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Outward Bound

The 5280 field guide to taking your child’s learning outside of the classroom—and into the world. 

—Jan Von Holleben / Trunk Archive

The next time you’re hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, keep your eyes on the trail because along just about any path you take, there are objects you can use in “teachable moments” for your family.

Take, for example, Mentha arvensis. More commonly known as wild mint, this plant grows abundantly in the park, has easy-to-spot clusters of lilac-colored blooms along its main stem, and is even tastier than the store-bought variety your kid recognizes. The next time you come across one of these fragrant plants, pick a few leaves, pop them into your mouth, and ask him to try one—and prepare yourself for the ensuing meltdown.

Now, take a deep breath because your child’s response is not an overreaction. Quite the opposite: Something from his evolutionary core tells him, “STOP! Don’t eat that green thing!” (It’s as if Fear and Disgust from Pixar’s summer blockbuster Inside Out have teamed up to keep your little one safe.)

But that potentially life-saving reaction also means your child is often wary of new experiences. Before you get frustrated, turn his reaction to your advantage. Kids want to see, learn, and do by mirroring you. Explain what the plant is, grab some more leaves, drop them into your water bottle, and take a sip. After he sees you’ve survived—again—maybe he’ll try some too. And just like that, you have mastered “experiential learning.”

The idea dates back to at least 350 B.C., when Aristotle wrote, “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” Aside from pontificating, he was describing a biological process. A child’s experiences create connections among 100 billion brain cells that continue to build a framework for thinking, says Christine Cerbana, project director of Colorado Parenting Matters at Colorado State University. “Experiential learning is not an alternative approach, but rather the most fundamental way children learn,” she says. “Parents are the first and most important teachers.”

So how do you fit experiential learning in with school, soccer practice, piano lessons, and all the other wonderful things that keep us perpetually booked? “The word ‘playdate’ didn’t exist before this past generation because kids just went outside and played with their friends in the neighborhood,” says Scott Sampson, vice president of research and collections at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and author of How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature. “We need to think about the connection with nature akin to literacy. We make time to read to our kids and have them read on their own because we recognize that literacy is a key skill. Getting kids outside and engaged with the world firsthand is equally critical to their long-term health. We need to make it a priority.”

So get out there. Or stay in. Just spend some time giving your kids new experiences. We’ll give you a head start: Here are 18 ways you can integrate experiential lessons into your children’s daily lives in Colorado. Climb a mountain. Grow—and eat!—some veggies. Devour a new book. Become a mini-entrepreneur. Your kids will be having so much fun, they’ll never know they’re learning the whole time.


Seven road trips and more than 1,200 years of history—right here in the Centennial State.

Four Mile Historic Park
Odometer: 5 miles from Denver
What You’ll Find: These 12 acres are devoted to the Mile High City’s frontier days, complete with a blacksmith and farm animals.

Hidee Gold Mine
Odometer: 36 miles from Denver
What You’ll Find: This 135-foot-deep, still-in-use mine sits on “the richest square mile on Earth.” Kids willing to chisel gold ore can walk away with nuggets (valued around $1) and a few smudges of rock dust on their faces.

Pikes Peak Cog Railway Station
Odometer: 74 miles from Denver
What You’ll Find: Ride the Pikes Peak Cog Railway to the 14,115-foot peak of Colorado’s most famous mountain for the view that inspired “America the Beautiful.” (Don’t miss the Summit House’s cake donuts, which have been served on the mountain since 1916.)

Bent’s Old Fort
Odometer: 183 miles from Denver
What You’ll Find: The Santa Fe Trail’s Mountain Route, which was the main trading path connecting what is now New Mexico and Kansas, passes by Bent’s Old Fort. The reconstructed 1840s trading post hosts special tours throughout the year, including the Fur Trade Symposium September 23 to 26.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Odometer: 239 miles from Denver
What You’ll Find: Take the kids on a trek through North America’s tallest sand dunes, which were created after prehistoric Lake Alamosa and smaller lakes dried up as temperatures warmed around 440,000 years ago.

Dinosaur National Monument
Odometer: 244 miles from Denver
What You’ll Find: After roaming the 210,000-acre monument (partly in Utah), which has plenty of bones and petroglyphs, camp out under the stars in one of the darkest places remaining in the United States.

