Nature outings

This essay was first published in our farm newsletter in September 2019:

From whining to wonder

We’re well into our school routine here at our house now. It’s shaping up to be another fruitful year of growth and learning. There are many things I love about our home learning lifestyle, but what keeps me going on the hardest days are the little bits of bliss I find in two particular activities: reading aloud with the kids and going on nature outings with them.

Rusty and Dottie are two of my all-time favorite hiking companions. As I’ve mentioned before, we aim to get out and explore one afternoon per week. In recent years, these outings have been some of my most profoundly happy moments, when I feel a glow of peace and contentment.

Which is maybe surprising, because — well — getting kids outside and hiking isn’t always an easy endeavor. It can feel like a real push to pack all the necessary supplies, convince everyone that yes actually this is a good idea, support kids as they learn to walk at a steady pace (and uphill no less!), and keep everyone feeling chipper even amidst potentially challenging weather. Taking kids on hikes has the potential to be a recipe for major whining and resistance.

But, over the years, we’ve made it work — me and these two kids (with my husband’s enthusiastic help on weekends too). It’s still not perfect … kids go through developmental stages where whining will pop up again and I feel like I need to re-establish the rhythms and routines that have worked for us for years now. But, to me, it’s been worth the work, because once we work through the whining (again!), we move into the state of wonder. And wonder is my happy place. It’s also a state of receptivity, from which children can learn to observe the natural world around them, growing naturally in reverence and appreciation for the miracles of life. One of our goals as parent-teachers is to instill love for learning in general, but also love and appreciation for the natural world. One can only love what one knows, and so we go out, every week (or close to it!), and grow the familiarity and love that comes from a relationship.

If you have a child in your life with whom you’d like to share wonder and in whom you’d like to grow a love of the natural world, what follows are some of my best “go to” tips for making exploring outside a fun, accessible activity. I think much of this is common sense, but in my experience, a lot of adults feel daunted by taking kids on nature outings. These are strategies that have worked well for us:

