Teaching Our Children . . . Camping?

As a Jew, I know that in some contexts I am a minority in the dominant American culture. As an Orthodox Jew I live in an even more limited demographic. And to make matters worse, I’m an Orthodox Jew who enjoys camping. Outdoors! With tents. It feels like there are very, very few of us.

This week I took my 14-year-old son and my 9-year-old daughter on a 3-day 2-night camping trip, complete with rocky hikes, campfire popcorn, and lake swimming. It was the second annual Soskil Family Camping Trip, which started out with just me and my son last year. I have to say, I was really proud of him. Besides being able to do all the things that I expect that every 14-year-old boy should be able to do (such as put up a tent, gather firewood, make a fire, safely use a hatchet, and follow a trail) he also was able to put his little sister’s needs first and abide by the ethic of “leave no trace.” For my newbie camper it was also a successful trip. She learned that you climb a 100 foot waterfall one step and one handhold at a time. She learned how to cannonball into the lake from my shoulders. She learned bugs can be cool and cute. She learned that dirt won’t hurt you. (And she learned how to put up a tent.)

Yes, we had a few bumps. I got stung by a couple of hornets with whom I disagreed regarding the status of a log. I thought it was firewood they thought it was a home. (Note to self – when being stung by a hornet while chopping wood, refrain from using the flat side of the axe head to whack the hornet. Best not to use a hatchet on your own arm – even the flat side. Live and learn.) We forgot to bring salt and had to borrow some from another camp site so our popcorn wouldn’t be bland. Really, that’s as traumatic as it got.

In this week’s Torah reading we receive yet another admonition to teach the Torah to our children. וְלִמַּדְתֶּם אֹתָם אֶת־בְּנֵיכֶם לְדַבֵּר בָּם בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ בְּבֵיתֶךָ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ בַדֶּרֶךְ
And teach them to your children and speak of them when you are sitting in your home and when you are going on the way . . .

I was reflecting on that during the trip because I think that camping is such an exceptional time to teach our children. So here are some of the things I think we can teach kids, some holy and some mundane, when we immerse ourselves in nature:
1) Wonder at Hashem’s creation.
When my daughter and I were playing in the lake together she saw a few water bugs walking as they do, on top of the water, right nearby. At first she was startled, “eww – get away, get away!” and she splashed them. I told her not to worry those bug were going to stay away from her and they couldn’t bite or sting. And I added,

“I think that that those bugs are among the most amazing things Hashem created.”
“Why?”
“Because, just think about it. They can actually walk ON THE WATER! You know how you fill up a cup with water you can actually fill it up above the cup? That’s because there is something about how the molecules of water works that makes them very clingy to each other. That is called surface tension. And Hashem made bugs that can walk on that surface tension! How cool is that?”
“Oh, that is cool!”

And then we talked about other cool bugs for a bit. And then I threw her in the water again.

Besides that we had a chance to marvel at the beauty of the forest, the colors of leaves, a purple mushroom (literally purple!), and the echolocation skills of the chirping bats overhead. Truly creation is a marvel and so is the Creator. This lesson doesn’t work as well in a classroom.

2) Jewish law in practice.

When the Torah teaches us to discuss the Torah “in your home and on the way” I believe it doesn’t just mean “if you happen to be at home, teach Torah there, but if you happen to be on the road, teach Torah there.” It means, “if you want to teach your children Torah in a way that will expand beyond theoretical, book knowledge into practical, impactful knowledge, then you have to do it while at home AND while on the road.”

The laws of kashrus are easy when you have a kosher kitchen and Seven Mile Market. But what about when you grill in a campsite? The laws of davening are relatively easy when your shul has set minyan times, but what if you are on your own schedule? Netilas yadayim, aspects of tzniyus (modesty), setting aside time for learning each day, these laws and ideals become fully part of life when you travel. It’s not just about teaching details, it’s about teaching how to deal with the details in the context of unusual circumstances. The values that underpin those decisions demonstrate loud and clear who we really are and that is what kids will learn.

3) Executive function skills.

I know that this phrase is quite the buzz word in educational circles these days so I’m sorry for indulging in the cliché. Still, I think it’s true. Executive functions are the parts of our mind that that help us with things like planning, timing and delaying gratification. Our experiences this week helped push all these things into the fore.

Before we even packed one thing, we sat down together to make a menu. We worked out a grocery list, a Walmart list, packing lists for each of us. The advantage of our circumstances was that if you forgot something, you didn’t have it. When the kids are in school if they forget a lunch or a book, a parent might zip over to help their kid out. (Not me, but a good parent might. I’m one of the evil parents. My kids don’t even bother to call me with that sort of thing. The conversation would go like this:

“Ta, I forgot my [insert important thing here] and today is [insert important deadline].”
“Why are you calling me at work?”
“Because I don’t have my [very important thing.]”
“I’m at work.”
“Uh, OK. I guess I’ll [insert incredibly mild consequence which is way less bad than they thought at first.]”
“Sounds like a good solution. See you tonight.”)

On a trip like this, if you didn’t bring it, you don’t have it.(Except salt, I guess.) Knowing that made us pack smarter and created more responsibility all around.

When you’re cooking on a campfire you can’t just expect dinner to show up when you wander in. You have to plan out the timing; when do we leave the lake?, when do we gather firewood?, how long will everything take to cook? Being hungry one night helps you get it right after that.

And nothing teaches how to deal with delayed gratification better than a 3-mile hike up a mountainside to a lookout. It will be great, it will be worth it, you will be proud and inspired and filled with awe and wonder, but first you’ve got to get there.

I’m not advocating camping because it teaches survival skills or how to live off the land. I mean, I brought lighter fluid and a lighter, I’m not a caveman. It’s not like we were eating wild mushrooms or catching fish with paperclips. We brought pillows and ketchup and marshmallows. But I am advocating camping because I love learning Torah with a piping hot cup of coffee in the chill of morning air in still and quiet of early light. I’m advocating camping because I love davening surrounded in the day time by the August trees standing guard around us and at night as the bats and owls, crickets and cicadas seek out their livelihood and their mates. I’m advocating camping because my daughter can find beauty in a leaf and caterpillar and pride in her hard won accomplishment. It’s a place to make Torah and faith and halacha real and practical. Just, don’t forget the salt.

About the Author
Rabbi Mordechai Soskil has been teaching Torah for more than 20 years. Currently he is the Director of Judaic Studies for the high school at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. He and his wife Allison have 6 children that range from Awesome to Fantastic. And now one precious granddaughter.
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