Museum of Western Colorado
Odometer: 254 miles from Denver
What You’ll Find: In Grand Junction, the Museum of Western Colorado’s Native American artifacts, one-room schoolhouse, and dinosaur exhibits are just a primer for heading out on an all-day paleontological dig to find fossils (reservations required). —Kiran Herbert

Illustration by Sol Linero

Physical Education

If youth sports teach life lessons, how do we make sure the right message is coming across?

Chances are your little Peyton Manning–jersey-wearing tyke won’t make the roster of a Division I college sports team. We know he or she will try hard, but of the more than 20 million American children ages six to 18 involved in team athletics, only a small percentage move on to NCAA sports.

And that’s OK, says Fort Collins resident Linda Crum, who’s played and coached Division I volleyball since 1978—including helping coach Ohio State to the Final Four in 1994. Crum is a mother to three girls and the Colorado executive director of the Positive Coaching Alliance, a national nonprofit focused on integrating affirming life lessons into the sporting realm. She helps adults reinforce the most beneficial aspects—such as perseverance, self-confidence, and cooperation—of the games kids love to play. Take a page from her playbook.

Your Car Is Not The Locker Room: The coach has already hashed out the X’s and O’s, so on the way home, just ask your child what she thought of the game and what went well.

Don’t Specialize Too Soon: Even if your little kicker is the leading scorer, Crum suggests not forcing a toddler to commit to a single sport. “Hands down, college coaches would rather have the multiple-sport athlete because those kids develop in a more all-around fashion,” Crum says.

Focus On Lessons, Not Stats: What was your batting average in sixth grade? You probably can’t remember because it was less impactful than what you learned about teamwork, discipline, and, yes, competition.



The 15 miles of trails on easy-to-reach North Table Mountain in Jefferson County are a ready-made science lesson. Here’s a starter loop for your kids to explore.

The Route: The folks at the Colorado Mountain Club in Golden suggest this 3.3-mile do-it-yourself loop. Hike southeast from the North Table Loop trailhead (two miles north of downtown Golden on State Highway 93) for 0.6 miles until you reach the Tilting Mesa Trail. Continue 0.9 miles before connecting to the 0.9-mile Mesa Top Trail. Then it’s all downhill as you swing back on the North Table Loop Trail for 0.9 miles to the parking lot.

I Spy…Tectonic Activity
Look west at any point on the hike to spot the Dakota Hogback, an elongated, elevated formation that was created when the ground lifted during the late Cretaceous Period. (It still sits on an active fault line.)

I Spy…Basalt
Four lava flows, created about 63 million years ago, left behind dark igneous rock deposits easily spotted near North Table Mountain’s plateau. Look closely for zeolite crystals, which are sparkly minerals found in air pockets within the rocks.

I Spy…Lichens
Stand on the border of the Tilting Mesa Trail and gaze across a protected lichen habitat. Lichen is a composite organism made up of single-celled algae and fungus that is susceptible to death by trampling. In other words, watch where you step.


Culinary Arts

If your kids pick it, they’ll probably eat it. Five veggies worth planting in your backyard plot.

Chef Eric Skokan’s kids love fresh vegetables from the garden—maybe even a bit too much. “At one point, I almost said to them, ‘Will you guys stop eating all of the vegetables?’?” Skokan says with a laugh. “But that’s something no parent should ever say.” The chef and owner of Boulder’s Black Cat Farm Table Bistro and Bramble and Hare founded Black Cat Farm in 2007, along with his wife, Jill, to supply their restaurants—and family—with the freshest products. Embrace their dirt-to-plate ethos with these five friendly-for-kids-to-grow vegetables.

For the Dirt-Digger…Plant Fingerling Potatoes

Kids adore these no-two-are-alike tiny potatoes, which are ready to harvest in about 100 days. Dig a few out at a time, but make sure to fully harvest before the first hard frost.

Expert Tip: Mound soil near the base of the plants’ foliage to avoid growing potatoes too near the surface; this root shouldn’t sunbathe.

