Jessica approached me a while back about how she loves this blog, but thinks there are a lot of people that pass right over it because they don’t feel like they are “extreme” enough. I loved her plan to try and speak to some readers that may just not stop and listen, and I agree with her whole-heartedly: the purpose of this blog is to get EVERYONE outdoors, no matter HOW you do it! All for the love of dirt.
I’m not the outdoorsy type
I want to start out by saying that when my family drew up a songs list for each of us kids, mine was, “I lied about being the outdoor type.”
So, this blog is a strange place for me to visit almost daily. I live in a surburb of DC, in a quiet neighborhood where my children attend playdates and think that a trip to the pet store is a wildlife experience.
I hate bugs, am terribly afraid of spiders and get frustrated that there is a sizeable amount of dirt embedded in my son’s toenails.
And yet, we love the outdoors and since becoming acquainted with it, we live by the AT LEAST 15 minutes outside a day rule. And every so often if my husband feels that I’m getting restless he whisks me off to the Shenandoah National Park so that I can see real mountains (well, glorified hills really, but they are somewhat akin to the majestic green mountains that surrounded our family farm growing up).
While we live a cushy suburban life with our choice of chain stores, museums, gym memberships and playgrounds, as a family we know that getting outside and enjoying nature is important to our own sensibilities but more so for our children’s development, health and happiness.
Why we make the outdoors a priority
Beauty is essential to the education of children
Beauty is that aspect that speaks directly to the heart, to the emotions and to the brain. If a child can recognize true beauty and can learn respect, reverence and awe for that beauty, then he or she will have an internal compass to truth and goodness their entire lives.
“Beauty Is truth, Truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth, that is all ye ever need know”.Keats
Compare the beauty of a stream or a flower with the beauty of those Baby Einstein videos. Which is more inspiring?
Nature is inspiring
I worked as a personal secretary to Steve Fossett – you know, the guy who navigated the first solo hot air balloon flight around the globe. He was a self-made man, a multimillionaire whose goal was to earn a world record that would never be broken.
He achieved that in his hot air balloon flight, but he had achieved many other world records. He climbed the highest mountain on every continent except Asia, raced in the Iditarod, swam the English channel, and drove in the Le Mans road race.
He told me once that this all started when he was 12 years old and climbed his first mountain near his home in the San Jacinto range in California.
He would occasionally climb that mountain again and reflect on his life and the several mountains both figurative and literal that he had climbed subsequent to that first one.
The Outdoors Builds Confidence
You cannot undervalue the importance of a child’s confidence as he faces so many challenges in life beginning with learning out to walk, eat, talk, greet neighbors, grandparents, climb a ladder, try out the monkey bars, the list goes on and on.
My parents instilled in us the confidence that if I can’t do it now, I can learn. Hiking, being able to figure out a map, what plants are useful, poisonous, or beneficial gives a child the confidence to look at any scary or confusing situation and say to himself, “I can navigate these choppy waters”.
Nature really is a metaphor for life in so many ways.
The outdoors encourages physical maturity
In a New York Times Article entitled “Can Playgrounds be Too Safe?” author John Tierney discusses the effects of playgrounds that are built to be lawyer-proof, rather than actually beneficial for the kids.
Unless there are risks and challenges, both mental and physical, the children become bored with them, or never develop a healthy sense of danger.
So called “safe” playgrounds actually stunt the development of a child to gauge heights, understand their own limitations and overcome their fears.
Children have an innate sense of wonder that needs to be nourished and developed throughout childhood in order to maintain it in adulthood
The first time I flew to Rome, Italy we flew over the Alps. I had never seen them before, and to see them from the air was a wonderful treat.
I marveled at those massive snowcapped mountains that looked like so many sleeping giants. When I exclaimed, “Wow, look at that!” a classmate simply said, “I’ve seen the Alps before.”
Sadly, this young man had lost his sense of wonder. Otherwise he would have known, as Heraclitus says, “you can never step in the same river twice”. Nature is never the same from moment to moment.
Trees are always growing, budding, shedding their leaves, resting for the winter and then starting all over again.
