“I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.”
– Eleanor Roosevelt
In summer, the door swings wide open.
We jump into this fleeting season where every living thing seems to sing its own resounding song called “The Ballad of Life.” We camp, hike, garden, frolic in the yard and practice the age-old parenting art of turning the kids loose. We turn them loose at the river, the overgrown alley behind our house, the mountains and in our neighborhood, where they become a roving band of child explorers seeking trampolines and the best household snacks.
I trust that in the natural world there is an education for all. Not an education to strive for or manage, but to sink into, to allow. The teacher is experience.
How our family benefits from unstructured time outside:
In the balance of an ecosystem, children will come to understand that everything is connected. Those red fire ants parading under the pine trees are food for the woodpeckers – the same woodpeckers that make homes in dead trees – the dead trees that are used by 30 percent of forest animals at some point, and will someday crumble to sawdust and mulch, nourishing the soil from where they came, feeding new trees – trees through which red ants will parade.
If we learn the names of the plants and animals, they enter into our greater community. And if we’re willing to count sunflowers and barn swallows as our friends, we’re never really alone.
There is enough quiet stillness in nature to allow for children (and adults!) to hear their own voices. The noise of the media fades, and we recalibrate to a slower, saner pace. In the absence of societal pressure, we become free to, as Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.”
Left to their own devices in a world rich in connections and layers, kids’ curiosity naturally blooms. I’ve seen kids of all ages gather together to build dams across creeks. Here they encounter velocity, flow, erosion, water storage and the nature of impermanence as every stick eventually gives way to the force of rushing water.
If we come to know and love the natural world, we may be called to care for it. If children can retain their wonder at a swallowtail butterfly unfurling its tongue to draw up nectar from a patch of milkweed, perhaps they will learn to speak for the voiceless, the disenfranchised, the vulnerable creatures of this Earth.
In a place where every sandy, rocky, sagebrush treasure belongs to all and yet to no one, kids can experience true collaboration, letting go of squabble-causing notions of ownership. (I’ve seen this happen: four kids on a camping trip playing with sand and rocks and sticks, and not a conflict for three days).
Forays to the woods can rewire our neural circuitry, tamping down our modern anxieties. In an environment where every living thing has everything it needs, we can glimpse the true nature of our simple, ordinary, satisfied human selves, which is to say, our best selves. Our minds become calm; our hearts satisfied. Those worn out neural pathways that get stuck traveling routes of “if only ... ” may naturally return to, “this, right now.”
Enter here, the wild world seems to say, and I will show you who you really are. Our summer lifestyle is so rich and affirming, it feels like a whole stack of doubts has fallen off a wobbly shelf in my mind.
What are we doing with our lives? Living.
Reach Rachel Turiel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her blog, “6512 and Growing,” on raising children, chickens and other messy, rewarding endeavors at 6,512 feet.