For the Insatiable Snacker…Plant Peas

As prolific and fast-growing as these plants are, peas rarely make it out of the garden; they taste that much sweeter when eaten straight from the vine. Rinse with water from the garden hose and enjoy.

Expert Tip: Sprouted seeds sometimes pop out of the dirt; just poke them right back in.

For the Child Having a Growth Spurt…Plant Mustard Greens

Perfect for kids who seem to grow overnight, this leafy green—akin to spinach—is packed with vitamin A, carotenes, vitamin K, and antioxidants.

Expert Tip: Mustard greens like cooler weather, so they’re a good vegetable to grow at the end of summer.

For the Observant Kid…Plant Carrots

Carrot seeds sprout quickly, but it’ll take 75 days before the roots are big enough to harvest. Take photos to track the growth (and make the waiting more palatable).

Expert Tip: When greens are an inch tall, thin them to three inches apart (snip them with scissors instead of pulling them out so as not to disturb the other plants).

For the Impatient Tot…Plant Radishes 

This fast-growing veggie (many varieties take less than a month to grow) can be planted before the last frost for an early spring harvest. Want more? Keep sowing seeds every 10 days for a summerlong harvest.

Expert Tip: Don’t toss the leaves; you can eat those, too, just like other greens. — Callie Sumlin

Illustration by Sol Linero


Use your new garden to take your child’s lunch to the next level.

Crispy Fingerling Potatoes

Skokan Says: “Root vegetables and potatoes are a great way to make vegetables a treasure hunt. Digging into black earth and finding golden nuggets of potato—the kids just love that.”

You’ll Need:

2 pounds fingerling potatoes
oil for frying
1 clove garlic

Wash the potatoes. In a medium pot, combine potatoes with enough water to cover. Season the water with salt until it tastes like the sea (ask your kid to sample it). Boil the potatoes until they are tender, about 15 minutes (the potatoes should have almost no bite left). Drain the potatoes in a colander; allow to cool and dry.

Meanwhile, in a large pot, heat at least 4 inches of oil to 375 degrees. Once the potatoes have cooled a bit, flatten or smash them. Add the smashed potatoes, in batches, to the oil to fry. It is important that the potatoes are dry because excess water causes the oil to splatter. Fry each batch until golden brown.

While the potatoes are frying, cut the garlic clove in half. Rub the clove on the inside of a dry mixing bowl. Reserve. Fry each batch until golden brown, then move them to a paper-towel-lined plate. Transfer all the golden-brown potatoes into the garlic-rubbed mixing bowl. Season liberally with salt and toss the potatoes gently. Serve immediately.

Salted Radishes with Nori Seaweed

Skokan Says: “During the summers at my grandmother’s farm, I would walk into her garden with a saltshaker in my back pocket, headed toward the radishes. Pulled from the ground and given a quick rinse, I’d shake salt on them and munch away.”

You’ll Need:

2 bunches small radishes
¼ cup sea salt
1 sheet nori, cut into 1-inch bits

In a clean coffee grinder, combine the salt and nori; grind until fine. Transfer to a small serving bowl. Wash the radishes thoroughly, but do not dry them. Transfer the radishes to a serving bowl. To serve, dip the damp radishes into the salt bowl. The seaweed salt will stick to the radishes.

Sweet Mustard Greens and Flowers Salad

Skokan Says: “The family of mustard greens is divided roughly in two: One half has the pungent and spicy varieties, and the other tends toward sweetness. This salad takes advantage of the sweeter, not-so-spicy leaves. Late in spring, our early-planted mustard greens begin to go to flower, creating cascades of delicate yellow blooms. As broccoli is a close mustard cousin, it is not surprising that the flowers taste like a sweet version of broccoli.”

You’ll Need:


2 quarts various mustard greens, such as mizuna, tatsoi, bok choy, mispoona, baby bok choy, and loose-leaf Chinese cabbage, washed and spun dry
¼ cup basic vinaigrette
2 cups mustard flowers or other edible flowers

In a large mixing bowl, combine the greens and vinaigrette. Season with salt and toss well to combine. Divide the dressed greens among four salad plates and top with the flowers. Serve immediately.

