“I hate hiking.”
The three words outdoorsy Jackson parents dread.
Scrawled in the 6-year-old handwriting of my son, this is all he chose to share about himself or his passions in his “bio” for a summer theater art camp.
Clad in his hand-painted, hand-crafted red-and-white-striped dragon costume, “Scaley the dragon” (his character name) changed his fire-breathing tune as soon as he saw disappointment crest across Mom’s face.
“It’s a joke,” the dragon blurted.
What’s not a joke is how desperately parents, especially in a mountain ski town, want their kids to embrace the outdoors.
Even with the outdoors all around us, it’s still easy to fret about screen time, chair-bound time in classrooms and the loss of that childhood opportunity to run wild.
I signed Scaley up for theater camp because of his penchant for costumes, his love of inventing characters and “episodes” (his frequent use of this term might point to too much screen time) and my desire to give him some balance from our woodsy lifestyle.
Relaxing near a lakeshore and camping with other families conjures for me some of my most cherished childhood memories, especially the family vacations to Montana’s Flathead Lake, where I could swim until my lips turned purple and stare into the fire as my father exhibited Yoda-like concentration steadily turning a marshmallow on a spit until it was as golden as a graham cracker. No scorched sugar for Dad. For the record, Scaley prefers his marshmallows raw but has offered his fire-breathing talents to toast mine.
I push Scaley outside partly out of nostalgia for my own outdoor childhood and because I know it’s good for him.
I’m skeptical of children’s chewable vitamins (shouldn’t we just eat more fruits and vegetables), but I’m convinced he needs heavy, frequent doses of “Vitamin N” (for “nature”), as Richard Louv dubs it. Louv is the bestselling author of “Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life,” and he also penned the landmark 2005 book “Last Child in the Woods,” which brought national attention to what he termed “nature-deficit disorder.”
Living in a mountain town, it’s hard to worry too much that your kid might have a deficit in outdoor experiences. Although, truth be told, some parents are so diligent and consistent at getting their kids outside it’s easy to start feeling like an indoor parent even if you camp most weekends.
In a town of extreme sports and extreme pursuits it can be challenging to remember to calibrate your pace for a small person. Eager to show Scaley the joys of rock climbing, by the time he was 3 years old I took him to the City of Rocks National Reserve near Twin Falls, Idaho, for an introduction.
He loves scrambling on rocks, but the whole harness and rope thing was new. After his friend successfully climbed and descended I helped him put on a harness and tied him into the rope. He powered up “Practice Rocks” with blazing speed, and, when topped out, he found nirvana.
“I can see the whole view from up here,” he exclaimed with wide eyes and a big smile.
But when it came time to sit back and let us lower him with the rope, he thought we were nuts. He started crying and clinging desperately to the rope. Luckily, this was “Practice Rocks,” so I could free climb up the low-angle rock ramp and gently grab his harness and coach him down. He hated every second of it.
We’ve since reintroduced climbing, but now we let him go up just a short distance and sit in his harness, suspended from the rope like a swing, until he decides he wants to come down. Maybe when our kids reject our outdoor pursuits, their protest is not of outdoors itself, but our approach or lack of preparation.
For her popular book “The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative,” Florence Williams traveled the world talking to researchers, practitioners and all kinds of people who thrive on nature. She’s even become part of experiments herself like the one where a researcher hooks up a portable device that records brain waves to see exactly what brains do when exposed to nature.
After finishing her book, which makes science reading fun, all I wanted to do was run outside and stare at a tree. Seems that one thing you can’t overdose on is Vitamin N. Even low doses of the outdoors matter. Researchers have documented that just a 15-minute walk in the woods can cause a drop in the stress hormone cortisol, blood pressure and heart rate.
Williams’ message is catching on in Teton County. She spoke at Teton County Library’s 2018 Mountain Story literary festival and has guided the theme of this year’s SHIFT festival, “Public Lands. Public Health.”
Part of this year’s SHIFT conference examines what it means when the average American child spends seven hours a day in front of screens and just seven minutes in unstructured play outside.
In addition to art and theater camps, I signed Scaley up to tromp in the woods with Teton Science Schools, a compromise of structured and unstructured time outside. He loved it and learned about life cycles.
Teton Science Schools is also experimenting with a new “Forest Kindergarten,” a style of schooling that Williams explores in detail in “The Nature Fix.” Forest kindergartens typically operate in outdoor settings where children are encouraged to roam and discover on their own. Adults assist, but the children take the lead in directing their own hands-on outdoor play.
But child-led learning can be scary — like the time my husband gave Scaley an axe and let him lead the way through the woods. The unstructured play lit Scaley’s imagination on fire as he pretended that a ghost controlled the axe and he alone could unleash its magic.
Sometimes what makes it hard to get our kids outside is the lack of novelty. One friend confided that when Dad says let’s go “do the whitewater,” her kids sometimes groan. That’s because they regularly float a local creek. To keep the kids engaged she’s discovered that it helps to let each child choose his or her mode of floating. One prefers a boogie board with flippers, another wants to master the sit-on-top kayak.
With all the research showing that Vitamin N should be taken in heavy doses, I’m ready to double down on making Scaley love the woods. I think I’ve found a solution.
First, as seasoned parents already know to do, I will stop using the “H” (hike) word.
Second, this fire-breather and his trusty sidekick are not heading into the deep, dark forest for anything as mundane as a walk. No, we’re off to the land of knights, castles and caves filled with gold. It just might take some walking to get there. ￼