For the last 10 years, in the western suburbs of Chicago, home-schoolers have been learning what is good, true and beautiful as part of the Riverside Club for Adventure and Imagination.
My four children have all attended Riverside’s programs, and I have always volunteered to work on Riverside’s many creative projects; within the last year, I have started working as a promotions manager to help get the word out about the public events: plays, etc.
Because of its educational mission.
Boys ages 8-14 attend the flagship program, “Tutorial,” for one day a week, where they are steeped in the creative arts, outdoor adventure, faith and friendship. The boys spend six hours, from 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
Riverside began as the vision of Peter Searby, a former teacher who was dissatisfied with the trend in modern education of relying on content conveyance and consumption instead of curiosity and wonder.
“It became clear to me that there was something missing in education, particularly for boys. The campuses, the curricula, the schedules, the activities are often not what young people need,” Searby told the Register. “I felt the desire to rectify what I disliked in school and what I saw was still lacking in the system.”
Now, after a decade of running Riverside, Searby has written Casting Fire: A Guide to the Adventure and Imagination of Boyhood, which I had the honor of editing, in order to share what he has learned with a broader audience.
“This book is for anyone who is interested in creative education, imaginative learning, and the connection between education, culture and the spirit,” Searby said. The hope is that others will feel called to incorporate some of the ideas into their own programs, home school or even classrooms.
The Core of the Approach
In a culture where masculinity is often frowned upon and boys are languishing behind desks, Riverside offers a refreshing approach where they are encouraged to become both warriors and poets. Their “wildness” is not repressed but redirected.
The concepts of adventure and imagination have deep meaning and relevance to the landscape of action and storytelling that awaits the boys at Riverside.
“We do all we can to cultivate an environment that is both consonant with the nature of boys and at the same time challenges them to live self-control, diligence, focus and deep work,” Searby explained.
Imagination is tied to the notion of seeing beyond, and the boys are asked to consider whether material things are all there is in this life or whether there is more to the world than meets the eye.
“The imagination has the unique power to see the greater narrative we are in,” Searby said. “If we believe we are actually living a fantastic adventure story, albeit true, then our approach to life’s journey will take on ultimate meaning that reveals to us our true self and our calling.”
Tutorial is filled with storytelling, singing, acting, writing, venturing out into nature, building a brotherhood, and enjoying the fruits of a creative fellowship. In an annual project called “Legend Box,” the boys envision an entire fantasy world and create a time capsule with journals, maps and drawings.
“This and really all of our many story projects are geared towards opening up the imaginations of the young to see beyond by means of symbol, myth and metaphor,” Searby said.
At Riverside, the creative arts are manly, said Christine Gomez, mom of eight. Last spring, her hockey-playing 13-year-old painted five landscapes based on The Lord of the Rings for the annual “Museum Project,” where the boys research, create and display items as if they were curating an exhibit.
“Art is such an individual thing; it is quiet. Not like theater or [sport]. … For the boys to be able to share those things that they wouldn’t have been able to share otherwise with friends and community is such a blessing,” Gomez said. The Legend Box and the Museum project are repeated every year but with a different theme.
Tutorial participants attend events other than the one day at Tutorial. Every year, for instance, there is a Bilbo Baggins birthday party, a festive occasion when the boys perform scenes from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. This complements the theater program.
During the school year, Riverside’s programs are only easily accessible for home-schoolers because activities take place during school hours, but during the summer, Riverside offers various camps: Creative Arts, Ranger (actual camping), and a summer theater, open to all, not just the home-schooled.
The Riverside adventurous and imaginative approach augments a home-school curriculum in diverse ways. It encourages hesitant readers to pick up and enjoy great stories; those who dislike writing find enjoyment in telling adventurous tales; and boys who may not otherwise sketch or act realize they love drawing or being on the stage.
An Adventurous Spirit
If imagination inspires with a vision of the hero a boy is meant to be and the journey he could take, adventure is the spirit of courage required to step out on the pilgrim path. In adventure stories, the protagonist usually is living an ordinary, but restless, life when he senses there is a path, often dangerous, he must take.
And yet, adventure at Riverside takes on a more traditional, physical connotation as well. The 2023-24 theme of survival already has led to skills in knot tying, navigation, fire starting and cooking over an open flame. Searby also has been known to lead Huck Finn-inspired camping trips, for fathers and sons that involve paddling Wisconsin rivers in search of lost islands to explore.
“The greatest and most unique thing Riverside did was bring fathers into the home-schooling scene. The father-son outings, camps and projects are invaluable. The rich leisure time between sons and dads really strengthens their relationship,” said Cathy Severance, mom of 11.
Riverside aims to build a brotherhood in a way that incorporates everyone’s gifts and talents while working towards a common meaningful goal. The idea of a fellowship of creative endeavor, however, extends beyond the boys to the adults in the community.
Jocelyn Jansen, mom of 10, began costuming for Riverside back in 2014 for the summer theater performance of Robin Hood.
“I have always loved crafting but was so limited with time because of all our children and the demands of home schooling. God is so good to have given me this opportunity. My entire family saw this new joy in me and loved seeing me so happy,” Jansen said.
She still does costumes for Riverside’s theater productions, but also recently took over as director of the nascent program for girls, the Riverside Studio. Her goal is to adapt and live out the Riverside mission for them and with them: “We learn so much from both literature and the arts about how to express ourselves in a way that reflects true beauty. … Through Riverside tasks, the girls have more opportunities to learn how to work together, encourage each other, and enter into a greater story on this pilgrimage to heaven.”
And filling the boys’ imaginations will continue apace, according to Searby: “My hope is that, at Riverside, we are giving the boys a taste of an inspired life, and that we can help lead them out of the cave of passive acceptance, into an understanding of life as an epic cosmic drama.”
Monta Monaco Hernon is a freelance writer and editor in the Chicago suburbs. Her children have attended Riverside programs, and she has served as a volunteer, including to get the word out about the various programs.