Maybe we don’t always think of physical work as an important piece of a quality education. Maybe we should … because it is.Maple Sugaring

I’m a believer in physical activity. It hasn’t always been that way. When I was a kid, physical activity wasn’t by choice. You see, my father was a believer … enough said. As I have aged, through nature and nurture, I have become a card-carrying member of the “Work is Good Society.” I have made this transition because I have seen what being physical does for one’s demeanor and his life. I have witnessed that it always leads to accomplishment, often a necessary one and usually positive in nature. It’s not just digging a hole and filling it in. It serves a real purpose.

Seed potsYesterday, the CELCers were here at Trap Rock Ridge Farm and Camp doing physical work. Now, these youngsters are similar to lots of other middle school kids their age. They are “regular kids”. But one thing that makes them exceptional is that they have been given the opportunity for an exceptional education and they rise to the challenge … they buy into it. Their parents buy into it. We all buy into it. It works.wood stack

And an important part of that education is “experience.” My little piece is to offer them a “work experience.”

Have you ever noticed what happens to a person when engaged in active, physical, hands-on work? In a group setting? Everything changes. Good things happen. And it is not because the individual has “decided” to make the best of the situation. It is due to the positive effect the physical work has on the body and mind.

All of a sudden, almost magically, when we engage in work in the group setting, out of nowhere we begin to see attitudes become more positive – cooperation, camaraderie, conversation, laughter, productivity, accomplishment. Hey, where did that come from?

chickensAnd the work usually isn’t anything special. It is not designed to “lure” the students in. It is not the result of hours and hours of planning by social psychologists with a predetermined process and goal. It is simply “what needs to get done.” In our case what needs to get done often leads to food on the table and warmth coming from our woodstoves. It serves a real purpose in our lives.

So yesterday the CELCers headed up on our trap rock ridge where the sugar maples dwell. It is where we gather sap each year in order to make maple syrup. The task was to remove the taps and buckets from the trees that were tapped in early February. This weekend we will tap new trees in hopes of a strong run during the month of March. By the way, the month of February, which started out strong, was the worst one for sap production I can remember here in southern CT. Ouch!  Maple Sugaring

The group was given clear instructions on how to proceed. They were put on teams with the adults, they were given the tools, and they were sent up slope to accomplish the task. I wish I could have just been an observer yesterday. But, even though I was on a team, I was able to get a good sense of what was happening. I watched as the teams went about their business, chatting about whom would do what, taking turns, helping each other, getting ‘er done. In a setting like this, it just happens. After we were underway, I did not have to say a word.woodstacking

Maybe it took a half hour and the job was completed. No fussin’ or fightin’ or squabbles about who was getting more turns than the next person. We hummed along like a well-oiled machine.  All of the buckets and taps were removed, brought down slope, stacked near the next trees to be tapped. End of task. Everyone is happy, especially me!

On to the next task and venue; in our living room by the woodstove, vegetable seed starting. This activity, due to the number of steps involved, took some preplanning and note taking. If the seeds are not planted properly, it makes me crazy … though I would never let on.

We went through the ten-plus steps of seed starting, with everyone taking notes, asking questions, correcting me when I slipped up or said something twice (thank you very much, Maddie). Ready to get busy. We kept the same teams as on the hillside, we collected our many supplies, and we all found a place where our team could spread out.

Just so you can better appreciate what we were doing: The CELCers had made about 150 newspaper seed pots the last time they were here. We were seeding 5 types of heirloom tomatoes and 3 types of broccoli. We had seeds, pots, soiless seed starter, water spray bottles, trays, and the right attitude. And we had about an hour to seed about 150 pots. Impossible you say? Just watch and learn!

Teams went about their business, filling pots 3/4-full of soil, spraying them down, setting the seeds (keeping track of which pots we seeded and which ones we didn’t; the little seeds are almost invisible), covering with 1/8-inch of soil, spraying them down, setting them in a tray. Teams shared spray bottles, passed soil and pots around, climbed over each other to move the trays to the final location, joked and laughed, chit chatted, and stayed focused on the task. I think JJ, my partner, said it best, “I thought this would be boring, but it’s fun.” The final product is several trays of 150 seeded pots covering the twin bed in our guest room. Oh well, no company for at least two weeks! Woe is me.

2:30 p.m., time to go, all but a very few pots are seeded and ready to germinate and move to the grow lab. And hopefully, we will have enough so each student can take something home to plant this spring.

seed sortSo the end result is a bunch of young and older folks feeling that they have worked hard, accomplished a necessary task, and they feel good about what they have done (again, especially me). A rare instance when instant gratification is a good thing. These are the types of experiences that will never, ever happen in front of a computer screen or TV set. Never, never, ever.

As Cole was about to leave, he tracked me down, looked me square in the eyes, gripped my hand, and said, “Thank you.” Are you kidding me? He’s doing the thanking? How lucky we are to have these “exceptional” young people coming to our property to work, feel good, and accomplish. How much better can it get?

What’s up next? In mid-March we will be preparing the CELCers a pancake lunch with fresh maple syrup. And then there is the work – collecting sap, cleaning the chicken house, early preparation of the veggie garden, splitting and stacking firewood for our stoves and sugaring evaporator. Fun, fun, fun.

So the next time you observe an individual or group doing something physical, remember, it may look like nothin’ special but, really, it is, somethin’ special. There’s a lot going on there.Maple Sugaring with Rob


Rob Cole-Whiffen

Trap Rock Ridge Farm and Camp

East Haven, CT