Basic Vinaigrette

1 cup sunflower oil
2 to 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
½ garlic clove, crushed
1 teaspoon sea salt

In a container with a tight-fitting lid, combine the oil, vinegar, garlic, and salt. Seal the container and shake it vigorously, like a bartender would shake a cocktail. Immediately pour out the desired amount because this vinaigrette separates quickly. Re-shake to combine between uses if it stands for longer than 15 seconds.

Carrots with Tarator Sauce

Skokan Says: “Often dishes geared toward children are too simple for adults. Here is a dish that pleases everyone. My kids prefer the carrots raw in this dish, but Jill and I love them roasted.”

You’ll Need: 

Main Dish

1 2-pound bunch of carrots
1 cup sunflower oil
tarator sauce

Remove the tops from the carrots. Trim and peel the carrots if necessary. Wash the carrots and dry. Cut the carrots into finger-size pieces, each about 4 inches long. Transfer the carrots to a medium mixing bowl. Add the sunflower oil and season with salt. Toss to combine. Transfer carrots to a baking sheet and place in the oven.* Roast carrots until tender and just beginning to brown, about 8 minutes. Transfer the roasted carrots to a serving bowl and top with tarator sauce. Serve immediately.

*Alternatively, to serve raw, simply transfer the prepared carrots to a serving bowl and top with tarator sauce.

Tarator Sauce

1 cup toasted almonds
2 tablespoons roasted garlic
¼ cup sunflower oil
sea salt
lemon juice

In a food processor, combine the nuts, garlic, and 2 tablespoons water. Process on high speed until very smooth, scraping the sides of the bowl if necessary. With the motor running, slowly add the oil until fully incorporated. Season with salt and lemon juice. Store in a tightly covered container in the fridge for up to 4 days.

Spring Pea Soup with Mint, Lemon, and Crème Fraîche

Skokan Says: “At the farm, I had [peas] planted right by where the kids would get out of the car. When I went to harvest them, there was practically nothing left; they had eaten almost all of them. When our farm’s peas arrive in sufficient numbers to make the first bowls of this soup, I know farming season has arrived in all of its glory.”

You’ll Need:

1 ½ pounds peas, shucked (reserve pea shells)
1 medium onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 medium potato, peeled and diced
1 quart vegetable stock
8 ice cubes
¼ cup crème fraîche
sea salt
¼ cup mint leaves, julienned
12 pea flowers (optional)
6 pea tendrils (optional)
1 tablespoon lemon zest, finely julienned

In a medium saucepan over high heat, blanch the shucked peas in boiling salted water until their color brightens, 20 to 30 seconds. Strain the peas and immediately plunge them into a bowl of ice water. After the peas have chilled, strain and set aside. In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the reserved pea shells, onion, garlic, potato, and stock.

Boil until the stock is reduced to three-quarters of its original volume and the potato is very tender, about 40 minutes. Transfer to a blender or food processor. Add half the peas. Blend until velvety smooth, adding water if the soup is too thick to easily puree. Strain through a fine mesh strainer. Add the ice cubes and crème fraîche, and stir until the ice cubes have melted.

Season with salt and lemon juice and place in the refrigerator to fully chill, about 1 hour. To serve the soup warm, return it to the saucepan and warm fully over low heat, 10 to 15 minutes. Divide the soup into four soup bowls. Top each with the mint leaves, pea flowers, tendrils (if using), and lemon zest.

—Courtesy of Ashley Davis Tilly


After six weeks in Costa Rica with two kids under the age of six, Boulder mom Sabina Mackay dishes on what her family learned along the way.

1. Pack a set of PJs instead of extra clothes. They are infinitely more comfortable and easy to squash into a backpack, and people love seeing kids running around in jammies at any time of the day.

2. Bring a lightweight, hands-free baby carrier, such as the Boba 4G Carrier, instead of a stroller. It’s easier to carry your kid kangaroo-style and let her walk when she wants than to haul around a four-wheeled anchor. (Plus, you can often rent a stroller at your destination.)

3. Skip the suitcase of stuffed animals in favor of lightweight coloring books and paperbacks, and scavenge for toys when you get to your destination. Paper plates can become art canvases. Solo cups help mold sand castles. Or let the kids play dress up with your clothes.

