At least 130 years have passed since Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family crossed the American frontier in their covered wagon accompanied by their steadfast bulldog, Jack. Since Wilder’s Little House books were published, we’ve all learned how pioneer families settled America’s west.
Perhaps in modern times, we have forgotten something integral to the life of a pioneer kid: given a meadow, a forest, or even just a backyard to explore, children can be enormously resourceful when there is fun to be made.
For kids, pioneering comes naturally, says Christina Mirtes, Ph.D., assistant professor of early childhood education at Eastern Michigan University.
“Pioneering is about exploring something new. Every day for a child should be like pioneering. They should have opportunities to explore their world and learn from it,” she says.
This summer, encourage your kids to create their own fun just like Laura, Mary and Carrie. Why not take inspiration from the pages of the Little House books … or even the much-loved TV series?
Here are some ideas to get you started. Be sure to share with us what your kids enjoy doing, pioneer-style.
Enjoy letting go
Ma and Pa always had little helpers, whether they were building an ice house, plowing the farm or making pickles, but Laura and her sibs had plenty of time to explore on their own.
Summer is a time to find balance between scheduled activities and freedom. Encourage your kids to follow their growing interests and passions, and recognize when it’s time for you to take a backseat. Hint: it’s probably earlier than you think.
“Providing children with opportunities with loose guidelines allows for flexibility and creative thinking. When you think about it, too often adults are telling children what to do, what to wear, how to speak and the like. If we want children to become thinkers, they need time and space for thinking,” says early childhood expert Mirtes.
You will be amazed at what your kids can accomplish with nothing more than a little encouragement and positivity.
Learn how something is made … then practice describing it
Ingalls Wilder was skilled in describing how her parents built, churned, plowed, pickled and prepared. When your kids make something themselves, capture their ingenuity by asking for a step-by-step.
Developing the ability to write or talk about a process demonstrates understanding of how things work, Mirtes explains: “Being able to explain and record is an example of recording history and how processes change over time.”
Fresh-air fun and games
A sidewalk and some chalk make instant hopscotch. Add a ball for four square and catch. Or send your kids outside for old-fashioned hide-and-seek. Solitary kids can jump rope or kick the can. The point is to get moving.
“Playground games are great to get kids interacting, learning how to relate to each other and following rules. It’s collaborative,” says Letizia Porretta, a Shelby Township mom of two and leader with Tinkergarten, a national program focused on outdoor education and child-led, open-ended problem solving. “I remember doing a lot of jump rope and red rover and freeze tag.”
“Sewing seems to be a lost art … but it’s a lifelong skill,” says Mirtes.
Kids love to have a place to store their treasures, so why not sew a pouch or pocket? Grab some spare fabric and a needle and thread and scaffold the basics.
Hidden benefit: Your kids may suddenly want to repair holes in their socks and underwear like pioneer kids did!
Too young for needle and thread? Little ones can thread yarn or shoelaces through holes punched in cardboard or thick paper. Graduate to a plastic yarn needle and burlap. Get creative with this!
ID birds, bugs and trees
“We do a lot of collecting,” says Porretta with Tinkergarten. “We go out with a bucket or an egg carton or pockets and collect any nature treasure we find interesting. Even bending over to pick something up is good for our brains, and sorting and categorizing is good, too. I’ve read the No. 1 toy is a stick because it can be so many things.”
Knowing the environment is fun and productive, says Huron-Clinton Metroparks‘ Jaworski, who advocates a base recognition of poisonous plants. “Poison ivy is a good one to know, as is jewelweed – the plant with leaves that can counteract your reaction to poison ivy.”
Say hello to farm animals
Little ones will enjoy spending time with donkeys at Kensington Metropark.
“We have been disconnected from farms, and it’s important and fun to introduce different types of animals as a full experience for young children,” says Jennifer Jaworski, chief of interpretive services at Huron-Clinton Metroparks.
There are also plenty of other petting farms all over southeast Michigan that offer different barnyard experiences. Find one close to you with the handy Metro Parent petting farm roundup.
Buy a kit for a birdhouse, doghouse or raised garden bed. Or design something and head to the neighborhood hardware store. Ask them to cut lumber to the right size. Measure, drill, fasten with screws. Or ask your kids to assemble some flat-pack furniture. Backyard building creates a sense of accomplishment.
