Children and the Forest
Recently Jesseca and I took her daughters (my stepdaughters) to Ukiah, about two hours north of the bay area, to visit with my daughter Catherine (aka Cat), her husband Rob, and our grandson Jaden. We flew in from the third busiest airport in the U.S., Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), into Santa Rosa airport, a very small airport with only one baggage conveyor belt and not many passengers. Quite a contrast. Nice smooth trip, though, and we were all eager to see the gang in Ukiah. Well, actually in a very small town nearby called Potter’s Valley.
The trip was a big deal for a few reasons. Serena, 7, and, Ari, 5, were taking their first airplane trip. Whenever we spoke about it however, Serena would remind us that it was her second trip. She doesn’t remember the first, as she was only fifteen months old when that occurred, but yes, technically this was her second trip.
Rob, Cat, and Jaden had moved here just a few months ago to set up their first home together. Cat is five months pregnant, ready to have her second child. They’re living in a house on ten acres of land, with seven horses owned by the landlord stabled there. There’s a creek about 15 yards from the back door, which runs into the river that is about 50 yards away. It’s the kind of setting that invites you to be outdoors.
Cat told me before we came that Jaden is so happy to have room to run around in this very substantial front and back yard. When the girls arrived, they were delighted with the amount of outdoor space to run and play. Rob had set up a swing in the backyard by hanging a sturdy rope from a large tree and this proved to be very popular. Cat’s dog, Lulu, enjoyed having the extra company as well.
The second day Rob took all of us to one of his favorite spots, Montgomery Woods, about an hour away from the house. This was the home of the giant standing ones-the Redwood trees. Once we arrived we hiked deep into the forest. All three of the children were able to run around, sit on stumps, rocks, and jump over water puddles from the rain that had been falling over the past several days. Their laughter and giggles were infectious and echoed throughout the forest, making all of us adults smile.
Coming from the primarily urban environment of Orange County (though Laguna Beach still retains some of the small beach town atmosphere), it took awhile to dial into the distinctly different rhythms of the area. Walking through this enchanted forest brought us gradually into a slower pace, accompanied by a quiet reverence for the inhabitants of this forest. We were definitely visitors, yet could feel the generous welcome of our hosts.
I paused at one point, closed my eyes, and could feel the trees breathing. There even appeared to be faces here and there on some of the trees, and one of the trees had a protrusion that we nicknamed the tree spirit. I could definitely feel the spirit of all of these giants. Standing at the base of any one of them looking up, you would swear they were taller than the sky.
It occurred to me that the children could also feel the vibes of this place, yet they didn’t pause to reflect on it. They were simply and innocently enjoying every moment of it, evidenced by their running, climbing, and laughing. It brought to mind a book I’d come across a couple of years ago called Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. The subtitle was what really caught my eye and my heart. It was Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder, though it might be more accurately called human being’s Nature deficit disorder.
In this electronically driven era where we are dominated by computers, television, and iEverything, our relationship with the natural world continues to be seriously compromised. Yet we can make choose to make it a priority, especially with our children. It requires us to consistently create opportunities to involve them with Nature, to turn off the television, computers, iPods or at least severely limit their use and get outside the confines of the electronic kingdom.
So here’s some suggestions gleaned from the above-mentioned book for what you can do (once you’ve unplugged your child from the virtual two-dimensional world) to encourage and establish their love for Nature:
* Be a model for your children by taking the lead in getting outdoors, even if only your backyard. It’s a good stress reducer as well as having other health benefits. Children and parents feel better after spending time in the natural world.
* Take a walk in a park, at the beach, or in the woods. Take special note of the various plants and animals you encounter.
* Invite native animals and plants to your yard. Maintain a birdbath. Set up a hummingbird feeder. Replace some (or all) of your yard with indigenous plants.
* Set up and maintain a terrarium or aquarium.
* Make a leaf, stone, or seashell collection by gathering these on one of your walks. Press colorful leaves in books until their dry. Create a montage with the stones or seashells.
* Lie on the grass and gaze at the clouds, looking for images. Older children can learn to identify the different cloud types.
* Take a hike. The younger the child, easier, shorter routes are best, and be prepared to take breaks often. An older can take longer and more challenging hikes with you.
* Make up your own nature games. Find ten particular animals, such as birds, insects, four-leggeds, reptiles, etc. Look for footprints or other evidence of an animal having passed by.
* Plant a garden in a section of the yard or if space is limited, in large pots on a patio or rooftop. Work with your child and help them notice the day to day and week to week growth of what you’ve planted. Enjoy vegetables from this garden, perhaps even sharing them with neighbors or a food bank.
These are some ideas that facilitate what is a natural connection to the land and all of its inhabitants, something that has been forgotten for many of us. Through your guidance, as children grow they can also learn to appreciate the Life Force, or Spirit, that is inherent in all of the trees, plants, and animals that exist in the natural world.
And if you ever get a chance, take them to Montgomery Woods for a walk.