4. Rent a house and cook in whenever possible. It helps kids get into a routine and ensures fewer restaurant meltdowns.

5. Don’t expect a one-size-fits-all vacation. Your teenager may want to trek through a humid rainforest while your toddler just wants to play in the wade pool. Ask older kids to pick one activity that is really important to them. Make sure that happens—and encourage them to offer the same courtesy to the rest of the crew.

—Courtesy of Sabina McKay


One Denver kid visited four countries during his first year—and he was just getting started.

Name: Mateo De Pril

Age: Six years old

Countries Visited: Seven (Greece, Denmark, Costa Rica, France, Belgium, Mexico, and Italy)

Biggest Adventures:

  • 10 days of harvesting olives in Greece
  • Ordering “moules” (mussels) in France at the age of four
  • Sleeping in a “palapa”—an open-side dwelling—in a Mexican jungle

Next Trip: Machu Picchu in Peru

Words from Mom: “I don’t get the sense that any of these things feel daunting to him,” Heather Nielsen says. “I think he is beginning to see the world. I’m not daunted by taking him. It’s just an adventure for us. As a result of all of this, I don’t know what kind of person he is going to be, but he’s adaptable.”


Is your tech-savvy youngster ready to add founder and CEO to her name? Sign her up for Camp Inc.

Kids are idea factories, but turning those inventions into reality can be a challenge. Enter Camp Inc., a two-and-a-half week camp in Steamboat Springs for sixth- to 12th-grade  entrepreneurs. Director Josh Pierce says the program—an extension of programming from the Jewish Community Center in Boulder—launched 22 startups in 2014. These mini-moguls pitch apps, tech, and business ideas in a Shark Tank–esque arena—all before they can vote. Says Pierce: “These kids have ideas that rival those of professionals.”

Kaylie Stenhouse
Age: 16
Hometown: Boulder
Company: Diabetech
The Idea: An implantable glucose monitor that would eliminate painful testing for diabetics and could communicate with a phone app and insulin pump.

Eytan Markman-Raffeld
Age: 12
Hometown: Boulder
Company: Sun Defense
The Idea: A pay-by-use sunscreen application structure that would be available at public pools, amusement parks, music festivals, and more.

Mattan Yedidya
Age: 17
Hometown: Englewood
Company: SafeZip
The Idea: A removable zipper that would attach to pant pockets (like athletic shorts) to secure a cell phone and wallet inside.

—Courtesy of (top-bottom) Kaylie Stenhouse, Eytan Markman-Raffeld, Haya Yedidy

Cash Only

Show your kid just how far a dollar stretches.

  • Take a week’s worth of your household’s wages out of the bank in dollar bills.
  • Stack the money on the kitchen counter.
  • With your child’s help, sort out enough moola to cover seven days of your mortgage payment, violin lessons, and other fixed bills.
  • For the rest of the week, use cash from the counter for all purchases. Let your little one play banker—accepting withdrawals and deposits—each day to track the dwindling pile.
  • At the end of the week, count what’s left—and fill out a deposit form for your savings account together.

Money Bags

In a world where kids don’t see money very often—we’re too busy swiping our credit and debit cards—we should start talking to our kids early about the monetary values of things at the grocery store, at a football game, or even at the kitchen table. “It’s important to open the lines of communication with your kids about money just like you do with anything else,” says Rachel Namoff, a financial literacy expert at Denver’s Arapaho Asset Management and a mother of two. “Parents have the opportunity to expose their children to the ideas of saving, spending, investing, giving, credit, and debt. All of these things will impact their financial health in the future.” To get started, Namoff suggests showing your children the benefits of saving and investing. We decided to show the lesson using terms they’ll certainly understand—burritos.

Burrito = $10

Parents invest $100 (10 burritos) in a mutual fund with an annual compounding interest with a six percent rate of return when their child is born. Each month for the next 18 years, $10 (1 burrito) is added to the investment.

After 18 years, $2,260 (226 burritos) has been deposited, and the account balance hits $4,113.57 (411 burritos and some extra guac).

If the child decides to take the money, they’ll be able to finance a few months of traveling abroad in Europe (if inflation doesn’t skyrocketed).

