"Take a hike" and "Let's take this outside" often can lead people to trouble.
But for Zack Curtis and Jill Tyler, these phrases are an invitation to better living.
Curtis and Tyler are Central Michigan University seniors who spent the summer leading the programs offered through Play on the Way. This CMU-owned mobile recreation unit brings outdoor activities to youth and families.
Sure, Play on the Way gets children outside and encourages them to be more active.
But it also prepares CMU students in recreation, parks and leisure services administration — like Curtis and Tyler — to land top internships and jobs.
"Being in charge of certain activities is beneficial because we are learning how to facilitate without having someone there to fall back on," said Curtis, of Ionia, Michigan. "I'm hoping that my experiences leading activities through Play on the Way will help me get an internship at a national park."
And internships are an important piece of the RPL program at CMU.
How important? In some of the majors within the program, all students must complete as much as a 30-week internship. Students have served as interns at locations such as YMCA Camp Santa Maria in Colorado, Glacier National Park in Montana and The Ability Experience (formerly Push America) in North Carolina.
People who visited Hiawatha National Forest in Munising, Michigan, over the summer might have seen the handiwork of Alexis Wixson. She's an RPL senior completing the first half of her 30-week internship there.
Her internship work has included planning and leading programs to prevent wildfires.
"It's really incredible to see a flyer promoting a program that I created from scratch hanging on the bulletin board in a national forest," said Wixson, of Lake Isabella, Michigan. "A highlight for me was when a person from the general public who participated in the program emailed my supervisor to say I was a good hire."
She will finish her internship at Blandford Nature Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan, this fall.
Wixson was a member of the first student team to lead Play on the Way in 2016. She said this experience set her apart from other internship applicants.
"A lot of the other applicants had similar classroom experiences, but Play on the Way gave me the chance to actually organize and lead outdoor education programs," she said.
Beyond fun and games
Curtis and Tyler are pursuing majors in outdoor and environmental recreation. They will graduate in December 2018 after they finish their coursework and complete their 30-week internships.
"Play on the Way has made me realize what I want to focus my career on, which is kids, families and communities," said Tyler, of Lakeview, Michigan, who is looking into internships in South Carolina. "We have to be creative and learn to adapt for every program. Any job where I have the opportunity to facilitate, work outside and interact with people prepares me for the career I want."
Play on the Way is the only service learning-based mobile recreation unit sponsored by a university in the United States, said CMU Mobile Recreation Coordinator Kevin Troshak.
Throughout the summer, the recreation unit hosted afternoon programs at locations including Deerfield Nature Park and Coldwater Lake Family Park in Isabella County as well as A Day at Belle Isle in Detroit.
Many of the events are coordinated through organizations like Isabella County Parks and Recreation. Troshak said the trailer is packed full of recreation equipment — everything from basketballs to hula hoops and Slip 'N Slides — for the team of four CMU recreation students to use in their programs.
While most of the programs center around daily themes such as water day and outdoor activity day, sometimes people just show up to play.
"When I led the nature hikes for actual people that I didn't know, I realized that I truly enjoyed doing this work," Curtis said. "Everyone from the kids to adults seemed interested by the information I was providing, and just getting people outside and into the woods was a great feeling."
In addition to encouraging physical activity to keep children healthy, the outdoors also helps to develop their imagination.
"The younger generation has strayed away from being outside, and they do more with smartphones and video games," Curtis said. "But when they are outside, the fun is all on them and their imagination. Like going on a walk in the woods, all of a sudden a stick they find instantly can become their magic wand."
Play on the Way started in June 2016 and has served more than 10,500 participants at local, regional and statewide programs.
"Seeing these numbers shows that our research was correct. There is a need for this type of programming in rural areas," Troshak said.