Getting Kids Out Into Nature

Guest Post with Julie Zickefoose: “Asking More of Kids”

Some parents I’ve talked to since I’ve been blogging and hiking have confided in me some of the difficulties they face in working toward the goal of getting their kids out in nature more often.  Some moms want to hike with their kids, but haven’t done it before, and need reassurance and guidance.  I admit that even my budding naturalists aren’t always gung-ho about the adventures I plan, and that we face distractions and complacency just like many American families.  Artist, naturalist, wildlife rehabilitator and mom Julie Zickefoose has faced these same challenges, and has some encouragement for all of us in the following essay.  It originally appeared in the magazine Bird Watcher’s Digest in March 2009.   Julie graciously offered it to me as a guest post here.  I hope you get some food for thought, as I did, from reading it.

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Asking More of Kids, by Julie Zickefoose

It’s fairly typical of me, and other birdwatchers on a foreign trip, to be focused on seeing new birds. That first morning at the hotel, even if it’s in a city, can be electrifying, as we hear songs and calls unknown to us, and burn to learn out of which exotic bill they issue. So I was fidgeting a bit as I learned that my group, traveling Guyana’s interior, was scheduled to visit two rural schools. The children had programs they’d prepared for us. It all sounded very nice and birdless. But the children had been waiting all day yesterday, dressed in indigenous costumes, and we didn’t show up—rain had changed our schedule. Today, we had to show up.

We lined up on outdoor bleachers, I feeling tall, pale and awkward, as the kids filed out, dressed now in their everyday uniforms– sunny yellow jumpers and white shirts. From the moment the children opened their mouths to sing, they had me. If our elementary school choir teacher had been able to coax such angelic melodies out of my kids and their classmates, she’d probably faint on the spot. There was no pretending to sing, no too-cool-for-school inattention. These kids sang, really sang, and they melted my heart. They danced, telling of their traditional agriculture and hunting with their motions.

I was transfixed by the timeless beauty of their faces. They sang a song they’d written about their village, the beauty of the sun coming up over the mountains; brown-skinned Amerindians in every house, and tears started rolling down my cheeks.

I thought about my kids standing in just such rows, singing Jingle Bells or Sleigh Ride, and wondered what might happen if they were asked not to sing a song they already knew, but to write and perform an original song of gratitude to the place they live, the mountains and sky and community they enjoy. It’s not that they couldn’t do it, and do it well. Thing is, they’ve never been asked.

From there, I thought about what we ask of our children, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It is currently in vogue to note that children “these days” don’t evince any interest in the outdoors; that their favorite place to play is “where the outlets are.” And it’s true, in large part.

When I was nine, my son’s age now, I got home from school and headed for the small patch of woods behind our house in suburban Richmond, Virginia. There, at the age of eight, I saw the blue-winged warbler that was to be my spark bird; there I listened to catbirds and followed wood thrushes as they hopped springily in the dappled leaf litter. In that five-acre patch, ringed all around by houses, I flushed an October woodcock, rushing back to the house to my books to find out what the odd-looking bird with the whistling wings might be.

I watched a family of great-crested flycatchers, something I’ve never had the chance to do since. I found their nest by noticing a long trailer of house insulation coming out of a hole in a dead snag, and wondering why it was there. I watched the nest and saw their babies fledge, voicing miniature wheep! calls as they lined up, tailless, on a branch to be fed. I poked into our bird houses for flying squirrels and nuthatch nests, followed pileated woodpeckers as they foraged. I was Harriet the Spy, finding out all I could about birds.  I chased down any song or call I didn’t recognize, and I learned that brown thrashers will eat doughnuts and cooked spaghetti. There, I became a naturalist.

I know that, if we aren’t bemoaning how lonely and lousy they were, we all tend to idealize our childhoods. And I know that I sound like Grandma, who claimed to walk miles through knee-deep snow to school. But the truth is that my children lead a very different after-school life than did I, when afternoon television was Mike Douglas or Dinah Shore, when there were no computers or Wii’s singing the siren song of oblivious absorption, when the outdoors simply seemed so much more wonderful than the living room.