If, instead, the $4,113.57 is reinvested in a mutual fund with an annual compounding interest with a six percent rate of return for 47 more years—with no future contributions—until the child reaches the retirement age of 65, her walk-away balance on the initial $2,260 investment tops out at $63,620.13 (6,362 burritos).


Talking about art can be daunting, even for the pros. We asked three local experts for advice on musing about the creative process with children.

“Find shapes in the clouds.” – Damon McLeese, executive director of Access Gallery

Engage children in abstract art by asking what they see in these nonrepresentational forms in the sky. At home, ask your kids to draw three or four shapes (blobs, triangles, rectangles) and transform them into something else, such as monsters or buildings.

“Ignore prices.” – Jennifer Doran, co-owner of Robischon Gallery

Nothing distracts a penny-stockpiling, lemonade-stand tycoon on a gallery tour more than a comma and a few zeros. Don’t let your little ones gauge worth only by price; help them assess value based on personal preference and observation.

“Emphasize process, not product.” – Lares Feliciano, art studio coordinator at the Children’s Museum of Denver

Instead of telling kids exactly what to create, encourage them to start drawing or painting and see where it takes them. Later, discuss how they got there. — Camilla Sterne

—Courtesy of Robischon Gallery

A Painting—By Numbers

Tour the sixth floor of the Denver Art Museum’s North Building, and you can’t miss Thomas Hudson’s “The Radcliffe Family,” a massive oil painting from 1742. The 10-by-14-foot work is ideal for initiating art appreciation lessons. Try these conversation starters.

Ages: 3 to — Pose
Pick out one of the Radcliffe children and mimic his or her position.

Ages: 6 to 12 — Dress Up
The Radcliffe children’s clothes look, well, uncomfortable. What would happen if you wore those duds today? To soccer practice? School?

Ages: 13 to 18  — Moment In Time
This family waited much longer for the painting to be finished than it takes for a digital camera’s shutter to click. If you only had one chance—like the Radcliffes—to get a family portrait right, what would you want in the photo?

—Courtesy of the Berger Collection, iStock

Social Studies

A toddler’s aversion to sharing only lasts for a short time: When your little one reaches six, his brain can recognize that he isn’t, in fact, the center of the world. Cue the opportunity to introduce giving back to the community.

Penny Picker-Upper Young Philanthropists Foundation

Each year, students in more than 60 Colorado schools spend three months collecting pennies from friends and family. Once the coins are pooled and counted—nearly $100,000 was gathered in the past school year—local nonprofits get the loot.

TrailBlazer Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado

Teach your Coloradan how to help with trail renovations on perennial favorites such as Mt. Bierstadt and Quandary Peak (16 years old and up), or plant local gardens to help the less fortunate (6 years old and up).

Modern Day Candy-Striper Junior Volunteer Program

In a world dominated by white coats and medical procedures, some of the friendliest faces at Children’s Hospital Colorado belong to kids who choose to be there. Students ages 13 to 18 volunteer to cruise the halls with an art cart or talk kid stuff with patients.

—Courtesy of Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado


How would my kid learn to love reading when I didn’t have time for it anymore?

Parents are used to giving things up (swearing, bathroom privacy, the dream of ever finishing the laundry). Most are easy to part with once you’ve got that bubbly, squirming, squealing baby in your arms. For this writer and mom, though, giving up uninterrupted spells with classic novels and long nonfiction tomes left me feeling dull (or, at least, unprepared for adult conversations).

As the pile of unread magazines next to the couch grew as quickly as my son, Oliver, I lamented that my child wouldn’t see how much the written word meant to his father and me: how we’d once spent an entire day reading on the banks of Walden Pond, made famous by Henry David Thoreau. How we’ve carried books to the tops of mountains just to settle on a rock and turn the pages. How I can figure out important dates in my life by what book I was reading.

I shouldn’t have worried. Once he learned to walk, he’d pull books off our shelves, and I’d read him a page from whatever he’d drop in my lap, whether it was a biography of Che Guevara or a collection of Winnie-the-Pooh stories. He’d giggle at the brightly colored vegetables in a cookbook and laugh at the voices I adopted for characters from a Kent Haruf novel. Just the other day, I watched as he gingerly tried to walk while still examining the pictures in a magazine.

