that the class was learning about different animal tracks. When the teacher asked how the bunny track was made, one enthusiastic little boy jumped up and began hopping around the classroom. Soon, the entire classroom was putting on coats to find and view real tracks outside.
You won’t find these kids looking out the school windows longingly. Their classroom is outside a lot of the time. “We go outside at least one hour a day: it’s part of the classroom,” says Kinzler, “and on top of that, we go outside for reading, or journaling.” She says a new feature for this school session is their official “outdoor classroom space,” which includes paths, shelters, and gardens. The kids will help with the upkeep during the changing seasons.
The little green school idea is something more schools should consider, but if it isn’t an option, perhaps other “green” actions can be incorporated. How about encouraging your child to join a green-focused club or committee? If your child’s school doesn’t have one, how about starting rallying the troops in a parent-volunteer effort around an issue such as recycling or composting food waste in the cafeteria? Your child can also volunteer with the building operations, such as helping with the recycling or trash pickup around the school. Another option is consulting with the teacher. It may take a bit of creative thinking, but to repeat what Kirsen Kinzler said earlier: “Science is all around us.” So how can that be incorporated into everyday teaching? In art—could it be using eco-friendly art materials or employing a focus on recycling paper through a collage project?
Or what if it’s just you, making a difference with your children? If they have to give a speech in school, for example, could it be on a topic related to the environment? What about when they need to write an essay of their choice? How can you direct your child to incorporate a little green school into the schoolwork he or she does?
For older kids, taking on a service learning internship can be ideal. The Twin Cities area has a wealth of nature centers and arboretums. In our backyard in Lino Lakes, there’s the Wargo Nature Center, which my son is already interested in contacting for some hands-on experience.
“I just see what the outdoors does for kids,” says Kinzler, “and getting them out and into those experiences. Those are the things that they remember. They need to be literate and know their math, and be successful and get jobs…but it’s just adding that other piece in. It helps them to know where they come from, and what’s around Minnesota. Our state is great for that, because we have all the seasons and different sports. Those are some of the best experiences.”
Little green school…fist bump.
Natural Science Academy
Eco-friendly art materials
Hiking with kids is a great way to keep them connected to the outdoors, but it can be challenging for the parent planner. Take our advice: don’t choose anything too long or strenuous for your first couple of outings. For kids, the hike is about adventure. Pick a trail that has some features, whether it’s a waterfall, cliffs, or a stream. It gives them a goal to reach. Kids are natural explorers, so plan plenty of time for it—you’ll be traveling at the child’s pace. Making the hike fun is key to success. Oh, and pack lots of snacks.
Choosing your hike
Choosing a destination can be the trickiest part of the whole process. Luckily, we Minnesota parents are sitting on a gold mine of parks and forests. Minnesota has a wonderfully diverse state park system: over 227,000 acres in 73 parks and recreation areas. (That comes down to 1,030 miles of hiking trails.) The trick for us is narrowing it down.
“Each Minnesota park has unique characteristics,” explains Kaija Helmetag, information officer with the Minnesota State Park and Trails, “and all of them have great hiking and, for the most part, have family friendly trails.”
She suggests checking out park websites first. “All have links to PDFs with maps, so you can see the trails, the trail mileages—it’s a great resource. There are also blurbs at the beginning of each page that give you an overview of the park, as well as its natural and cultural history. You can get a quick snapshot of what the park is all about.”
For beginning hikers, keep it simple and close to home. Here are just a few of the gems:
Location: West St. Paul
Nice touch: The historical aspects of this park make it a good day trip for many reasons: after hiking, you can explore the fort, which dates back to 1820. There is also excellent birdwatching due to its proximity to the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
The trails link to Minnehaha Park and the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. The summer hiking trail is 18 miles long, and is easy to moderate. It offers an array of things to look at, which with kids’ ever changing attention spans, is perfect. (I’d suggest just doing part of it.) The trails lead through wooded areas, but also along rivers and lakes. Pack a lunch and use one of the sheltered picnic tables near the visitor center, then go inside for the interpretive exhibits (and a bathroom break) afterward.