  • Start young, if possible. If not, start now. There is no child who is too young for nature outings. Babies can be carried in baby packs! The younger the child, the more all of these tips will be important to consider. But, making the natural world a normal part of your life will build familiarity and comfort for your child.
  • Pack food. It really doesn’t matter if you just ate lunch, kids will get hungry outside moving their bodies! Hunger = whining. <—– For realz, guys. Times a hundred. So, pack snacks! Ideally, they would be snacks that provide some lasting energy through protein and fat or complex carbohydrates: nuts, cheese, sandwiches, apple slices, meat sticks, etc. Avoid anything too processed or junk food, which will give a quick sugar high followed by a crash. Pack more than you think you’ll need. Also, consider using snacks as an incentive for getting somewhere if you’re on a trail. I often like to save our snack break for when we’re at about the halfway point on a trail.
  • Dress for the weather. The kids and I have hiked and explored in all kinds of weather: Downpours! Freezing temperatures! Hot afternoons! I find that experiencing the vagaries of weather is an integral part of our experience — how does the weather change what we see, hear, feel around us? How do our bodies respond differently? What different animals come out or hide? We are going outside to stimulate our senses, and weather does that. But, there’s a limit to how much discomfort a kid (or adult!) can handle and still enjoy the experience. Here’s another true equation: Being cold = whining. (Being too hot too!) In summer, sun hats and long sleeves (and appropriately chosen shady locations) make a big difference. The rest of the year, layers are very useful. The classic combination of layers for a cold Pacific Northwest outing is: base layer (long underwear), middle layer (comfortable pants and shirt), warm top (sweater or fleece), and outer shell (rain jacket, and maybe even rain pants!). Plus hat and gloves! (Gloves are a must!) These layers can be taken on and off as needed. Shoes are important too. We tend to hike in good sandals (ones that strap on — no flip flops) in the summer and plain old rubber boots in the winter (with thick socks they’re pretty comfy for hiking, and they keep our feet dry as we walk through puddles or wet foliage).
  • Pack a few other essentials too. My bag always includes a big water bottle, some extra snacks, a small first aid kit, small binoculars, and hand sanitizer, wipes and a poop shovel (my kids have pooped in many a woods and not every park location has potties). Because we end up carrying so much stuff, the kids have each had their own appropriately-sized backpacks from a young age and carry their own food, water, extra jacket, etc. (The German company Deuter makes wonderfully small, well-built bags for kids!)
  • Set realistic goals. While we hike regularly, the kids and I don’t do big distances. Our average hikes range from 1-2 miles. Now that they’re older, they can certainly hike farther, but we’re not going outside just for exercise (although that’s part of the goal). We’re going outside to become familiar with locations in our environment and watch them change over the season. To that end, a little wander is sufficient, and a shorter distance is very doable for the kids rather than being challenging and daunting. We’ve explored many shorter trails in our area and have about half a dozen places we visit regularly. Many of them offer multiple shorter trails so that we can explore different areas on each visit.
  • Meander. Look around. Pause. Ask questions. Again, if you’re with kids, don’t just zoom down the trail, arms pumping, sweat pouring down your face. Learn to walk steadily but keep your senses open and alert to what is around you — so that, for example, you notice when you hear a woodpecker and pause to find it with your eyes. Set the example of taking in everything around you: stop to examine a mushroom or count tree rings. Taste miner’s lettuce together. We keep “nature notebooks” (spiral-bound sketchbooks) that we bring with us on outings so that we can draw things of interest to us, which is another way to force us to sit still in one place and really take it in. This is a good activity to pair with a snack break too. I think the meandering nature of our outings is part of what feels so different (and blissful) to me compared to when I hike with other adults. When I’m with other adults, we often fill the space with conversation and move through the environment quickly. Even when I’m hiking alone, I rarely find myself as conscious of my surroundings since I usually move faster and get lost in my thoughts. I love the slower, sensory experience that the kids and I seek out. When the kids and I do talk, it’s usually about what we’re seeing or doing at that moment, keeping our attention present.
  • Sing when energy flags! This was an important strategy when the children were very young. Often they’d lose energy on the home stretch of an outing. We would already have eaten our snack, and they’d need a last boost of enthusiasm to get back to the car. I found that cajoling and comforting didn’t really work, but singing “The ants go marching” worked well to turn moods around and take the focus off of fatigue. It’s also a nice long song with a marching rhythm. I have other seasonal songs that I’ll sing too. Songs that can be easily changed or personalized to make new verses are fun and useful too (for example the “name game” song: “Dottie-Dottie-Bo-Bottie-Banana-Fana-Fo-Fottie …). Kids love singing about themselves or their friends and family.