His stilted steps, I realized, were a learned behavior; something he’d watched me do countless times while reading. Because somewhere between the mommy moments and the work hours and the loads of endless laundry, he’d seen me cram in my lost literary moments a bit at a time—and he’ll do the same. —Natasha Gardner

Illustration by Sol Linero

Book It

We asked Amy Seto Forrester, Denver Public Library’s children’s librarian, for tomes to inspire your tot.

Age: 4

Doors in the Air by David Wealev
Read it here: In your home, near a window

Age: 5

Journey by Aaron Becker
Read it here: While waiting to board a flight at DIA or a Union Station train

Age: 6

Green by Laura Vaccaro Seeger
Read it here: At the base of a tree in Washington Park

Age: 7

Chalk by Bill Thomson
Read it here: Near the rose gardens at City Park

Age: 8 

All the Water in the World by George Ella Lyon
Read it here: On the banks of the South Platte River

—Courtesy of Orca Book Publishers, Candlewick Press, Roaring Brook Press, Two Lions, George Ella Lyon

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Outward Bound

Why a camping trip gone wrong turned out to be a little bit right.

We were ripping down u.s. highway 6, just outside of Golden, on the way to our first family camping trip when I realized I’d forgotten to pack pants for myself. My wife, Stefania, and I had meticulously put together a checklist for our two boys: mittens, wool beanies, pajamas with built-in feet—we had it all. Except my long pants. And, as it turned out, a jacket for Stef. We should have known to turn around right then.

But we’d been talking about camping for a year, and Sebastian and Leo were finally old enough, at four and two, to try the tent. Our goal was to introduce our boys to something we love—being outside in our beautiful state, getting away from the television and smartphones, and learning how to make authentic s’mores over an open wood fire.

We set up camp near some cool rock formations in the Aspen Meadow section of Golden Gate Canyon State Park, and over hot dogs and brats we explained the concept of “roughing it”—how things can be a little different from the everyday routine, but that’s OK as long as you can adapt to the challenges that inevitably pop up. For a two-year-old, though, routine and creature comforts are of paramount importance. We were reminded of that when, after s’mores and story time, Leo refused to go to sleep without his mommy. So Stef crawled into the tent with the boys while I watched the fire slowly burn out. I could hear Sebastian tell Leo story after bedtime story in a valiant effort to help his little brother fall asleep. And then: silence.

An hour later, at 11 p.m., the silence was shattered by Leo’s screams. We’re talking echo-off-the-canyon-walls, wake-the-neighboring-campers shrieking. Nothing in particular was wrong, but he was inconsolable in the way that toddlers can be, until he eventually fell back to sleep, exhausted. At 1 a.m., he woke up again. And again at 3. And again at 5, when he woke up for good. Each time, he was immune to the many parenting tricks we’d try to calm him down. At one point, Stef turned to me in the dark tent: “Do people really do this?” she asked.

It was a question borne of frustration and helplessness: Ultimately, none of us got any meaningful sleep. But it also hinted at something deeper: Why had we subjected ourselves to a night in which either of our sons might feel out of sorts or uncomfortable? Were we bad parents? Or, at the very least, had we made a bad decision? The former, we hoped, was not true. The latter, sadly, was clearly right on.

There’s a cliché in sports: You don’t learn anything from winning all the time. The same might be said about our outing. Early the next morning, as the sun rose and warmed our campsite, Stef told me she’d witnessed a moment of grace the previous evening that perhaps wouldn’t have happened had we not embarked on our adventure. Sebastian had told his final bedtime story, and then he whispered to Leo, “It’s OK, Leo, I’m right here next to you. I love you. Do you want me to hold your hand?” Four-year-old Sebastian was “roughing it” for the first time, and he had become party to an impossibly difficult situation. Instead of getting frustrated, though—as his parents did that night—he wanted to help. He wanted to be a big brother. “You’re a good boy,” Leo said back. And then, before they fell asleep for a short time, Sebastian said, finally, “You’re a good Leo.”

This article was originally published in 5280 August 2011.
Geoff Van Dyke
Geoff Van Dyke
Geoff Van Dyke is the editorial director of 5280 Publishing. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffVanDyke