Go Outside and Play

Getting Kids in Nature: Boy playing on logs at the beachIn my mind’s fantasy, it is 10 years from now. My oldest is 17 and about to jump. A no-holds-barred, throw-caution-to-the-wind love of the natural world propels her. Like a half-terrified ballerina leaping off a rock, she free-falls into an icy pool beside a waterfall. When she hits the water hard and soft at the same time, she’s full of fear. But it’s good fear, full of intensity, risk, challenge and experimentation. She’s surrounded by her best teenage friends, all hooting and hollering in celebration of being young. Their exuberance reminds me of a quote from Henry David Thoreau:

Here is this vast, savage, howling mother of ours, Nature, lying all around, with such beauty, and such affection for her children, as the leopard; and yet we are so early weaned from her breast to society, to that culture which is exclusively an interaction of man on man.

I wonder, is this what she is facing as she matures, or could it actually be an interaction of man on device? I think about the influence adults have on a child’s relationship with nature. Once my grandmother pointed to a praying mantis resting on a screen, speckled with drops of dew, which enclosed the porch of her cottage facing the Atlantic Ocean. Grammy called me by name, her voice sweet like the rustling breeze of salt air. I stood beside her, and to my 7-year-old’s gaze, the lime-green, curving insect looked about as long as my hand. “It’s beautiful,” she whispered. “Can you see its hands?” I was afraid of its large head and eyes. As I looked closer, I saw elegantly folded forelimbs, as if in prayer pose. In any other instant, I might have deemed this creature a monster or immediately forgotten about it. However, in that moment, with Grammy, I paid attention. To this day, when I see a mantis, I feel my grandmother’s fierce love for me and for the natural world.

Recently, I was walking along Green Lake when I stopped in my tracks to gawk at a tree. Surrounding its trunk was what looked exactly like a knee-deep pile of freshly cut auburn locks, as would be seen at the bottom of a hairstylist’s chair. The tree was shedding the softest, most delicate russet-red needles. I had never noticed this before on an evergreen. I was astounded and humbled. The frenzy of compulsive lists running through my mind seemed insignificant and then disappeared in an instant. I stood in regard of something I didn’t understand, yet my mind was quieted by its simple, timeless beauty. I was brought back to myself, renewed, within the span of a 20-minute stroll among urban wildness.

I returned to my car, thinking about my kids and how they would benefit from more time outside, too. When I turned on my smartphone after having purposefully left it behind, the screen filled with a barrage of texts and notifications not unlike the mental onslaught of shoulds and not-enoughs that often overwhelm me. For me, the one that trumps all the doubts is the “not enough nature” guilt, a recurring negative feeling that the time my children spend in nature should be more and is never enough. If I’m not careful, the external online comparisons will begin. I’ll visit my favorite blogs and compare myself to what others are doing, experiencing, enjoying. It’ll never be enough, and it’s not real. In that moment, I feel compelled to grab my phone and schedule nature in for my kids, right there between swimming lessons and a playdate on Saturday.

Digital media is an influential part of our everyday lives, and I hope my kids use it with a sense of balance. I hope they remember what is real. Although we’ll look back on their childhoods via screens, I hope that deep in their live, human cells, they’ll recall being absorbed in the natural world. I know that the taste of a perfectly ripe sugar snap from the summer when my son was 2 and the pea patch was his domain will remain with him forever. Will he also remember sitting around the campfire surrounded by stars and animal sounds, while simply having the full attention and uninterrupted gaze of other humans?

I have this dream that when my daughter is smack in the middle of her teen years, I will book a mother-daughter horseback-riding weekend. Will it be easy to convince her to take time away from her friends and technology? What enthralling device will I be urging her to leave behind? Facebook will probably be passé, and the new app that has replaced it on the iPhone 15 will be recording and filtering our entire lives, turning them into an ultracool online experience. It might be possible to beckon my daughter back from her digital life with those horses, breathing and alive, massive and muscular, strong and tall, soft and sentient.

Sometimes my longings seem silly. For one, I want my son to have a sudden encounter with one of the biggest, most beautiful winged insects he has ever seen. For as long as his attention span will hold, a luna moth will be still and silent in front of his face, with dark spots like eyes and glowing sage-green wings. I hope my kids will know themselves as well as they did when they were young, remembering the joy of being alone for long periods of time without a digital connection. Afterward, I want them to send me a message about it. I hope I will respond the way my mom did. I hope I will say what I always have said. I will text them, “Go outside and play.”


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