  • Build your knowledge. We enjoy bringing a field guide or two with us on trips so that we can stop and look up an unfamiliar plant. Or, we’ll take a photo or draw a picture and look things up when we get home. Even at a very young age, my children were captivated by this simple activity, and it helped them see the patterns in the world around them and to experience the forest taking definition — shifting from being a blur of nondescript green foliage to a landscape of familiar and specific friends. Kids are also remarkably good at learning to identify things — just think about how they can become walking dictionaries of Pokemon cards. Those pattern recognition skills are in us because, until very recently in human history, every person played a role in their own food procurement and production — which required recognizing plants and animals! A simple way we guided our knowledge growth at one point was to pick a “plant of the day” — we’d find a plant we didn’t yet know or recognize, describe it, draw it (and take a photo), and then look it up later and read about it. An important place to start with learning about plants is how to identify the handful of dangerous plants in our region: particularly stinging nettle, poison oak, and baneberries.
  • Make outings regular and predictable. If you really want to bypass whining, build a regular nature outing into your life rhythms and make it (mostly) non-negotiable. The best way to get resistance is to ask if kids “want” to go on a hike. Some kids might jump on this offer. Most probably won’t. But if it’s just something your family does every weekend or every Wednesday afternoon or what not, it becomes a predictable part of life. No one has to “decide” anything; it’s just what you do that day! (This is helpful for adults too, by the way! It’s hard to work up the energy to get everyone out the door.) The more regular this becomes, the more quickly kids will learn to transition from whining into wonder — especially if prior outings have been positive!
  • Be patient. Keep trying. Helping kids learn to love the natural world and outdoor recreation is a process. If a first outing doesn’t feel successful, don’t give up! First of all, giving up because of whining or resistance is a really sure way to get more of it in the future (about all kinds of things), but also because getting outside with kids is a process for everyone. It has to start somewhere.
  • Set an example. If you want the children with you to love the experience, start by loving it yourself (all the above preparation can help make it positive for you too!). But, to bring this back to the main goal of avoiding whining: DO NOT WHINE YOURSELF! In my experience, when children start whining, adults can sometimes fall into that same tone of pleading, and oh man it is a vicious feedback loop. Adults, use your ”big strong” voices at all times! This is where singing or taking snack breaks can help — both can cut the whining cycle so that you don’t get sucked in too.
  • Collect things … responsibly! Generally speaking, it’s best to leave things where they are in the forest or other wilder places for the health of the ecosystem. But, I make an exception for young ones, who can delight in collecting souvenirs from their adventures. When the children were younger, we designated the top of a short bookcase as a “nature table,” where we could display the treasures we’d found and enjoy them over a longer period of time. I taught them early on what was okay to pick up and take home, for example fallen leaves, rocks, pine cones (wildflowers, not so much, unless they are blooming in vast profusion, and then we pick one). Dottie especially always enjoyed an outing more if she could be doing things with her hands. The kids always (always!) seem to pick up a special stick on an outing. Our trunk has transported many sticks back home over the years.
  • Mix it up. We love revisiting familiar places, but our nature outings would be boring if we only ever went to the same place. Occasionally driving farther to explore a brand-new place is an extra treat. Sometimes I’ll come up with a new “game” for us to play while we walk, such as counting all the types of plants we can identify. Recently we did a scavenger hunt, where we looked for things that fit categories I’d come up with earlier: something red, something that grows in threes, something that looks old, etc. We each found different features in the park that fit what we were looking for, and it was fun to keep looking for new ways to interpret our clues.
  • Be open. I definitely don’t always come up with clever ideas like a scavenger hunt — more often, we just head out with our gear and open senses (including our hearts!), ready to see what kind of miracles or adventures come our way! I will be honest: I still doubt, almost every week, that we will find anything interesting. Why do I still doubt this after years of experience? Perhaps it’s just hard to imagine that, once again, we will be amazed or intrigued by something new. But, OH, the miracles we’ve witnessed! We’ve come across a big patch of giant lupine all in bloom. We’ve broken frozen puddles of ice. We’ve found a snag alive with a bee hive. We’ve walked through fields of wildflowers. If we’re open, even the smallest change in the place can be truly miraculous. But we need to learn to see and appreciate such things, and of course so do our children.

I hope one or more of these tips prove useful to someone! I think that getting kids outside, engaging the natural world, is a game changer. Our world’s sustainability hinges on whether future generations love the world enough to work for its preservation. In an earlier farm newsletter, I wrote about dust erosion, but erosion is only a perceivable problem if we care about soil. If we love it, even. Have a feeling of reverence for the miracle that is soil life. The same goes the forest, the oak savanna, the river. So, I pray and hope that people who have children in their lives will set as a goal to foster love for the world, whatever form that takes. Just going out in the backyard to play can be a way to plant the seeds of that love! Visiting the beach! Kayaking on the river! There are many ways to build our children’s relationship with the world around us.

“We could never have loved the earth
so well if we had had no childhood in it.”

~ George Eliot