When I was a kid, my mom sent us out to play. We went out for hours, and didn’t come back till someone was hungry. We played in the trees in the yard, or in the “trails” across the street – some wild undeveloped land along the banks of Bear Creek, that boys had ridden bikes through enough to have created trails. Or we played at the park, or rode bikes… We weren’t just out to play, though – we were practicing autonomy, self-reliance, and self-confidence. No one was hovering over us to tell us to “share” or “use our words” or “play nicely” – we had to work these things out for ourselves. There was also no one to tell us “don’t pick that up, it’s dirty!” – which meant that our immune systems were getting a workout, just as they should.
But kids today don’t have this experience. They rush from school to after-school programs, and on weekends there’s soccer practice and errands to run. When they do have free time, often they prefer to play popular video games instead of playing outside. In many areas, there is so much concern about safety that parents are just as happy for kids to stay indoors.
One way or another though, we’ve got to get back outside. And it’s not just our kids! We grown-ups spend our lives mostly indoors, sitting at desks and doing “work” that exists mostly inside machines. If you’re a landscaper, or a stone mason, or a tree doctor, well then you have a lucky job! But most of us need to expend some effort to get outside. And it’s well worth it – a great percentage of our current ADD/ADHD epidemic could actually be reclassified as “Nature Deficiency Syndrome”. Children are supposed to be outside running around – but today they sit at desks for hours each day, just like grownups. When my daughter was in public school for first and second grade, she got 15 minutes of recess, and 15 minutes for lunch. They had gym once a week. This was a very good public school, and still the class size was 27. Does this sound familiar? It’s not the way for kids to grow up!
And what about adults? A fabulous book, called The Spell of the Sensuous, proposes that today, most humans spend most of our time only interacting with humans, or things or human design. How are we to know what it is to be human, if we never spend time with things that are not human? What do we have to compare ourselves with? And how are we to gain the wisdom the plants and animals (and rivers, and mountains) have to share with us if we never spend time learning to watch and listen?
So what to do? Go outside! Cancel some scheduled activities, and use that time to go outdoors instead. Maybe you haven’t been outside much since you were a kid, and maybe your kids spend their outdoors time at soccer practice – so maybe you feel a little uncertain about what to do outdoors once you get there. That’s ok – here are some suggestions to get you started!
– Even if you’re not a “plant person”, you and your children can start to identify some useful plants. Start with Dandelion – it’s easy to recognize, grows nearly everywhere, and is very useful. You can use the leaves in salad or use them dried to make a nourishing tea for your kidneys. You can use the roots like carrots in a stir-fry, or dried for tea – they are great for gently cleansing the liver. You can even put the flower tops in your salad! If your yard is free of chemicals, you can harvest them right from your own yard. Instead of thinking of Dandelion as an annoying weed in your lawn, you can see it as a prolific provider of wild nutrients!
Plantain is another plant that grows across the country. The leaves are great for cuts, scrapes, and for especially bug bites and stings – just mash them up a bit in your hands and rub the leaf right on your bite or sting, or lay it gently against your cut until you can get home and get a bandaid. You can find pictures of these and other plants that grow in your area online and then go out for the hunt!
– On a super sunny day, you can still stay cool outdoors: head into the trees! You don’t have to have a plan, just start walking and see what you notice. Make sure to stop and notice things: kids often stop to look at some small thing that has caught their eye, and often we grown-ups hurry them along in our haste to get through our to-do lists. But today, you don’t have to hurry: stop with your kid! Squat down and see what they’re looking at: you’ll get exercise with all that up-and-down, but more importantly, you’ll be showing them that their discoveries are important to you. And who knows what cool thing they might discover!
– Go swimming in a real pond or lake. Sure, the swimming pool at the Y is “cleaner”, but you get a lot of benefit out of wild water! Little fishes, water plants, and wet dirt or sand for building castles – getting yourself near water is a chance to see a whole other world of wildlife. You might even see a family of ducks or geese! If you leave near the ocean, head to a beach during the off-hours, when the tourists aren’t around. See if you can find seaweed, little snails, barnacles, and seabirds.
– Too hot to be outside during the day where you are? There’s a lot to do at night! Get yourself a jar and catch fireflies. Lay on a blanket and look up at the stars: if you don’t know the constellations, just make some up! Or stare at the moon – in fact, it’s a great exercise to do every night! Historically, people always knew where the moon was, but today, we rarely know what phase the moon is in or where she is in the sky. Make it a habit to go outside together every night and find the moon to say goodnight!
These suggestions are not just about going out and riding bikes PAST nature, but interacting WITH nature. Go ahead – slow down and get dirty! You can always wash off when you get home, but the benefits of crawling around will stay with you! And what happens if you find things you can’t identify, or if your child asks questions you don’t have answers for? Perfect! Once you get home, ask Google, and you can both learn it together!
You don’t have to be fancy or complicated to start teaching your children about good health and natural living. You don’t even have to know much about it yourself! Start with these simple ideas, and follow wherever the interest grows.
this article was originally written for mommypotamus