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Touch Nature

"When I was 15, a friend took me to a camp in Austria and that's where I fell in love with camping. Living in tents, no electricity, hot water, nothing. I found it magical in its simplicity," says Kristýna Opočenská, founder of the Touch Nature project. She and her team organise various expeditions, giving young and old the opportunity to become a natural part of it for a moment. You can recharge your batteries, get inspired and learn something interesting – not only about how nature works, but also about yourself.

If I touch nature, what happens to me?

When you touch nature, you will definitely feel happier. I don't know, where are you from?

I'm from Prague, but I grew up in the country.

So I'm sure you can feel the difference when you leave Prague and enter the countryside. That's exactly how our project came about. I'm from Prague myself, like the rest of the team; I train in gymnastics and I spend all day from morning to night with the kids in the gym. But one day I had the idea to take them to my grandmother's for the weekend. Just to get away for a while. In the end it turned out to be a great idea, the kids were excited, and it was totally different from the gym. The occasional weekend suddenly turned into weekend-long events, week-long camps, winter ski trips... and the Touch Nature project was born.

The contrast between Prague and nature was

so strong, that I thought, wow, I want to do that.

How did the parents react to the idea?

They agreed, because they usually don't have enough time to go on regular trips with their children. They tend to put them in clubs, so they were happy to entrust them to me like this.

Photo: Dotkni se přírody

And do the children like coming to you, or do their parents force them?

We're starting our third year, so I can say that they like coming. A lot of them come back. We're not a big kids' camp where there's forty tents and the kids hardly know each other. We have a very family-oriented camp, the cabin is quite small, and we can fit no more than 12 kids for the winter season. They bond and feel comfortable in one evening.

Just to be clear, what age are we talking about?

Originally we wanted children from the age of six, who are already more independent, but that idea disappeared basically right from the start. A mother wrote to us asking if she could send her four-year-old Jonáš to us. She assured us that he was great and that he could do it. And indeed he was. Jonáš is such a Tomáš Holý type of boy, good and sensible. He didn't know anyone at the camp, but to this day he still comes with us, participates in all the events, and at the age of five he even mastered skiing and is proof that age doesn't have to play a role. So nowadays we more or less don't care about age, as long as the parents believe that their child can do it on his own.

The kids went to a fighting

game and streamed... #fear

So it's age diverse, do problems ever arise with regard to the program?

I can say from experience that the younger children enjoy our events to the fullest. They're playful and open to everything. We prepare all the games for them to be fun and also a bit educational, so that they learn about nature and that it makes more sense to them. We often have a problem with teenagers. They welcome debates around the fire, they are interested in deeper topics, but when we plan a hike to the Křivoklát region, they hate it. Puberty is also a turning point when they stop coming altogether. They suddenly find nature embarrassing, they don't like banned cell phones, and they have other interests. Just the other day we had a rather unpleasant conversation when the kids told us they were going to be on their phones. They went to a fight game and streamed. We clearly said that's not our goal.

You mentioned games, so let's go over the flow of the event. When the kids come to you, what kind of programming are they in for?

Nowadays we usually go to Zbečno, which is our cottage by the Berounka River, where we have tents and teepees set up. Until the end of October we sleep outside, unless it's really bad or there are little kids. At the beginning we have a big bonfire, of course there is food, the children can prepare their own tortillas, we talk, sing, play games, and find out something about the children. The next day we start with a physical warm-up in the meadow. Thanks to sponsorship donations we already have a lot of equipment, so we are equipped for all kinds of activities. Every weekend we then tune into a theme, a recent one, for example, was space. We talked about space, made model planets, looked at the stars and did some hikes in the woods. It's different every time. We always try to incorporate something new, and often to our surprise, it's the kids' first experience. Like riding a train. A child of 13 will honestly tell me that he's never taken a train because his parents drive them around Prague all the time. Or striking a match, lighting a candle, starting a fire, the same thing. Children don't know how to do that, they don't know how, because all they hear from their parents from a very young age is that they would burn the house down.

On your website you mention various methods that help develop our abilities. Cold exposure, silence, meditation are trendy things in recent years, but you have a lot of other activities in the field of movement, manual activities, etc. How did you compose the programme?

I founded the project with my ex-boyfriend, and he's taken up hardening and meditation as his profession. So we put together methods from the areas of healthy lifestyle and movement activities that we try to develop people through.

I noticed the topic of natural eating. What could I enjoy at your place?

Natural eating involves cooking over a fire. Of course, we have kettles or cook directly on coals. We've tried beef steaks on them and they taste great. In this respect we also educate the children and teach them to be independent, we call it Masterchef Touch Nature. We divide the children into groups, give them a budget of 800 CZK, and they have to buy the ingredients for the whole weekend and cook over the fire for the others. Each group is responsible for one meal and for preparing the whole course, including the dishes.

Photo: Dotkni se přírody

Do you also organise any trips for adults?

We had our first event in Austria; it was called Mountains on Fire. It was a huge fire show, with about 100 fires lit at the foot of the mountain. It was beautiful, right in the Alps at Zugspitze, the highest mountain in Germany, although it was on the Austrian side. We offered this event to the parents of the kids who come to camp with us, but we ended up getting other people to sign up as well. We had a great time, and the parents were thrilled. The truth is that although they no longer raise their children to go out into nature, they were scouts themselves, went to camps, and have memories that they can now look back on. So that was our first time with adults and now we are preparing for Borneo, which should take place in December or January.

And what kind of content are you planning for them? I don't suppose you'll be making model asteroids with them.