Location: Taylors Falls
Nice touch: Glacial potholes (the world’s deepest) and a waterfall! Bonus: watch for rock climbers on the cliffs that line some of the trails.
An easy walk to the water will reveal paddleboats and kayakers. There’s the self-guided Sandstone Bluffs Trail (one mile), and the River Trail is two miles. The four-mile hiking trail is more rugged, with countless steps. Skip that one for now. There’s commercial and individual rock climbing permits offered at Interstate, and kids have fun watching the experienced climbers scale the boulders. This park has naturalists galore, and in September and October activities include prepping for a fall hike, Autumn Adventure Scavenger Hunt, and Leaf Art—all with their on-staff naturalists.
“All of our state parks have tons of free interpretive programs that are aimed at families,” reminds Helmetag, “So if you are in the park and plan in advance, you can attend all kinds of naturalist-led activities.”
William O’Brien State Park
Location: Marine on St. Croix
Nice touch: It’s along the banks of the St. Croix River and is a migratory pathway as well.
There’s a self-guided wheelchair accessible trail that begins at the picnic grounds (Riverside Trail) that is about 1.5 miles, dotted with interpretive signs. The other trail, 12 miles, ranges from easy to difficult at times, as it winds through wooded areas as well as wetlands. Dogs are permitted, as long as they are on a short leash. There are also a variety of programs offered year-round, such as a Voyageur Encampment Weekend the end of September, and Starlight Starbright and Geocaching101 activities (October).
Lake Maria State Park
Nice touch: It’s a good place to see the “Big Woods”—maples, oaks, and basswood forests—one of the few remaining ‘stands’ of trees.
The hiking trail is 14 miles in length, and winds through wooded and rolling terrain. The fall colors are magnificent. There are two self-guided trails—Zumbrunnen and Forest Shadow—each is one mile each in length, and feature signs, a boardwalk, and observation points. One more thing: 2013 marks the 50-year anniversary of this park, so watch for anniversary events and special drawings throughout the year.
Afton State Park
Nice touch: Afton doesn’t disappoint with the scenery, as it offers prairies, deep ravines, and bluffs that overlook the St. Croix River.
There’s a 20-mile hiking trail; however, there are shorter choices, such as the .75-mile self-guided tour that begins at the visitor’s center or the four mile paved bike trail. Afton is about 40 minutes from downtown Minneapolis, so close enough to be handy, but far enough away that your family will still have that ‘in the middle of nowhere’ feeling.
Bunker Hills Regional Park
Nice touch: After you’ve made the kids hike, there are plenty of other options for entertainment, including swimming and water slides, and horseback riding.
Miles upon miles of paved, limestone aggregate, and natural surface trails are offered in a large loop, with additional trails shooting off the main area for an additional easy workout. They are multi-use trails, so walk, bike, or rollerblade to your heart’s content on this 2.5-mile beauty with stretches of sun, coupled with shade from the impressive oak stands.
The North Country Trail
Location: Thomson, about 10 miles southwest of Duluth
Nice touch: Considered one of the best-kept “secret” trails, it wanders 4,600 miles and stretches across seven states!
The goal is not to hike the whole thing, of course, but sections of this trail are great for families. The trail enters Minnesota near Jay Cooke State Park, where the Superior Hiking Trail begins. You can choose the area and the scenery, as this path really offers it all. Even the City of Duluth’s leisurely lake walk is part of this trail!
RULES AND REGULATIONS REMINDER:
Year-round state park permits are $25, and one-day permits are $5. The year-round permit provides unlimited access to all 76 Minnesota state parks for a full year from the month you purchase it. (And if you needed more incentive, by purchasing the permit, you help maintain and improve the programs at the state parks.) You can get the permits from the DNR, the MN DNR License Center, or at any of the state parks, which have self-serve kiosks or front offices. Note that regional parks will have separate fees.
