Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Creating a Culture of Joyful and Knowledgeable Young Outdoor Enthusiasts

When we arrived at our first Jeff & Paige concert it felt too good to be true. The musicians were setting up their stage in a grassy meadow of Chautauqua Park. The backdrop of Boulder’s flatirons framed towering trees that provided shade from the afternoon summer sun for the performers and their audience. The scenery alone was worth the time and energy it took to wrangle two young children and schlep our picnic dinner from the parking spot on the street to a patch of grass in the crowd.

Babies sprawled on blankets with their parents while toddlers and preschoolers swarmed the field. Some young children gathered near the stage, star-struck by these small town celebrities. Others ran wild in the grassy field, spinning in circles, or wrestling. Frisbees were being tossed and dropped, soccer balls kicked. It felt like a quintessential Boulder scene.

I felt tentative but optimistic. My high functioning autistic son is sometimes unmanageable in a crowd like this and music had proved to be tricky for him. He has a distinct preference for informational music over expressive music. My daughter was less picky about her music but an observer first. The more people in a situation, the longer it took her to enter into it on her own. So while my son was spinning in circles in the field, my daughter sat with me and tried to take it all in from the comfort of my lap. Little did I know that Jeff & Paige would open our world in so many ways because their music appealed to all of us.

It was thirty minutes to showtime and Paige and Jeff came down from the stage. The event was beginning and the first item on the agenda was a toddler-friendly hike. Together with staff from Open Space and Mountain Parks, who sponsor the show, Jeff and Paige led the group of approximately 400 people away from the grassy meadow to the trailhead of a 0.4-mile loop. Clad in rainbow socks and hiking boots, Jeff and Paige climbed on top of a picnic table and announced the color of the day. They invited everyone to look for the color red while we were hiking. Then one by one we traipsed down a sun-drenched single track, our arms brushing against tall grasses, toward a lush streamside forest. When we were under the cover of forest canopy, the path widened and families walked side by side. My five year old son skipped ahead of me, bouncing around other people while my three and a half year old daughter held fast to my hand.

We reached the turning point of our hike and a fork in the trail. A single rocky path ascended away from us and our path widened even more into a gravel fire road that would lead us back to the concert venue. The crowd stopped and gathered on a wide land bridge. Jeff and Paige and their veteran audience members started clapping and singing a cappella:
“Which animal is up there?
Which animal is up there?
Which animal is up there?
Is it the coyote, the deer, or the black bear?”
Uphill from us and along the narrow trail not chosen, a parent-volunteer dressed in an mascot costume descended the trail. Children shouted, “It’s a coyote!” This larger than life coyote gently entered the crowd where young children could pet it and exchange high-fives. Then we all descended the fire road and returned to our blankets to wait for the show to begin.

It was like Woodstock for toddlers. It seemed like everyone there shared a love of music and nature. Toddlers and preschoolers gathered at the stage in what can only be described as a mosh pit. Other children ran and danced in the wide open meadow. And still others sat on picnic blankets with friends and family.

When the show began I was pleasantly surprised. It was more than a simple musical concert. Jeff & Paige taught about science and nature through stories and song. The story they told was about two people who go for a hike, not unlike the hike we shared just moments before the show began. Over the course of their outdoor adventure, Jeff and Paige took turns play-acting as bugs, birds, and other creatures. The audience learned answers to questions like: “Why do birds sing?” “What is a decomposer?” And “What is mother nature’s favorite color? (And why?)”

As the event went on, I became more and more amazed. Not only had hundreds of children and their families enjoyed a hike together, they were listening, rapt, to music about science.

It is when they sang “The Opera of Giardia” that I was hooked. In the song, Paige and Jeff educated the audience about the hazards of drinking unfiltered stream water. Like all their songs, the opera had great musical hooks that I knew would have staying power. But it also demonstrated the same kind of finesse Pixar uses to engage adults with child-friendly humor.

Jeff, as Rigatoni Spumante, sang: “Do you want giardia to make you sick?”
Paige led the children to respond: “No no no!”

Rigatoni Spumante sang: “So will you drink straight from the crick?”
Paige led the children to respond again: “No no no!”

The song continued with more call and response between Rigatoni Spumante and the audience. Then he brought out the technology to demonstrate how to filter water with a pump. As he sang, he taught the children (and their parents) the process.

“Here is how I do it: I take this cap and I unscrew it.
I stick the filter on the bottle and prepare to go full throttle.
I drop the tube into the water like a good son or daughter.”

What made it wonderful is that he included description of more than just the mechanics of filtering water. Playfully and entertainingly, he captured the time-consuming and laborious task of pumping water by singing:

“I pump exuberantly. I listen to the chickadee.
Pretty soon I will have some water that’s giaaardia-free.”

And then he pumped like a madman to demonstrate the work it takes to filter stream water in the backcountry.

Everyone in the audience laughed at the spectacle. Children laughed at the physical humor. Adults chuckled at their own memories of filtering water from a stream. Then there was a cherry on top. At the end of the opera, Jeff and Paige used a giant slingshot to launch a stuffed giardia into the audience for the children to chase and fetch. In every sense of the word, our first Jeff & Paige show was spectacular.

A few weeks later we were camping next to a stream in the Mount Evans wilderness. We were setting up our tent and exploring the space when I heard my children singing, “Do you waaant giardia to make you sick? No, no, no! So will you drink straight from the crick? No, no, no!” I was stunned. Not only did they remember the tune and the lyrics to “The Opera of Giardia” they seemed to understand the lesson: Don’t drink the water!

That was the first of many lessons we learned from Jeff & Paige. Since then we have learned about safety when exploring outdoors from songs called “Poison Ivy (Don’t Touch)” and “Other Side of the Road.” We have learned science lessons including topics in ecology (“Bats (Oh Baby!)”), ornithology (“Meadowlark”), and entomology (“A Conversation between an Entomologist and an Insect”). We have studied their comprehensive and solutions-focused environmental science lesson featured on the 21st Century Energy Superheroes album. These lessons are important in and of themselves but what makes the music and what we learn from it really special is how it connects people, especially families with young children, with nature.

Each person in my family loves Jeff & Paige for a different reason. My husband, a huge fan of Pixar and former member of the University of Michigan Marching Band, loves how entertaining the music is. He said, “They are obviously talented musicians but what makes them great is that they are fun to listen to.” I love the science, technology, engineering, and math learning that the music supports. The spontaneous curriculum I have put together for my children that is based on Jeff & Paige songs has had depth and breadth that is required to differentiate to each child’s interests and abilities. My six year old autistic son loves the science he has learned as well as the ethics regarding environmental science. My four year old daughter? Well, she eloquently pointed out to me that we learn more than science from these songs. We learn music.

Indeed. The music. The music makes our life as a family more fun. The music is a tool for understanding and being in nature. The music speaks to each of us differently but it speaks each of us. It is, after all, great music.

Spring is here. Our days are getting longer and warmer. Soon we will be digging into our small gardens in the backyard filling our fingernails with soil and our noses with the smell of earth. Our bike rides will become longer, taking us to places yet to be explored. Hiking trails are steadily becoming less muddy and more crowded. They are places where we encounter more and more people who might join us at Chautauqua...because it is almost time for the Meadow Music Concert Series to begin again.

This summer my family will be among the veterans leading the way on the pre-concert hike. We know and love the songs. We know and love the dance moves. We know and love nature...all the more because of Jeff & Paige.

Meadow Music 2016 Schedule

June 6th (opener), June 13th, June 20th, June 27th
July 18th, July 25th
Aug 1st, 8th, 15th, 22nd (finale)
All in Chautauqua Park 5:30 – 7  pm

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