From Participant to Mentor: The Magic and Challenges of Preserving Kids’ Curiosity in Nature

Freya’s experience at Soaring Eagle Nature School has come full circle as she transitioned from being a participant to becoming a mentor. 

By Freya Stonehouse

I don’t remember how old I was when I attended my first Soaring Eagle summer camp. I was probably 7 or 8, but what I remember clearly is all the memories: the adventures I went on, the crafts I created, the stories I heard. I remember a week spent on the beach balancing rock towers and picking blackberries, making bows and arrows using sticks and rope from Stinging Nettle, and aiming to knock the rock towers down. I remember climbing down a ravine through bramble and over fallen trees to a secret spot where ivy hung in curtains surrounding us and hiking for hours in the rain only to spend the afternoon lying in a sunny meadow watching steam rise from our soaking clothes as they dried. I recall crawling through the forest’s undergrowth, desperate to remain hidden in a thrilling game of Camouflage. I’ll never forget the fateful day someone stepped on a wasp’s nest during the morning game and how that meant leaving at the end of the day with more stings than I wanted to count but with a thrilling tale to tell (once the sting wore off) and firsthand knowledge of the medicinal properties of Plantain. Best of all, I remember carrying heaping baskets of huckleberries to share and learning to leave some berries behind for the birds.

This year, when I arrived at camp as an 18-year-old, I was not a participant but a mentor. And I learned that this wasn’t just a first for me but for Soaring Eagle, too; I would be the first person to attend Soaring Eagle programs as a child and become a mentor.

This summer, I found myself echoing many of the words I had heard spoken to me all those years before, seeking to cultivate the magic I felt in the forest each summer at Soaring Eagle. I learned the line between student and mentor is much finer than I thought. Despite all the new responsibilities, being a mentor didn’t feel that different from attending the camps myself. As a child, I never suspected the innocent response, “What do you think it is?” to a question at the nature table might signify the mentor’s own uncertainty as much as their desire to provoke curiosity. The day flowed in much the same way I remember, beginning and ending in a circle and filled with unexpected adventures in between. And the learning didn’t stop either. Each day, I found myself soaking up new knowledge, skills, and ideas that came in almost equal parts from my coworkers and the kids I was mentoring.

I was curious to see how the programs had evolved while I was away. I was pleasantly surprised to find much of the magic perfectly preserved. The games I remembered most fondly—Camouflage and Cougar Stalks Deer—were still being played. The songs that would echo in my head for months after summer ended—Wood, Stone, Feather and Bone, and many others—were still being sung. And what had changed was not a choice by Soaring Eagle.

On my first day in North Vancouver’s Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve, I was handed a permit with an extensive list of new rules put in place by the Metro Vancouver’s Park Managers. These rules were now requirements to continue running programs at the location and put everything from going off the path or picking any berries in the forest to building forts or, so much as tying a rope around a tree to put up a tarp strictly off limits, as well as even walking the trail that goes around the lake.

I felt torn as I started venturing into the forest with my group. It wasn’t easy constantly reminding kids to put down sticks and not to build forts or pick any berries and trying to explain why these rules were in place without really understanding them myself. These rules were new to me, but they were also new to the kids, many of whom had been attending Soaring Eagle for years. I felt like I was spending my time desperately trying to stop kids from doing things I had done myself in these same parks years ago, activities I believe to be a natural result of child curiosity and exploration. It felt like shutting down curiosity.

One of the central focuses of Soaring Eagle is child-led learning: following children’s interests and building on them. However, instead of being able to follow their interests and instinctual curiosity, I found myself trying to distract them, drawing the kids away from parts of nature that piqued their interest in favor of games that would keep them on the path, away from sticks that could lead to fort building or edible berries that could be picked.

I understand the need for rules to protect the parks and the precious ecosystems they contain, and yet I wonder how we will raise a generation that knows how to care for these ecosystems if they’re never truly allowed to explore them. It is much harder to teach the importance of leaving berries behind for the birds when trying to stop curious hands from picking even a single berry for themselves.

Despite these challenges, I couldn’t be more grateful to have had the opportunity to return to Soaring Eagle in a new role, and I hope to see many of the bright-eyed kids I met this summer grow to become mentors themselves. It makes me smile to think that because of Soaring Eagle, there will be kids (and adults like me) playing Camouflage in the forest for years to come.