10 THINGS TO BRING
(Besides your kid, and your patience!)
1. Water bottle (.5l-.75l). Something small to carry and to keep hydrated. Keep them drinking water to prevent heat exhaustion, which can occur even in the balmy days of fall.
2. Hiking shoe. It doesn’t have to be latest and greatest, but something that can grip in loose dirt and mud will keep the trail walks going.
3. No cotton clothing. When cotton gets wet it stays wet and nothing ends a trip faster than a cranky kid. Synthetic shirts and pants dry fast and protect even when wet.
4. Backpack. Something your kid can load some of his or her own stuff into (i.e., snack and water, plus a treasure found on the path) to contribute to the family trip.
5. Sunscreen. When you are out for a day/weekend a sunburn makes it harder to enjoy.
6. Hat (brimmed or baseball). Something for a little more sun protection.
7. Rain gear. Conditions can change quickly and being prepared will keep everyone calm and happy.
8. Snacks. A simple granola bar or even a Clif for Kids snack will keep the youngsters fueled for the next leg of the trek.
9. Magnifying glass. Something to explore leaves and bugs with.
10. Bug net. Find butterflies and fire flies and get a closer look by catching and releasing.
Alt 1. Walking stick. If they are tired or need a little more leverage on an incline/decline a collapsible walking stick will keep the trek moving forward to the next spot.
Alt 2: Binoculars. Best way to see birds and other critters up close.
— Andrew Clarke, Sports Manager at Joe’s Sporting Goods, St. Paul
My son has a fort. It’s wedged between two evergreens in our backyard, and houses such treasures as slabs of wood and other knick-knacks. An old green army tarp hung by bungee cords serves as a wall. And while I sometimes sigh loudly at the amount of items that find their way into my son’s fort, I leave it alone. A few years ago my father told me that a boy’s fort in nature is his sanctuary and refuge. “Treat it as such,” he warned.
I would never argue that point, as my own childhood memories are steeped in the great outdoors. Many of the most cherished recollections I have involve either a vacation up north or my own fort nestled in a thicket. I want my son to have those memories, too, but I worry the experience won’t be the same. And I’m not the only parent thinking this. There is a growing disconnect between our kids and nature.
According to Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle, it’s a phenomenon—and not a good one. It was Louv who first came up with the term, “Nature deficit disorder” when his Last Child in the Woods book came out in 2005. His hypothesis is basically that people, especially children, are spending less time outdoors.
Why is this happening? The reasons are myriad, and a few, obvious. One I can relate to is “stranger danger,” or as Louv calls it in his book, the Bogeyman syndrome. “Fear is the most potent force that prevents parents from allowing their children the freedom they themselves enjoyed when they were young,” he explains. “Fear is the emotion that separates a developing child from the full, essential benefits of nature. Fear of traffic, of crime, of stranger-danger—and of nature itself.”
My boundaries growing up included the entire town. Admittedly, my son’s boundaries are tighter. In a 2002 survey by TNS Intersearch for American Demographics magazine, 56 percent of parents in the U.S. said that by the time they were 10 years old they were allowed to walk or bike to school, but only 36 percent of those same parents said their own children should be allowed to do the same.
The loss of wild surroundings is another factor. In more and more cities and suburban neighborhoods, it can be tough to find green. But it’s worth looking for: a team study by researchers in Sweden, Australia, and the U.S. found that when children played in an environment dominated by play structures rather than natural elements, the kids established social hierarchy through physical competence. But by offering a grassy area with a few shrubs, and the kids engaged in more fantasy-style play, and their social standing became based less on physical abilities and more on language and creative skills. And a bonus: open play also provided greater opportunities for boys and girls to play together in egalitarian ways.