The adult program is mainly lifestyle related. The Berounka River runs nearby, so we go for a cool down. We also deal with healthy eating and physical activities. It may not look like it, but they get into all the games very quickly and get busy. Like our adult Olympics in the woods where we throw pine cones against a tree, long jump, etc. In short, we do what they remember from the kids' camps, only we adapt everything to adult form.

The world won't come crashing down

if they're unavailable for two days.

I believe they're enjoying all the activities. I see it as an opportunity to switch off for a while, to get out of work, out of the normal routine. Are those the reasons they come to you, or what drives them?

Adults are so busy from the Prague regime that they can't take time off. But when we set them up completely and they just have to click, they're tempted. It's easier for them to take a break from everything. At first, the mobile ban is a problem, but in the end they always find that the world doesn't come crashing down if they're unavailable for two days anyway. They feel it's the right thing to do. I guess they just need someone to "order" them around. They don't go anywhere on their own without a phone.

So is there also some awareness of the importance of offline life that they take away from your programs?

It's definitely an individual thing, but a lot of people say they're going to go outdoors more. That they'll really switch off and think differently when they're out there. I think they really realize that stopping and being alone with themselves or with friends for a while is beneficial. And that doing something other than just going to work and taking the kids to clubs can be a huge relaxation. Of course, it's up to each person how they deal with everything. We had one girl who burst into tears during the evening. You could see in her that she really wasn't going to take that time for herself. In the end she got through it all, but she confirmed to us that we opened her eyes to a lot of things.

On the website, you write: "We believe that situations laden with an ideal amount of stress are what allow a person to learn about themselves and their surroundings from a different perspective." What I wonder about the girl's story is, is it actually a pleasant experience?

For her specifically, it probably wasn't a pleasant moment at the time, but I believe it ultimately moved her in the right direction in life. Like I said, it's always up to the person how they take it all in and take it forward.

Should people go beyond their comfort zone?

They definitely should, it's great, new experiences will come.

Is the body or the mind more important in this respect?

I guess the mind. It's more about the head. We see it in children and it will be the same in adults.

Photo: Dotkni se přírody

Apart from personal development, I see another major impact of your programmes as the development of a positive relationship with nature. Especially in children, I think, a very important aspect, do you see it the same way?

Definitely. And the earlier the better. For example, I have a group of eight teenage girls who hardly ever go into nature. I started taking them to us when they were 13, and I'm not surprised that they didn't enjoy it or thought it was strange. At first, they also only went for their friends and because they didn't have to study. Now it's obvious that they like it, that it gives them a lot, but I still think that at 13 it's too late to start building a relationship with nature and to understand how beneficial it is for us.

What kind of relationship do you think Czech children have with nature?

I can only answer for myself. Unfortunately, I'm from that part of Prague and its surroundings, and I perceive it as very bad there. A lot of children pass through my hands through gymnastics, and I know that a minimum of them have some contact with nature. They don't go anywhere with their parents. On the other hand, we have Prokop Pithart in our project, and he has a different experience. He organises nature camps, where children come and they are really enthusiastic, they are interested in the topics, so they know a lot more about nature. By the way, Prokop prepares a programme for Czech Television called Do divočiny (Into the Wild), short 15-minute segments for children. Very nicely done, I recommend watching it if anyone wants to deepen their knowledge.

It's not like at home when we turn on the stove

and in no time at all we've got spaghetti ready.

What makes Czech nature special to you?

I travel a lot and I didn't know it for a long time. I kept convincing myself that I had to go to the world. But now I realize how beautiful Czech nature is and how much it has to offer. I love the Czech spring and summer, when everything blooms and grows. I love lilacs, I even have a tattoo of them, a little Czech souvenir. I love meadow flowers. The smell when I go for a walk in the woods, especially after the rain, it's beautiful.

You say you travel a lot. Where has been the most remarkable for you?

The most exotic was the Mentawai Islands. From Sumatra, it's a five-hour boat ride to the island of Siberut, and from there it's another six hours on a small boat to the next island. A completely different culture and probably the most interesting experience for me. The people there wear only the palm tree skirt, the women walk without a top. They only have one river that they cook from and go to the toilet in. You eat what you catch. It gets dark around four o'clock in the afternoon and dawn around four o'clock in the morning. During that time they have to manage the animals, the farm, by themselves. We were there for five days and went with them through this whole regime. And I can say that it's really challenging. They don't have nets, lighting, etc., everything takes time. It's not like at home where we turn on the stove and in a minute we have spaghetti ready.

Do you like coming home from your travels, or do you feel like living somewhere else?

I have a team of gymnasts in Prague that I spend five days a week with, I would be sorry to leave them. It doesn't play into my hands, but the truth is that I would like to try living abroad. Of course, I always love coming home, but I'm always surprised by how friendly and nice people are everywhere in the world. I don't want to badmouth the Czech Republic and say that I don't want to be here, but I do notice the difference. Outside, they're bright, they don't do stupid things, they don't gossip, which happens quite often here. Especially in Prague or in the world of gymnastics, where the environment is unfortunately not good either. It's always a big shock for me.

Where do you want to take the Touch Nature project? Are you also thinking of going abroad, since you like to travel so much?

As far as abroad is concerned, we've definitely thought about it, but everything has to go gradually. It's not as easy as it may seem. It's already challenging to put everything together. Communication with parents is sometimes difficult, but I would definitely like to work abroad. At least with Germany, because I like the German language very much.

Otherwise, we'd like to keep working. To keep running camps, whether natural science camps with Prokop, or the sports camps that I run. So that the kids like to come back and we go all year round. Because children shouldn't go out only when it's nice. They should also get to know the autumn and winter landscape, that's just part of it.

Photo: Dotkni se přírody

You can meet the Touch Nature project on the web or Instagram.

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