Immersive pioneering fun
Families looking to get their hands dirty and experience true pioneering life can try some of these local options.
- Wolcott Mill Metropark in Ray Township has a farm center and grist mill, plus wagon rides and farm programming all summer.
- Teens and adults can learn early American skills like blacksmithing at Kensington Metropark in Milford through Chief Pontiac Programs.
- Kids can attend Farm Camp at Wolcott Mill and Kensington to fish, candle dip, tin press, barn raise and more throughout the summer.
- Learn historic cooking, farming, weaving, plus all about the railroad at The Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village in Dearborn.
- Take a morning canoe ride at Lake St. Clair Metropark in Harrison Township to learn about the fur trade, plus birds and frogs (dates vary).
- Get artistic by prairie painting at Indian Springs Metropark in White Lake on Aug. 10.
Note: For Metroparks programs, pre-register and learn more at metroparks.com.
Grow, harvest, eat
Pioneer town-dwellers could visit the general store for dry goods like flour and sugar (and horehound candy). But they grew a lot of food in their gardens.
“Backyard gardening is getting right back to our roots as pioneers,” Jaworski, of the Huron-Clinton Metroparks, says. “If you don’t have a backyard, you can grow your own food on a windowsill or on a patio – great for fresh tomatoes. Then you can eat what you grow.”
Want to get started on your own veggie garden? Here are three easy-to-grow vegetables for total beginners.
- Celery: Cut the bottom off a stalk of celery and place it in a bowl with a small amount of water. Keep the bowl in sunlight until you see growth at the base (about a week). Transplant this into your garden or into a large pot filled with dirt.
- Garlic: Place a single clove of garlic into dirt in a small pot, root facing down. Put it in the sun! When shoots appear, cut them back and pretty soon you will have a bulb of garlic.
- Peppers: Take the seeds from a green pepper and plant in potting soil. Keep it in a sunny spot. When small plants appear, plant them in a sunny spot in your garden.
Pick some fruit
We’re lucky in Michigan to have the right climate for a number of berries and stone fruits. No doubt our pioneers learned the best ways to harvest these goodies. Your kids can learn hands-on how raspberries, cherries, blueberries, strawberries and apples grow at local orchards.
Not sure where the closest orchard is to you? Get the scoop on top U-pick orchards in metro Detroit and Ann Arbor in the Metro Parent roundup.
Pioneer families followed daily schedules to get everything done. In Little House in the Big Woods, we learn Laura likes baking and churning days best. Churning is an easy task for little ones who like to shake things.
How to: Pour one pint of heavy cream into a jar, and cover tightly with a lid. Start shaking until the cream becomes a ball of butter. Drain on a towel and squeeze out liquid. Now spread your butter on bread, or use it to make a crust for a homemade pie. Get more recipes at littlehousebooks.com.
10 Steps to Outdoor Cooking
In addition to butter, little ones can make sand casseroles, dandelion burritos and mud pies. But with a little help, older kids can cook over a fire following these directions:
Find out if it is legal in your town to build a fire in your yard. (If not, STOP, and wait until you go camping. The basic skills are the same.)
- Start by placing a bucket of water close by for safety.
- Select a spot at least 8 feet from anything that can burn.
- Create a circle or rectangle from rocks placed close together. Make the space the appropriate size for your grill.
- Fill the site with crumpled paper.
- Lay kindling (sticks and small pieces of wood) in crisscross layers over the paper.
- Light the paper to start the fire.
- Lay firewood evenly over the kindling.
- When the fire has burned away, you will have white coals. Carefully place your grill on the rocks over the coals.
- Set your hot dogs and vegetable kabobs on the grill.
- Cook and eat!
Find more complete directions at learn.eartheasy.com.
Not into outdoor cooking? Pack a picnic bag with everything you need for an impromptu picnic – then leave it at the back door so you can grab and go whenever you like.
Invite friends (or the neighborhood) to meet at a park one specific night each week. PBJ or an elaborate multi-course meal, picnicking is a great way to unwind after a long day at work or summer camp.
Not sure where you can meet up? Check out the Metro Parent roundup of local picnic spots to find one near you.
Start pioneering now
Read any one of the Little House book series. They’re accessible to a wide range of ages and even available on audiobook for busy families that spend a lot of time in the car.