Even if you find a park or nature preserve, kids are seeing more restricted access. “Do not walk off the trail” one sign recently warned me at a neighborhood park. Everyone understands that the natural environment must be protected, but Louv questions the cost of that protection in some instances, and the direct impact it has on a child’s relationship with nature. Even environmentalists and educators, he points out, say, “look but don’t touch.” But sometimes that’s the only way to learn, especially for kids.
And a third obvious cause, of course, is the increased draw to spend time inside looking at screens, including computer, video, and television. The average American child spends 44 hours a week with some form of electronic media.
The effects of this are sobering. Our kids have a limited respect for their natural surroundings. Louv points out that this will be an even bigger problem down the road. “An increasing pace in the last three decades, approximately, of a rapid disengagement between children and direct experiences in nature…has profound implications, not only for the health of future generations but for the health of the Earth itself.”
Then and now
Research has shown that people who care about the earth now spent time in the natural world as children. GreenHeart Education stresses that we owe it to our children to give them unmediated time in nature, so that, as one native elder explained, “the land will remember them.” That is, they will feel grounded and have a sense of “home” that they care about.
Another impact of nature deficit may be the development of attention disorders. Louv suggests that going outside and being in the quiet and calm can help kids. “It’s a problem because kids who don’t get nature-time seem more prone to anxiety, depression, and attention-deficit problems.” As a mother of an ADHD son, this research is worth watching. Some tips include encouraging your child to play in outdoor green spaces, study or play in rooms with views of nature, or plant and care for gardens and trees at your place of residence. Louv explains that although the impact of nature experiences on attention disorders and on wider aspects of child health is in its infancy and easily challenged, it’s not to be brushed over. “Yes, more research is needed, but we do not have to wait for it. If, as a growing body of evidence recommends, contact with nature is as important to children as good nutrition and adequate sleep, then current trends in children’s access to nature need to be addressed.”
Childhood obesity is another issue, and about nine million children ranging in age from six to 11 are overweight or obese, according to The Institute of Medicine. It’s time for kids to move more, which means getting off the couch and heading outside and away from screen-time. Blogger Marc Bekoff of Psychology Today says it may be an uphill battle for parents, but “we need to rewild our children before it’s too late.”
While my generation may have been the first to experience Atari and MTV, we also played kick the can, fished in creeks, and had more free-roaming boundaries outside. While some good works are already taking root, such as an environment-based education movement, a simple-living movement, and schoolyard greening, there’s always more work to be done.
With luck, our kids will realize their sense of purpose in this cause. After all, I can only hope that, someday, my son will want his own children to have an outdoor fort. A refuge, a sanctuary. Army tarp and all.
Here are some fun ideas to get things going with the cause.
Got dirt? A truckload of dirt costs about the same as a video game, so how about buying a load and throwing in some plastic buckets and shovels?
Plant some native plants, or maintain a birdbath. Invite some native flora and fauna in your kid’s life.
Revive some older family traditions. Collect lightning bugs at dusk, and release them at dawn. Collect feathers or leaves. How about crawdadding? (Tie a piece of bacon on a string, and drop it into a creek or pond. Wait until a crawdad tugs.)
Encourage kids to go camping in the backyard. Put up a tent (you can rent them inexpensively through REI) or help them make a canvas tepee and leave it up all summer. (For some other great ideas, go to nwf.org.)
Tell your kids stories about your special childhood places in nature, then help them find their own. Encourage kids to build a fort, hut, or tree house.
Combine tech with nature and go digital—with nature photography that is. Digital cameras save money on film, and are decreasingly expensive.
Go on a moth walk. It sounds weird, but it’s worth it. Mix (in a blender) overripe fruit or wine, and blend in honey, sugar, or molasses. Go outside at sunset and spread the goop on a few trees or untreated wood. Go back when it’s dark, flashlight in hand, and see what you’ve lured. With luck, you’ll probably find moths, ants, earwigs, and other bugs.
It’s Minnesota, so in the winters build an igloo or snow cave, or go sledding, snow tubing, or snowshoeing. Stay outside!