I enjoy taking my two children on hikes, hikes that start out from our kitchen, as we fill a backpack with water bottles and snacks, then wind out through the meadows and into the woods, our Boston terrier levitating in joyful circles around us. They won’t go into the woods on their own, as I did. I have to take them, have to line up incentives, often chocolate ones, to encourage them. Whatever it takes. When Liam was still small enough to pick up and would resist, I would lift him off the couch, throw him over my shoulder like a sack of sugar, and carry him outside. I’d lug him over my shoulder until we were too far from the house for him to run back, then set him down and tell him to lead the way. He could choose where we went—down to Beechy Crash or around The Loop, to the beaver pond or the overlook. That appealed to his competitive side, and he’d take off at a brisk pace, choosing the way. Whatever it took.

Now that they’re older—nine and 12—and take great pride in outpacing me (when did that happen?), hikes are something we all look forward to. I still have to initiate them, sometimes have to wheedle, but they’re troopers now, and they know that complaining will do them no good. We pick a destination and go. And as often as not we take their friends along. It’s fascinating to watch kids from other home environments adapt to this unaccustomed and fairly rigorous regime.

On a recent hike with a pair of six-year-old twins and their brother, 7, one of the twins—Noah—lay down several times, saying he was too tired to go on. This was a problem, as he was too big to carry, even if we’d wanted to carry him. We joked that we were taking Noah for a drag. Some tough love was employed.  We finally reached our destination—a series of beaver dams, each more spectacular than the last. His brothers were impressed, enthusiastic. Noah screwed his eyes shut, refusing to look. And then we told him that we were exactly halfway home, and every step he took would bring him closer to home. And Noah stepped out front, like a horse who smelled the barn, and never let us overtake him from that moment on. It wasn’t that he couldn’t hike three, almost four miles. It was that he’d never been asked to.

It isn’t that our children can’t appreciate the outdoors. It’s that we haven’t asked them to. Our daughter, Phoebe, came home from school one day with an assignment: to describe her favorite place. And she wrote an essay about a night in New Mexico, when we’d dragged the kids out of bed with the stars still high in the sky, to go freeze on an observation platform, waiting for sandhill cranes to lift off from their night roost. On the way to the refuge, an enormous meteor streaked down, seemingly right into the field alongside our car. There was no missing it; it lit up the whole sky with its blazing trail. Phoebe wrote an essay about that inky-black morning, the meteor; about New Mexico’s vistas and mountains and incomparable colors, about how she’d like to live there someday. My heart overflowed, because I’d felt bad about dragging them out of bed in the wee hours, about making them stand with us in the ice-cold wind, waiting for the cranes. I hadn’t known until I read her essay that New Mexico had left such an imprint on her young heart. I hadn’t known until she was asked to express it.

Getting outside may never be a modern kid’s first idea of what’s fun. There are so many more comfortable options, and most of them involve staring into the electronic fire. It’s our job as parents and mentors to come up with a better idea. The hitch is that we need to be ready to lead the way, to say, “No, we’re heading out, and you’re coming along.”  We need to say it to ourselves almost as much as we need to say it to our children. We need to ask more of them, and of ourselves.

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What do you think, Dear Readers?  Do we ask enough of our kids?  Are we willing – are YOU willing – to risk uncomfortable times and moaning and whining to expose your children and yourself to unplugged experiences?  Have you tasted the reward of doing so?  Let me know in the comments.  And thank you to Julie for starting this discussion.

3 Responses to Guest Post with Julie Zickefoose: “Asking More of Kids”

  1. This was a great read, especially after visiting my in-laws and during my shifts for childcare, demanded that the cousins turn of the TV and come on a forest hike with me. This forest is less than 300 yds from their front door and they had NEVER been in it before! We all had a blast, they couldn’t believe they lived near this magical place. We even found wild blueberries as a reward. I left, knowing they will be the ones to now get their parents to turn off the TV and drag them outdoors. Thanks for your insightful piece, it’s helpful to know that I’m not alone!

    • This is the kind of thing I like to hear, Marmot! Good for you! It’s little steps like these that can add up to a big difference in a child’s life.

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