My kids were young when we first moved to Montana. I was thrilled at the prospect of getting them out of the city and into the woods. I read Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods (an excellent read for city-dwelling parents to feel completely inadequate, on a side note); and, I made preparations for teaching my children all about the outdoors. I dug out my Girl Scout manuals and reviewed knot-tying, how to work a compass, and even dusted off my hiking boots. I was ready to show my children just how beautiful the natural world could be.
On our third day in Montana, we ventured out for our first hike. Lone Pine State Park was a quick trip from our new digs in Kalispell and it seemed harmless enough for my kids’ first hike. Joe had just turned four, Stella and Ricky were 5, and Ted was 7. Easy peasy. This short hike would be the beginning of a new life in The Great Outdoors!
Six hours, twelve bandaids, one bee sting, and four crying kids later, I began to rethink my grand plans.
I tried again a few days later and then once more just to be sure. It became evident that my children did not like hiking. They didn’t like trails, learning about trees, leaves, water sources, or anything involving dirt. I gave up and decided to look again at the library hours and then perhaps a trip to the movie theatre, and I sent the kids into the yard to play.
Sometime thereafter, Stella and Ricky ran into the house asking for sandwiches and some string or rope or something to tie sticks. I obliged and sent them on their way. But curiosity led me to follow them. What on earth were they doing?
I followed them behind the condo, through the empty field, into a stand of trees. Lo and behold, they built a fort. Sticks, rocks, branches – everything they could find. They worked together, they learned to tie knots, they figured out which branches were stronger and which could be easily bent and tied together. Best of all, they were laughing.
Experts agree that play is an important part of child development. They weigh in often about the appropriate and inappropriate amount of screen time, as well as how and when children should be engaged in various forms of exercise. But what few experts talk about openly is the importance of “free play” for children. This is particularly important when it comes to playing in the outdoors. Play is critical.
Play fosters creativity, social interactions, and forces children to discover the natural consequences of actions. There was a failure-success experience for my children when they figured out how to tie together the branches to form a make-shift doorway on their fort. Play is so important that the American Academy of Pediatrics says that it is “essential for helping children reach important social, emotional, and cognitive developmental milestones as well as helping them to manage stress and become resilient.”
Experts also agree that outdoor activities are essential to connect our children to the natural world. A connection with nature as a young child gives a sense of belonging in the world and gives reference to education in the natural sciences, physics, math, and the like. But just like a playground offers a different outdoor experience than an open field, a directed hike through the woods deprives children of the opportunity and responsibility to use their own senses, reflections, and intellect to engage with the world.
So what does that mean for us Montana parents who want to share the outdoors with their children? Nothing. Keep doing what you are doing. But in the back of your mind, remind yourself how you discovered what you know now about rocks and trees and leaves and dirt and animals. Remind yourself how you learned to climb a tree, skip rocks, and make forts. Was it because your mother showed you? Or was it your brother? Your cousin? Your friend?
Yes, I want my children to eventually learn the beauty of the natural world – mountains, rivers, trails, trees, insects, plants, animal tracks, and more. But the most important skill I want them to learn is how to discover – the world and themselves.
Then maybe I will have done my job.