As I stood in the quiet Iowa cemetery, I watched my 10-year-old son as he flitted around my Father’s tombstone. Grandpa had suddenly and unexpectedly had an aortic aneurism this year, and before we knew it, was gone from our lives. My sons Grandpa was a larger than life personality, and while I wrestled with my own grief, I worried about the large void left for my son, who was 10 and had been very close to his Grandpa. The whole experience was so sudden and a blur, and I wondered if I had traumatized his grief process since I was still running to catch up with my own.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Hayden catching the glowing fireflies that had popped out during the twilight hours. He was cupping them to his mouth, saying something, and then releasing them into the air. As I shuffled closer, curious, I over heard him whispering to the fireflies “Protect Grandpa”, before releasing them. That bittersweet moment is etched into my memory, and for some reason, left me feeling a bit more peaceful. Perhaps Hayden was coping better than I had thought. Better than his Mother, anyway.
Grief is a tricky business, for both adults and children. And let’s face it; nothing prepares you for this business until your knee-deep in it. But don’t make the mistake in thinking that kids don’t grasp the grieving process. Kids can grieve at any age, and it depends on their age, developmental stage and life experiences.
Inez Bersie-Mize, a licensed family therapist with Midwest Center in St. Paul, agrees that the child’s age makes a big difference. “Their cognitive abilities, and the ability to understand and comprehend makes a big difference,” she explained, “around 7 and 8 they still have that magical thinking, that the person could come back, or that ‘Grandpa looks like he’s sleeping’. It’s very common for that age to have that thinking. Their capacity to tolerate pain, and whom they have around them also makes a difference. Their relationship to the person who died comes into play. Kids are very tuned into their sense of pain, and if they think the person died, had a great deal of pain or trauma, then they’ll have a harder time getting over it then someone who died in their sleep.”
Come to think of it, son Hayden’s first questions about Grandpa’s passing was pain-related. Questions such as “Did it hurt?” “Did Grandpa know what was happening to his heart?” Other kids, who have witnessed someone battle an illness, deal with different questions. When Molly Sproull lost her Father to bone cancer, her son was 6 and daughter was in 3rd grade. “My Father was in hospice, so we all knew it was coming,” Sproull remembered, “So Ben got to say goodbye. I didn’t really pay much attention growing through the process. He was on his best behavior (during the illness) because of what I was going through. But after the funeral, that’s when he really started acting out.”
Sproull said the calls from teacher started coming soon after the funeral, and involved throwing objects and reacting to other kids. “I look back, and I realize he was grieving,” said Sproull, “he was just not himself. I always tried to answer his questions (about Grandpa) without scaring him. It was hard. My daughter Abby had more tears. She understood a bit more, and I didn’t really see any negative reactions with her. She was more Mothering to me, asking if I was OK. She recognized I was grieving, even as a 3rd grader.”
Bersie-Mize said that’s the fine line that parents must walk while going through their own grief process. “It’s better to explain it then to hide it,” stressed Bersie-Mitze, “they need to know what’s happening, what the wake will look like, and have a choice to go or not to go. They need to be informed. A lot of kids fear crying, but when everyone else is crying, it helps them make that decision. They need to be informed.”
Brent and Christie Cuttell, Cottage Grove, are advocates of being informed. Brent lost his Father last year after an extended illness, and the couple’s three children range in age from 7 to teenagers. “Kids grieve in a similar sense that we do, but it’s more pronounced. Everything a child does is more pronounced…they are louder and faster than we are, and their minds are sharper,” said Brent Cuttell, “youngest son Camden was 7 and a half when Grandpa died. He’s a visual kid, so whenever he sees a red hat, like his Grandpa Cuttell used to wear, he gets emotional. He’ll say ‘I miss Grandpa’, or “That guy in the red hat looks just like Grandpa’. They figure out that stepping stone – you have a Grandpa, you might even have a Great Grandpa. Now that Grandpa’s gone, that void is filled with Dad or Mom. That stepping stone and known, rock solid entity is gone.”
