Walking with Kids Outdoors

Our 1st grade daughter recently brought home from school the words to a Sesame Street song by Ed Sheeran called, "Two Different Worlds".  The basic idea: the rules at Home and the rules at School are different; neither set of rules are good or bad, but they are just different depending on the circumstances.

Likewise, when we walk in the woods with kids, there is a third set of rules.  But of course, kids don't really know these rules if they haven't been taught.  They especially don't know these rules if they have not spent much time in nature.

When I first started venturing into the Lowcountry with my own kids, I spent a lot of time and energy with the "stop doing that / don't do this" mentality. I constantly corrected them, figuring that eventually they would get the idea as they learned these new set of rules.  But there was a catch; spending most of my time disciplining and little of my time enjoying nature meant that I was reluctant to take them outdoors. Rather than returning home refreshed, I'd come home and immediately need a little "Daddy alone time".

Slowly, I re-calibrated myself.  I shifted to more of a "keep them safe, but make sure they get dirty" approach; I encourage them to run and wander and explore, but preface it with my expectations for visibility, being with-in ear shot, and kindness to nature.  I encourage their curiosity, sometimes provide little scavenger hunts, but avoid the "come look at this great sedge grass!" adult perspective.  I model being prepared to spend time outdoors (water bottle, snack, footwear, etc.) but I don't get hung-up if they are aren't outfitted like Coyote Peterson.

I also developed a few other mental guidelines:

  • Don't bother trying to keep little kids quite outdoors; remind them that animals are scared of loud noises, but don't constantly shush them.
  • Be realistic about trip length and time. About an hour of activity is the right amount to start.
  • Encourage them to touch and smell and look and listen closely.  Remind them that tasting is not a good idea.
  • Pack a compass, a pocket microscope, a pocket knife, or just pencil & paper.  Any of these items encourage engagement with the surroundings.
  • Listen to their needs.  Try not to put off requests for food or water or using the bathroom.  Avoid saying, "When we get back to the car ..." All of these requests will happen, so pack accordingly.
  • When they say,  "Are we there yet / When are we going home / I'm tired", reassure them you are going in that direction, and more importantly, hold their hand or give them a short ride.  They are asking more for comfort than an actual answer to the question.
  • At the end of the trip, ask for the things they didn't like and the things they liked the best.  Maybe more importantly, encourage them to talk to other kids and adults about where they went and what they experienced.

Above all else, remember that for many kids, being in nature is a new type of world; it will take time for them to learn the rules, to know the expectations, and to appreciate the value. 

It is our responsibility as adults and teachers and stewards to help them appreciate Nature, but more importantly, it is our responsibility to make sure they have access to Nature.

And when spending time together outdoors, take a peaceful approach; encourage kids to explore and run and climb and just get dirty.  Encourage them to ask questions, wonder aloud, and appreciate the diversity of the natural world.  After all, if you have an appreciation for the outdoors, it is likely that an adult in your life encouraged your interest and made sure that Nature was a safe, fun, and engaging.

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