The summer of 2007 in the Berkshires was particularly hot and dry. In late-July, our well started sending sand and sediment, rather than water, up our pipes. By mid-August the well collapsed in on itself and we were flushing our toilet with lake water and paddling across the lake to shower at my in-law’s cottage.
Before the drought, we had plans in place for a big house renovation that would begin the next spring, but since we were suddenly waterless, we decided to move up the timeline. Our builder assured us he could start as soon as he finished up the “tree house” he was working on. We expected him to show up in a few days, a week tops.
Several weeks later, I was cursing any damn tree house that took so damn long to build..!
Fast-forward nine years to this fall, when we arrived at my brother-in-law’s newly purchased home to help with the move and our kids discovered this nestled among the trees at the back of his property.It was the very same tree house that I had cursed so many years ago, built by the same builder (Bob Walden) who also eventually built us our dream home (on solid ground).
My four and five-year-old had found their personal Eden!
Since Uncle Mark’s move-in day they have begged me to sleep in his tree house at least a dozen times (a week). I finally caved and promised them a camping “staycation” in the tree house over April vacation.
Not only did the kids have the ultimate tree house camping adventure they’d dreamed of, but I discovered that a family camping trip offers unlimited opportunities for STEM activities!
1. Map Skills
Map activities are a terrific way to develop spacial thinking skills, which help children to comprehend and envision the places and spaces they occupy. Map reading and map making will also help to build and strengthen STEM vocabularies (left, right, north, south, east, west, up, down,through, over, under, across) and provide an early introduction to the concept of scale.
Study the trail map with your kids before embarking on a hike. Point out a few landmarks and/or features on the map that you can keep an eye out for on your hike.
You can also work together to create a map of your own campsite. We followed our homemade map and counted how many steps we walked to get from our car to our campsite.
You can also follow your map together or create sets of directions for getting from Points A to Points B. (ex. “Follow the path through the pine trees, and turn left at the first fork. Which building do you see on your right?”) Better yet, hide a treasure or two and mark it’s location on your map. (A bag of marshmallows behind the campfire was my treasure of choice.)
Through everyday experiences with hot and cold, kids quickly develop a practical understanding of the thermal laws of physics. They know their popsicle will melt on a hot day if they don’t eat fast enough or that their drink will stay cold longer when kept in a thermos. They know a warm palm will leave a frosty print on a car window (heat transfer) and that Mom will say “no” to shorts in January.
But, most young kids don’t have a sense of the actual numbers related to temperature. While, “It’s only 30 degrees outside” means nothing to a 4-year-old, they will understand, “It’s freezing cold. Wear a hat!”
For that reason, a Dollar Store thermometer can be a power scientific tool in the hands of a young camper.
We made some guesses (estimated) what the temperature would be in different spots and then we took actual temperature readings beside the campfire (87 degrees), outside of the tree house (69 degrees), on the first floor (73 degrees) and up in the loft (78 degrees) before we tucked in for the night.
I asked for theories for why is was hotter in the tree house than down on the ground and why the loft area was even hotter. We talked about how hot air rises and guessed what the temperature would be inside when we woke up in the morning (54 degrees). And, though it was a little over their heads, I showed them that 73 – 54 = 19 and explained that the temperature went down 19 degrees while we were sleeping.
3. Volume & Displacement
Rocks + Water = Happy Kids
Puddles, lakes, rivers, streams, storm drains…
I’ve yet to meet a kid who doesn’t enjoy throwing rocks into any body of water.
We met up with my sister-in-law and five cousins for a hike along the Westfield River. When we reached the river bank, each and every kid (ages 3 – 11), as if choreographed, reached for a rock and tossed it into the water. The older kids practiced to art of skipping stones, while the younger ones competed for the biggest splash.
Even at ages 3, 4 and 5 they soon caught on to the science of the splash.
Bigger Rock = Bigger Splash!!
The larger the object, the more water is displaced or, more precisely, “a submerged object displaces a volume of liquid equal to the volume of the object.”
On the way back to the tree house for lunch, I did my best to explain the physics of skipping stones my 11-year-old niece. (With each successive skip gravity pulls the stone slight further beneath the surface and the water exerts a larger drag force on the stone, until it can’t break free of the surface and sinks.)
She asked what I thought the World Record was for number of skips was, so we looked it up on my phone and learned that it was 38 skips across a river in Texas.
It’s no coincidence that all of my kids’ favorite hiking spots are near water. Even when they were very little, they loved experimenting with what floats and what does not.
On this camping trip, we upped the game to building boats out of tree bark and counting how many passengers (small stones) they could carry and still stay afloat. Then we sent them on their merry way downstream.
5. Critical Thinking
While hiking, I heard my daughter shout to her brother, “Hey, let’s climb over to that giant see-saw” and realized she was talking about a giant tree trunk balancing precariously on a boulder. Sensing the “ride” would not end well, I felt the need to intervene, asking “Do you really think that’s a good idea? What do you think would happen if your brother sat on one end of that log?” She correctly theorized, “He’ll plop into the river and float away.”
