Dated June 2011
I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but sometime between my son Henry’s third and fourth birthdays we lost touch with the outdoors. I’m not talking about being outside at one of the local playgrounds, or going for a stroll through the streets of Newburyport eating candy from Richdale’s, or sitting on the waterfront spooning Gram’s ice cream into our mouths—because we have, of course, maintained that minimal level of connection with “the outside world.” I guess what I’m talking about is extensive, unstructured time in nature. The kind where time itself slips away as you watch lady bugs crawl up and down a tree trunk, or find yourself competing against yourself to see how many times you can get a rock to skip across the Frog Pond—when all you intended to do was to go for a walk.
You see, recently I was jotting down plans for summer adventures and activities to share with my children, Henry, 5, and little Sadie, now 1 ½, when I found myself recalling my own childhood summers. I thought about the days spent out in the yard sitting atop the monkey bars, watching our giant weeping willow sway in the wind and sweep the tiny hill that led down to the tiny creek (that seemed big then), where the neighborhood boys gathered to play “war” with mud-covered rocks, or where we’d all meet up to see who might be interested in a game of kick-the-can. I remember staying out way past dark and cupping fireflies in my hands, trying to feed them blades of grass and then setting them free before heading in for the night. There were so many afternoons spent lying on the grass and watching the clouds drift in the summer sky, imagining they were in a great race toward the sun, with me down below trying to guess the winner. I did these things not out of boredom or loneliness, but rather out of want. They brought me happiness and peace and the feeling that I was in my own world but also connected to something greater. I believe now that those connections with nature fed my creativity, knowledge and sensibility—and made me the person I am today. But sadly, these memories also made me aware I had been neglecting to provide these amazing gifts to my own children.
For a time, I think I followed the lead of my Henry, so sweet and curious, who has always preferred to direct his sense of wonder toward all things technical—from pushing buttons to turning cranks to studying remote controls. Let me put it this way, when we went to the zoo with our playgroup, we spent more time with the vending machine than with the animals. It was exhausting to try and engage him in other things, especially after my daughter Sadie was born, and I finally gave in/gave up. Our walks through Atkinson Common gave way to adventures in tall buildings to ride elevators so we could compare and contrast their differences. We sat in front of the air conditioner and talked about Freon and coils, instead of breathing the fresh air just beyond. These were the things his mind was drawn to, and I felt inclined to provide the means for him to explore them. While technology is his first love and no doubt his future and while elevators, computers, thermostats and iPods are all wonderful and useful things … I know deep down they cannot engage him with the world the way nature can. As his parent, it’s my job to expose him to the basic wonders of life, those first imaginings and understandings, and give him the fundamentals to use his advanced mind in meaningful ways, technological or not.
Henry is also one of the many children today with a diagnosis of ADHD. While the diagnosis is new, the treatment of symptoms is not (he has faced challenges since infancy) and he has made huge strides with therapy, wonderful teachers and most recently, to my unease, medication. It’s been a long road for us all, but now that he has matured and is better able to follow basic safety rules and practice self-responsibility, I feel more confident taking him on adventures again, giving him the freedom of being outdoors. I’m ready to do everything I can to allow him to escape the noise of buzzing toys, television shows, video games, even the constant sound of voices in the classroom and at home telling him what to do and what not to do. I want him to know and appreciate silence and stillness on his own terms—to build his own defense against the noise in his own mind and in this fast-paced world. Of course, it’s always easier to give a child what they want and to do what works in the moment to save our sanity, but it’s not always best. I realize now, it's time to give what’s best another go.
Just as I was coming into my own reality on these matters, I happened upon a documentary called “Mother Nature’s Child.” The film was actually not intended for me, but was put in my hand at a parenting seminar to pass along to a friend. My curiosity beckoned as I looked at the image of the child dancing among the flowers, thinking it must be from the 70s. Then, I turned the case over and read the summary. It spoke about nature’s role in every part of a child’s healthy development and the importance of keeping nature in the forefront even while we live in a media-centric world. My hand went hot. My heart raced a little. I knew it was no coincidence that the film found its way to me that night. I drove home and watched it right away. The symmetry of thinking unfolded so naturally, I knew there would be no turning back.
And in the excited sleepless hours that followed, it was decided: This family is getting back to nature. Now that “baby” Sadie is running and climbing with the competency and control of a three-year-old, we can do this. And we don’t have to pay anyone to show us how to do it, or show up to class to be told how to do it. We have our own implicit sense of curiosity and creativity to lead the way. There will be trails, fields, beaches, patches of city grass, gardens, and sometimes just our backyard. There will be puddles, creeks, rivers and ponds. Bugs, flowers, rocks and trees. There will be more cuts and bruises and bug bites. And we will get dirty. Real dirty. Because this is The Mud Pie Mission
. We’re jumping in with both boot-covered feet, and I can’t wait to share the adventure here with you.
If you would like to check out “Mother Nature’s Child,” you can find out more here:http://www.mothernaturesmovie.com/. I will continue to share all the useful resources I discover along the way, from books and articles to activities and ideas for getting the most out of being OUTDOORS.