Christie Cuttell, who is a social worker at Psyche Recovery, Inc. in St. Paul, says her knowledge of the grief business helped her cope with her own family’s journey. “Americans are horrible at death and dying,” she explained, “we don’t like to talk about it, we don’t plan for it, yet it’s the only thing that is absolutely sure. It’s very frustrating when you work on death and dying. The more open we are with our kids and each other, the smoother it is going to go.”
She said youngest son Camden’s grief comes and goes in short waves and bursts, usually associated with visual triggers. “At first he was very careful not to grieve in front of us,” remembered Christie, “he didn’t want to upset people more. But when he went back to school and the teacher had given him an assignment to write about feelings, Camden could only get through 2 sentences, before he burst out crying. I do think kids generally grieve better than adults. They are not at all selfish. Their genuine, and to them, it’s very literal.”
The Cuttell’s said their older teenagers took on a different grieving pattern. “Myles, being the boy, was more non-verbal,” remembered Christie, “but his actions were kinder. He was not causing trouble, and would let things go that he usually wouldn’t. He was just quieter. Daughter Abby just cried her brains out, night and day. The teenaged kids had a very difference connection with Grandpa, as they are so much older than Camden. They saw Grandpa healthy, and he wasn’t sick in their memories.”
“Some of it is really just talking with them,” explained Bersie-Mize, “it really is. It’s OK that it hurts or that it’s scary. It’s OK to say those things to kids. The more they are involved in the planning, the better. It’s important not to exclude them from your own grief. Explain how you feel inside, so they don’t feel alone or isolated.”
Through the whole process, watch for warning signs of something deeper than “healthy” grief. “Watch how long they are staying in grief,” explained Bersie-Mize, “and if they are functioning in school and with friends. Are they isolating, or getting angry. Things like that should not be ignored, and sometime professional support is needed.” Other factors to watch include inability to sleep, or loss of appetite, acting much younger for an extended period, repeated statements for wanting to join the dead person, or excessively imitating the deceased family member.
She went on to explain that it wasn’t until around the 1950’s or later that children were included at all in the whole grieving process, and until then was kept very separated from the whole ordeal. “Including them in the process, perhaps picking out flowers, or writing poems to put in the casket, are all closure activities. Talk about how sad it feels, and the hurt inside. Let them see the tears.”
With our family, we included all the grandsons as much as we could in the planning, and communicated what would be going on during the wake and the funeral itself. Hayden had the choice of viewing Grandpa during the wake. He sat in the back of the church in the last pew for a short time before making up his mind and marching up the aisle resolutely next to me. We also let each of the grandsons choose a “Grandpa treasure” from his dresser, and they all carried them in their pockets during the funeral. I noticed Hayden rubbing his Grandpa’s favorite pocketknife during the funeral.
After our visit to the cemetery that day, Hayden asked if Grandpa had known we were there visiting him, or if he was too busy up in heaven.
I guess only the fireflies and my dad really know the answer to that question.
Kids books that help cope with grief:
The Fall of Freddie the Leaf – Leo Buscaglia
The Next Place – Warren Hanson
The Old Coyote by Nancy Wood
Papa’s New Home – Jessica Lynn Curtis
Winston Churchill famously once said, “A polo handicap is your passport to the world.” When someone brings up Polo, one may have visions of sleek horses thundering down the grassy fields in London, England, or even Santa Barbara, California and Greenwich, Connecticut. One associates the sport with kings, not kids.
So it came as a surprise that this sport can also be a passport right here in good old Minnesota. We have our own Twin Cities Polo Club in Maple Plain, and there was a Polo Classic match right around the corner. And surprise! I saw numerous kid events on the roster. I was sold. After all, the sport of Polo has been played for centuries; it was time to experience the thrill of the sport. And the proceeds go for a wonderful cause-the Leatherdale Equine Center at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine.