Ponds and rivers have similar cycles even if they are simply reflecting the changing seasons around them.
For the Love of Dirt: Easy ways to embrace nature
Now that we see the reasons why getting outdoors is so important for your kids, let’s look at some of the challenges that we suburban moms have in finding nature.
We’re surrounded by neighborhood after neighborhood, interspersed with little parks with that all-too-safe playground equipment. We certainly aren’t ready to live like rangers in a national forest, and several of us don’t have the skill to go on long hikes, climb steep mountains, or rock climb sheer cliffs.
So, how does one get started in introducing your kids to nature? The first thing you have to do is find it.
Don’t overlook your own yard
Beyond the toys, slides, swings, tricycles and sandboxes, what else is out there? A tree? Rocks? Dirt? Grass?
My sister asked me the other day if I knew the sound of a grasshopper munching on a potato chip. I can’t say that I know that sound, but it sounds intriguing. It’s a memory that has stayed with her nearly 25 years.
Give your child a bowl to collect rocks, or see how many different kinds of leaves you can gather. Catch crickets, fireflies and caterpillars.
Google National & State Parks
You might be surprised how close they are to you. We lived in our neighborhood for two years before finding a national park 10 miles from our house with several stroller friendly hiking trails.
Most have well marked hiking trails, picnic tables and resource centers. Many even have workshops for kids on the weekends to introduce them to local plants and various skills such as tenting, hiking, bug collecting, rock collecting, etc.
We also found a state park within walking distance of our house, tucked behind an industrial center. The walk there is still fun for my son because he loves trucks and tractors – and within minutes we’re counting turtles in the turtle pond and hiking along stroller friendly paths.
Go Berry picking (not on a farm)
We took a walk last week and found a slew of blackberries on the side of the path. Despite the fact that this is a well worn path, no one even noticed the huge clump of blackberry bushes. We’ve spent the last several days savoring each one.
My husband and I consider this find one of our greatest adventures. There is a special joy in eating something directly from the bush! However, be certain that you know what you are eating!!
Go Bird Watching
Bird watching – Put a bird feeder outside a window that is easily accessible to your child. Spend time every day looking at the birds, identifying them, and keeping a journal of what birds have visited your feeder.
You’ll be surprised at how quickly your child will be able to recognize the different types.
DON’T BE AFRAID OF DIRT!!
This one is more important than anything else. Every new study on childhood diseases seems to indicate that kids are getting sicker because of LACK of dirt.
Which would you rather have your kid play in: A McDonald’s Playland (think of all those sweaty feet, runny noses, dirty hands, tongues) vs. a mud puddle of perfectly clean dirt & mud?
Google “are kids too clean” and see what I mean.
It’s not that we shouldn’t be hygienic, but we have to let our children explore their environment. That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t check for ticks, ensure that our kids aren’t playing with poisonous spiders, or let them swing that dead rat above their heads – but we need to educate them and ourselves so that dirty play is actually clean play.
A bath and a change of clothes will restore cleanliness and order, but you cannot replace the learning experience of the feel of dirt, climbing that mossy log, or picking those flowers, or weeds.
You’ll see their imagination come alive.
My son has always been obsessed with sticks and we had several inside the house and car that he simply loved. I’m happy to say that with his two year birthday, these sticks have now become drumsticks and make delightful music rather than simply a weapon. And his 9 month old sister loves the banging as much as he does.
A few last reminders…for the love of dirt
And a few last reminders – as with every adventure with your child: do your homework, plan carefully, pack well and have patience.
Pick a few easy hikes or visits to a national park before setting off on an hours long hike. Don’t overestimate your child’s endurance in being introduced to something new. If the first few times go well, it will set a good tone for further outings.
Give your kids room to explore and challenge themselves, while taking appropriate steps for safety.
Most of all – enjoy time in the outdoors with your kids and have fun.
Jessica Harvey lives in Woodbridge, VA with her husband and two beautiful children, Joseph (age 2) and Regina (age 9 mos.). She holds a Masters degree in literature from the University of Dallas and yet is certain that she will “never see a poem as lovely as a tree”.
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