On a scorching weekend in July, Cottonwood Institute and a group of military families from Colorado Army National Guard headed to the mountains to momentarily trade the summer heat and the stresses of city living for whispering leaves and gentle breezes of camping amidst the aspen groves at Sanborn Western Camps. Located just west of Woodland Park, Sanborn Western Camps is a school without doors and windows, but plenty of trees and views! Dedicated to providing outdoor education to people of all ages, they generously shared their space, allowing this group to connect to other military families and nature! Since 2010, Cottonwood Institute has been collaborating with the military community along the Colorado Front Range to offer our Military Kids Project. We are honored to make this program possible for active military families and their children to thank them for their incredible service and sacrifice they make for our country. Not only did they get to learn how to camp, they also learned about fossils on a trip to the Florissant Fossil Beds just outside of Florissant, Colorado.
While this was a weekend of fun and connecting, it was also a weekend of learning. After setting up camp and learning basic skills, the group learned about the history of the land which included a cabin on the site built in the 1800’s from stolen railroad ties and a windmill that powered a natural spring that gives fresh drinking water to this day. But wait, they learned even more. Crystals have been found on site! Let the searching begin. It was just like a scavenger hunt; who could find the most interesting one? “I have 35!” “I found 6!” I didn’t find any; I found something better. Check out this view!”
After an exciting hunt for crystals, the hunt was on for firewood, and the kids were eager to learn fire skills. Within minutes, they became experts using cotton balls and fire strikers! “I did it!” The campers were surrounded by screams of joy as the kids’ eyes lit up from the reflection of the campfire they helped start.
As the day waned, a sumptuous dinner was consumed, and conversations and s’mores gave way to yawns and whispers. Although the group retired for the night with memories of the games played and discoveries found throughout the day, there were four campers not yet ready for bed. The twinkling stars, the peaceful night, and the whispering conversations grasped their hearts and minds not yet letting them go.
As the warmth of the next day began, there was a new excitement as the families packed up camp and headed out to learn about fossils at the Florissant Fossil Beds. With the guidance of a wonderful park volunteer, they learned about not only fossils, but redwood trees, ponderosa pines, a dancing bear, a big stump, and each other. The group worked hard, played hard, and learned a lot. Because of this, they earned Junior Ranger badges, even the adults!
As the weekend winded down, it was evident that the best learning happened at the end when everyone realized how much they learned about each other. They learned that there were authors, wrestlers, soldiers, teachers, and more in their group. They learned that someone was afraid of bugs, someone else didn’t like fighting, someone had a birthday, someone liked science, someone had never camped before, someone was an expert at fire skills, someone didn’t like coffee, someone loved coffee…More Importantly though, everyone learned that they had made new connections, new friends, and memories to last a lifetime.
So, remember…School is not what you think!
A special thank you goes out to CO Army National Guard for their continued partnership with us and making these trips possible! Also, a big thanks goes out to Patrick Perry with Sanborn Western Camps, Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Enterprise Holdings Foundation, Microsoft Corporation, and our generous donors who support this project.
Written by field instructor: April Pishna