Explaining this to my 9-year-old son, Hayden, was something else. “We’re heading down to Maple Plain,” I explained, “we’re going to a polo match!” Hayden stared blankly back. I continued. “It’s a game played on horses, and they hit a ball around with a mallet. It’s like hockey on horseback.” He seemed to accept that explanation. “Is it like the guy on those one shirts?” he asked. Ah- Ralph Lauren. Sold.
While the polo matches are played May through September, we caught the 22nd Annual Polo Classic the end of July. It was going to be a hot one, temperatures in the low 90’s and muggy. It was a beautiful drive though, and the polo field wasn’t hard to find among the sprawling pastures. Hayden enjoyed watching the polo players prep their horses in the heat, while I grabbed some bottles of water from the horse trough.
There were many things to keep the kids entertained, from face painting, to jumping in the bouncy tent, to riding a horse-drawn carriage around the grounds. The U of M Raptor Center was on hand, and there were several games set up, all horse related. If your kids are into horses, this was the place to be. Several retail tents were peppered along one side of the field; St. Croix Sadderly, Pink Equine, and Refuge horse farms. There was even a Ralph Lauren “Big Pony Collection” cologne booth, with bright colored bottles with taglines such as “Be a winner! Be part of the team!” Before I could stop him, Hayden had sprayed himself with several of the samples.
The schedule of events seemed foreign to us non-polo people, but sounded fun all the same. Gates opened at 11:00 a.m.; At 12:00 was the Twin Cities Polo Club Youth Match. Hayden loved seeing kids from age 12 and up on the field warming up the polo greens.
“It is wonderful,” said Craig Robbins, Polo Classic Co-Chair, “Our Youth Polo Group, ages 12 up to 20 play in the youth program. The kids learn about the sport, and the youth polo match showcases some of the kids that play. It gives them an opportunity to show what they can do!” I was pleased to see several long ponytails streaming in the wind behind a few of the players helmets. I poked Hayden. “Those are girls!” I exclaimed. He rolled his eyes. “They haven’t scored yet, Mommy”. As if on cue, one of the girl players thundered passed us and chucked a ball right in the goal.
After the Youth Match, we witnessed the Long Lakes Hounds Demonstration at 12:45. We learned that the Long Lake Hounds club was founded in 1959, and is Minnesota’s only hunt. No worries-it’s a “drag” hunt, meaning it doesn’t hunt or involve live foxes; a fox scent is dragged on horseback to simulate the path a pursued fox might take over the fields or through the woods. Hayden enjoyed watching the numerous hounds being corralled by riders around the field. The opening ceremony was at 1:45, and as Hayden put it, “it was time for the big guy polo.” “The Polo Gods are smiling on us!” exclaimed the announcer. Smiling? It was 94 degrees. But I suppose that meant that it wasn’t raining. We were learning.
Robbins directed us to the large Equine Center tent. “It’s a fun community event,” he explained, “ It gives you a change to meet one another, and helps build that community effort.” We nestled ourselves in the shade of the large tent, which had perfect seats along the side of the polo field. It was organized with tables of information on the Equine Center’s programs, which are for teaching, research, clinic care and community outreach for advancing the health, wellbeing and performance of horses. The Center boasts a 60,00 square feet facility that supports the growing University of Minnesota equine program.
Home to nearly 500 state and local horse clubs, Minnesota has more than 155,000 horses- the ninth largest horse population in the United States!
The polo match was fast paced and downright exciting, even though we were still learning the rules of the game. Hayden thought it was a blast to run out on the field at half time for the divot stomp. (I reminded him to stay clear of the steamy divots) I was impressed with the athleticism of the riders. Talk about multi-tasking. And the agility of the polo ponies was equally impressive. It’s not uncommon for the horses to reach speeds of 35 mph while still being able to turn on a dime. By the end of the match, Hayden announced that he thought Polo was “cool.”
As we drove back to the cities, I reveled in the feeling that my son and I had enjoyed something completely new…and we learned a thing or two along the way. I could still smell the faint scent of Polo in the air.