As a (somewhat safer) alternative, I suggested they find smaller sticks to make a see-saw or to try to balance a large stone atop a smaller one. They begrudgingly rose to the challenge, which thankfully led to some serious critical thinking and collaborative problem solving, rather than a critical injury.
Contrary to popular belief, you do not have to be a mathematical genius to become an architect. In fact, studies have shown that children still interested in building with Legos and drawing at age ten, have a very high aptitude for architecture as a future career.
We started our exploration into architecture with marshmallow pyramids and towers, and then moved on to tiny log homes made out of sticks and bark (for fairies). I also brought along a large sack of Lincoln Logs that they never once played with at home, that kept them both building for hours up in the tree house.
We talked about the tree houses they each plan to build in our yard someday when they “get bigger”, if I will “let them use Daddy’s tools.”
We wrapped up our architecture lesson that evening with a bedtime reading of my favorite kids book of all time, Andrew Henry’s Meadow (by Doris Burn), which is about a little boy who loved to build things that frustrated his family, so he ran away to a meadow along with his friends and built them each a magnificent home perfectly suited each of their individual interests (music, flying, birding, animals, dress up, water…) It is a book that should be in the hands of every elementary school teacher in the country!
7. Counting & Estimating
Bugs, birch trees, rocks, steps, marshmallows…. We counted anything and everything all week long.
We also practiced the essential art of estimation. Which “Christmas” tree is the shortest? Which is the tallest? How tall do you think it is? Is it taller than a giraffe? Stand near it so we can see if it’s bigger or smaller than you. How many stairs do you think we need to climb to get up into the tree house?
The entire history of math and science is linked to the study of astronomy and kids are never too young to develop a deeper understanding of the universe.
You also know darn well that when camping kids are going to be up (much) later than usual. Take some time to study the stars and moon, and to introduce atmospheric science and topics such as gravity, ocean tides, seasons, satellites, space travel and the solar system. Camping is the perfect setting to remind kids that though they may think so, the world does not revolve around them and that the universe is a very big place…
9. Simple Machines
Simple machines introduce the concepts of force and work.
We built an “elevator” using a pulley, bucket and rope for the crucial delivery of bubbles, drinks and snacks from the tree house deck down to the ground and spent a significant portion of time searching for the best stick (ie. “Wedge”) for roasting hotdogs and marshmallows over the fire.
If you are camping, there will be no shortage of branches, sticks and rocks of all shapes and sizes. When it comes to simple machines, a wheel and axle may be a stretch, but you have all the materials needed to experiment with levers, wedges and inclined planes. Jar lids are also a great kid-friendly example of a screw. You can punch a few hole in one to create a bug catcher!
NOTE TO PARENTS: With all of this quality family time and brain-building STEM stimulation, there is no shame in also introducing kids to the simple machines essential to adult camping survival — the bottle opened (lever) and corkSCREW!
10. Discovery & Observation
Grab a pair of binoculars and a field journal (notebook) and take a “Discovery Walk”. Ask questions; have your kids develop a hypothesis (guess); write it down; challenge them to discover the answer and then record your findings.
We used our binoculars to scan Uncle Mark’s yard from afar and guessed how many baby “Christmas” trees he had growing between his house and the tree house. Then we set out to count exactly how many and compared the actual number to our guess, to see how close we were.
Next we created one page in our notebook for “Bugs”, one for “Animals” and one for “Leaves”, and searched for as many different types that we could find and had Mommy draw a picture of them in our notebook. (Drawings not included here by choice.)
We found a large rock to climb on and sat down to play a came of “How many sounds?” The rules are simple. Close your eyes and listen for as many different sounds as you can. You are only allowed to talk if you hear something new.
We ended our Discovery Walk with several games of “Rainbow” on the walk back to our campsite. First find something red, then orange…yellow, green, blue, purple.
EDITOR’S NOTE: I am no super Mom. We weren’t exactly roughing it. Daddy’s office was just a few miles away and the tree house is equipped with heat, electricity and plumbing. (Yes, there is even a bathroom.) I stopped in the week before with supplies (bedding, games, books, coloring books, kitchen supplies, cots, sleeping bags, firewood), swept up the dead flies and cleaned the place from top to bottom with bleach and water. And, though I fully intended to rough it, my brother-in-law was quick to hand over the keys to his golf cart for quick rides back and forth to the car and his hot tub, which the kids “took a bath” in.
Although we spent a good portion of April vacation at the tree house, we came and went. We actually only slept there for one night. On that night, my cousin and her boyfriend (both elementary school teachers) stopped out for dinner and a hike, and helped me build a fire and feed the kids (and keep them from falling off a cliff or out of the tree). To ensure my survival after dark, I also downloaded two movies to my Kindle. Appropriately, I chose “Up” for the kids and (even more appropriately) “Room” for me. Though none of us made it to the credits…