Growing up, a vacant lot and a wooded area bookended our house. My sisters and I would put on our hot pink fanny packs, fight to find the perfect walking stick, and set out to conquer the world. We built shanties that we thought were mansions, created small mounds that we considered challenging BMX bike tracks and got ourselves into all sorts of muddy messes. I distinctly remember feeling so adult when my mother let us venture to “Fletcher and Maple” an intersection that we felt like was miles away, but was in reality three streets over.
We took many great vacations, some lavish and exotic; we had more toys than we would possibly use. But when I look back on the treasured moments of our childhood, they all include the little worlds of tiny wonder we were free to create and explore, even if mom did check us religiously for ticks after each outing.
I long for our children to have the freedom and space to be creative, to interact with nature, to learn how to explore and conquer a small corner of their world. We aren’t an REI, camping, National Parks visiting family, and we probably never will be; however, I want to pass on to my children both a respect for and a joy from nature.
I am afraid of snakes, but I am more afraid of the effects of screen time. I don’t like the idea of parasites in creeks, but I like that risk more than the risk of raising children who don’t know how to wisely risk and explore.
Of late, I have been reading two books in tandem that have been re-opening my eyes to our need for and negligence of nature and the natural. While Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv has been practically helping me to pass on a love of the natural world, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard has been inviting me into an adulthood awed by the little worlds around me, even here in semi-urban San Diego.
Annie beautifully writes the following:
“I am no scientiest. I explore the neighborhood. An infant who has just learned to hold his head up has a frank and forthright way of gazing about him in bewilderment. He hasn’t the faintest cllue where he is, and he aims to learn. …Some unwonted, taught pride diverts us from our original intent, which is to explore the neighborhood, view the landscape, to discover at least where it is that we have been so startling set down, if we can’t learn why.”
Richard Louv writes along a similar vein.
“The dugout in the weeds or leaves beneath a backyard willow, the rivulet of a seasonal creek, even the ditch between a front yard and the road – all of these places are entire universes to a young child. Expeditions to the mountains or national parks often pale, in a child’s eyes, in comparison with the mysteries of the ravine at the end of the cul-de-sac. By letting our children lead us to their own special places we can rediscover the joy and wonder of nature….By expressing interest or even awe at the march of ants across these elfin forests, we send our children a message that will last for decades to come, perhaps even extend generation to generation. By returning to these simple, yet enchanted places, we see, with our child, how the seasons move and the world turns and how critter kingdoms rise and fall.”
We probably won’t go back-packing in the Tetons with our gaggle of boys, but I can first model and then teach and nurture an awe and interest in the tiny worlds of wonder right in our pavement-filled neighborhood. During our two week spring break, we went to the movies and did other spring-breaky things. But the things that brought our children the most joy were catching shrimp and chasing crabs, tidepooling and taking care of a lame little birdie. As I have been practicing this lately, I have found my own soul soothed and sighing in relief.
The Gifts That Will Keep
Rather than teach kids wonder,
We’ve brought them to the store.
Rather than offering lasting things,
We suffocate them with more.
The free gifts are the most costly;
It’s easier to purchase the cheap.
But imagination, awe and wonder:
These are the gifts that will keep.
Free time and margins and presence,
These are the tools of the child;
But these cost us our own agendas,
So we settle for presents less wild.