By Lynne Dardanell
How many times have we all said that to our little ones as they clamor for something “fun” to do, uttering the famous, or rather, infamous words, “I’m B-O-R-E-D, there’s nothing to do”. How many times have you heard yourself say “Find something to do. Go play outside”. How many of us as adults fondly remember being “turned loose” on the Great Outdoors in our youth, left to wander the fields, explore the woods, make our own fun and pray tell don’t come back until dinner time, or better yet – dark.
Those days have passed, that ship has sailed, children are no longer set free to explore nature to their heart’s desire. It is up to us – parents, caregivers, neighbors, friends – to demonstrate the wonder and the magic of all that nature holds. A bold blue and black butterfly that flutters about, so very close! A bright yellow dandelion or buttercup that you place under your chin and ask “Want to know if I love butter”? A honeysuckle bloom so sweet it tastes like golden honey and you find yourself scanning the woods for more. A big fuzzy creature that resembles a wooly warm but wait – don’t those only come out in fall – further research unveils it’s true identity – a giant leopard moth caterpillar! A potato bug, or “roly-poly” found under a rock, a box turtle wondering around in the yard, a bird’s nest built into a shallow tree – these treasures from nature are so simple yet can provide so much entertainment and awe.
As my own children sit inside on a gorgeous day, playing with dolls who have their own miniature iphones (gasp!), I sit here dismayed that they are missing the chirping birds, the clucking squirrels, the chipmunks running about – all in our own back yard. Luckily these babes of mine are young enough to still be lulled outside with an easy sentence or two, the dangling of a carrot so to speak – “hey, let’s go out and plant those sunflower seeds”, “who wants to go look for turtle eggs in the back field” , or “want to take your dolls outside for a field trip”? Once out there, the nature discoveries take over and the inside games, even the dolls brought outside as play props, play second fiddle.
As adults, the “go outside” mentality can often be a difficult one to master. Dishes called out to be done, meals need to be prepared, various household chores or even work duties must be attended too. For our family, going outside often means all of us going outside – together. Sometimes this can be frustrating but just the other day I had my own little “get outside, be in-the-moment” epiphany. My five-year-old daughter had a friend over and I was banking on a productive day while the two little ones entertained themselves. However they wanted some adult company for their tree house picnic (a real lunch I served up to them in the outdoor playhouse, to begin their day experiencing the outdoors). After a few moments of hemming and hawing and reluctantly giving up what was next on my to-do list, I resigned myself to joining them in the play house for lunch. Once up there, shaded by the tree canopy and looking down on nature below us, I had the most peaceful lunch ever – enjoying the birdsong and the company of people who don’t yet know what a to-do list is. I felt transformed, if only for a short while.
I’ve witnessed the same such epiphany in children too, as they make the transition from desiring indoor activities to truly experiencing joy in the outdoors. A few weeks ago my older daughter accompanied me on a nature outing I was helping lead. Her choice had been to attend her sister’s soccer game or come with me on a hike at a nearby nature preserve – she chose the latter because she viewed it as the lesser of two evils. Waiting until the last possible minute to get out of the car, she was slow to begin her nature appreciation journey that I felt sure would be immediate. However as we ventured further into what I fondly call “the real world”, her senses began to lead the way. Finding critters in the stream, discovering a centipede that when picked up, emits a cherry-like scent as a defense mechanism, and traversing various terrain through the forest – all of these things quickly captured her attention. I knew the experience was taking hold when our hiking guide polled the group with “Should we turn around and head back or keep hiking” and my daughter was the first one who more than enthusiastically responded “Keep hiking!”
As parents we all try to do what’s best for our children, and our families. I encourage each of you to take the time, even just a few moments here and there, to go outside, explore those natural wonders, and by all means “keep hiking”. You’ll be glad you did.
Lynne Dardanell lives in Summerfield, NC with her husband and two daughters. She works part time for Piedmont Land Conservancy planning membership and outreach programs, including monthly nature outings for families.