I recently became a grandparent, to a girl named Olivia, and as I reflect upon our future together, upon what I want to give her, what I want her to remember me by, I realize that I have no higher calling than to take her into the outdoors.
Sounds odd doesn’t it? Not what the adults in my family would have mentioned. Hauling me along on fishing trips into the mountains was just part of normal life, and with luck I wouldn’t get into too much trouble. But the truth is that I never had as much fun or learned as much about life, large and small, as in the outdoors.
And sadly, if we adults don’t take our kids into the outdoors, they might not have those experiences. In his book Last Child in the Woods, author Richard Louv argues that an entire generation of children is growing up with what he calls “nature deficit disorder” and that their lives and our society are the poorer for it.
The reasons kids aren’t getting outdoors include urbanization, competing time demands, competing entertainment options, pervasive technology, and absence of adults who are themselves familiar with the outdoors, safety issues, and other priorities.
And people like Louv cite many benefits to kids being in the outdoors–learning about interconnectedness, understanding of ecology and humans’ dependence on nature, the resilience and fragility of nature, nature’s power to heal and rejuvenate, the beauty and humility we find in nature. All valid and compelling reasons.
But when the adults in my family took me into the outdoors, they didn’t talk about any of those things, at least not to me, and kids don’t go into the outdoors for any of those reasons. As I wrote in Best Hikes with Children in New Mexico, I’ve yet to hear a kid say at the end of a hike, “That was a great aerobic workout” or “The light on the hillside was almost mystical” or “The interconnection between plants and animals was really impressive.”
Rather, the appeal and value of the outdoors for kids is simply this: The outdoors is where, when we pick up a rock, we don’t know what we’ll find under it. A worm, a spider, another rock, dirt, roots, a scorpion, a snake, ants, millipedes, a centipede–this doesn’t begin to exhaust the possibilities.
How different from our normal flick-a-switch, push-a-button, turn-a-key, swipe-a-card life, where if the outcome isn’t as we expected, then something must be wrong and should be fixed. No, nature defies our expectations, and for kids that is the wonder. That is why when we take kids into the outdoors, especially little kids, we don’t need to do anything else to keep them interested. We don’t need to invent games or projects or activities or lesson plans.
In fact, those adult-directed approaches actually impede kids’ discovery of nature. Instead, we should be willing just to turn kids loose in the outdoors–nature will do the rest. Randomness, serendipity, the unexpected, turning over a rock to see what’s underneath…
That’s why as a kid I enjoyed exploring a vacant lot by myself or with young friends more than guided nature walks in national parks. And that’s why if we must be with our kids, for safety and other reasons, then we should be willing to let go of control, or at least join our kids on their level. I recall a hike in the Sandias with my young daughters where we discovered that dried mullein stalks were like spears, so we ran down the arroyo attacking sand trolls. As fun as when I was a kid.
So when Olivia is a little older, I’ll ask her parents if I can take her with me somewhere outdoors. And if they ask what we’ll do, I’ll answer, “Oh, I don’t know, maybe turn over some rocks.”
–Bob Julyan is an advisor to Choose Outdoors, a national nonprofit focused on increasing support for outdoor recreation on public lands, especially the US Forest Service. He also is the author of several books about the outdoors in New Mexico, including Best Hikes with Children in New Mexico.