The Riverside Club for Adventure and Imagination teaches boys in unconventional ways

By October 1, 2022


MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Thursday, September 29th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Myrna Brown.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Back to school. Sort of.

When September rolls around, most kids head back in the classroom, armed with freshly sharpened pencils. But for one set up aimed to captivate boys, there are no desks. And the students are more likely to pack a sharp knife for whittling rather than a pencil. WORLD Correspondent Koryn Koch has the story.

KORYN KOCH, REPORTER: All that aggressive snarling and yelling? That’s what happens when you get a dozen boys together and tell them to re-enact an epic battle scene from the Lord of the Rings. The boys brandish prop swords and charge at each other in a choreographed skirmish.

They’re practicing for Bilbo’s Birthday Party. Marty Comer and Sammy White explain the unusual scene.

Marty and Sammy: It’s like a giant Lord of the Rings party. And we’re just doing little skits in it… I’m Gollum. So yeah, I’m Merry. It’s a boy. It’s a Hobbit and it’s also spelled differently than M A R Y it’s M E R R Y.

Practicing their skits is just one of the activities the boys will do today at the Riverside Club for Adventure and Imagination.

Riverside meets during school hours and its aim is to teach. But it isn’t a school.

It’s more like…

Searby: What if Teddy Roosevelt met with JRR Tolkien and they tried to figure out like, what’s the best program for boys?

That’s Peter Searby, founder of the program.

Searby: So it was like, roughing it outdoors, physical experience and then being you know, both men of prayer and men of the arts…

Searby wanted to create a program for boys that educates and inspires them through adventure and storytelling.

Searby: The tutorial is all about a creative approach to story expression. We do that through a variety of creative projects. So we try to think of what– what are the various ways that you can tell a story that are going to engage their their minds, their hearts, their imaginations…

So what does that look like on an average day? Riverside’s newest tutor, Steven Mantel, gives an idea.

Mantel: We could be doing improv scenes. We could be outside in the woods. We could be playing games with each other. We could be trying to inspire kids of like, what stories or characters do you want to write today or random scenes that you want to do? So the average day is never average.

The program’s goal is not to check boxes, but rather to spark the boys’ imaginations.

Brown: We’re not like a school in that sense where we grade projects. But at the end of the project, we want the boys to have poured themselves into it and really given it their best…

Wesley Brown has worked as a Riverside tutor for four years. He loves seeing how Riverside has trained and inspired the boys.

Brown: One of the boys last year had ever written a lot of stuff, at least. He was young, probably nine years old. We started doing a medieval knights tale. And he loved the concept. And so the next week he came in and says Mr. Brown, Mr. Brown, I have I have my story, and he drops it at the table. And it’s a typed out 32 page story. And then he had a friend of his illustrate it and put it in a book. So it’s like a bound story illustrated that he wrote and now he loves writing because he loved the project and the idea behind it.

Riverside is designed for boys aged 8 to 13. They come one day a week, and each small group goes with a different tutor to work on that day’s projects. There’s no traditional classroom setup here. That’s partially because of Peter Searby’s own experience with standardized learning.

Searby: I had a lot of trouble fitting into into the kind of system when I was a kid, I thought something was wrong with me. There’s a lot of focus on what I call checkbox learning now so a lot of testing and sitting in rows. And so there wasn’t an activation and sort of an encounter with I don’t know, the love of learning.

As an adult, Searby became a teacher, but he didn’t like what he saw there, either. He felt there were too many hoops to jump through and not enough emphasis on what’s truly important.

So he decided to create a program for boys like himself, providing opportunities for adventure, inspiration, fellowship, and most importantly, faith. Every day at Riverside begins with prayer and singing.


Each year has a different theme, like the Revolutionary War, or medieval knights and chivalry. This year, the theme is C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Today, the boys are building Ents—the iconic tree people from The Lord Of The Rings.


The boys collected sticks of all shapes and sizes from the church grounds where Riverside meets. Now, they stand at a long table littered with tools and bits of bark. They use dremels, knives, and saws to shape the wood pieces, then fit them together into a mini tree-like person.

On other days, the boys may be practicing army ranger tactics, going on canoe trips, or learning to blacksmith.

Wesley Brown says, sometimes, finding the space for all those endeavors can be tricky.

Brown: We are growing so rapidly that we have a lot more boys in this space than we had previously. And so there’s a lot of sound bleed, and organizing. Okay, I have this space right now. You have this space. Shuffling is a process.

It’s easy to see how the space Riverside borrows from a willing church might be growing cramped. As Peter Searby takes his group of boys to rehearse scenes in the graveyard, the other tutors are rehearsing on the lawn. Excited shouts from the groups overlap as they rehearse twenty yards away from each other. But a little noise isn’t going to keep the Riverside boys from performing this epic story.


Storytelling is a theme that comes out over and over again at Riverside. Searby says it’s a crucial piece of the program.

Searby: We’re actors upon that stage, as the bard said. My hope is that they come to see what character and role they have to play in that epic story they’ve been given by God. And what that as I call them, I always tell the boys life is an adventurous pilgrimage to heaven. And if you wake up every day with that sense, then you’ll be inspired.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Koryn Koch in Lemont, Illinois.

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