Parenting is all about teachable moments, wouldn’t you agree? Every parent wants to use everyday life to teach their kids about living, don’t they? And I’d say that probably skews even more true for those who are attracted to this website. Anyone involved enough (don’t say attachment parenting… don’t say attachment parenting…) in their child’s life to be concerned that they get outdoors enough, is probably interested in teachable moments. Especially when those moments are able to come about outdoors.

But wait! What if you got ALL THIS, but also were able to achieve two more things: tired children, and children who were cooled off from the summer heat? Act now, and take your kids: swimming in natural places. Thas’ right—the ol’ swimmin’ hole. Actual, honest-to-goodness, unchlorinated, water. With fish. And stuff. Ew, really?

Yes, really, and today I’d like to offer some quick arguments why, with a bonus item for those of you lucky enough to live on the coasts.

First, natural swimming teaches kids about EFFECTS, especially if you go regularly. It’s easy to talk about a water shortage but hard for kids to understand. It’s easy to say we shouldn’t use pesticides, but when your kids have a favorite farm pond they swim in, it makes the issue hit home much more. (I am NOT suggesting taking your children or mine swimming in polluted water). When you go to a place often throughout the summer, the kids are then able to see the water level drop, etc. Best of all, if there are animals present (fish, insects, frogs) it gives that extra boost of personal involvement- then they aren’t just worried about “the pond”, but specific creatures in the pond. “Mr. Frog” is much more personable than “Mr. Pond.”

This leads to the second benefit of swimming naturally rather than in the antiseptic and chemically clean pool. Kids see they’re part of nature. Part of an ecosystem. This is of course tied in with the idea of effects, but varies slightly. It isn’t about seeing what we do to the pond, but seeing what’s there already and how I as a human fit into it. To swim with the fishes is different and more “honest” to the realities of the Earth than going to the pool. Which brings about an unintended but significant sub point. Everyone in town knows exactly where “the pool” is, and thus everyone goes there. That’s part of its appeal, socially. But a secret swimming hole is just that, slightly secret. Even if lots of people know about the “secret”, it will never have the draw that the local pool does. And that is much more healthy and teaches lots more about adult relationships, than you can learn at what amounts to a liquid mall.

Finally, if you are lucky enough, as I am, to live near the ocean, your kids learn something else when they visit the beach. And that of course has to do with tidal movement. When kids go to the beach and stay awhile, or visit many times over the course of the summer, they see that the tide is always changing and moving. This teaches them about the constancy of change (which you can point out by showing them how animals like barnacles or clams adapt to the change from submerged to open air) as well as the circular characteristics of nature. You might take the opportunity to discuss any number of things. Perhaps talk about how the seasons change, or erosion turns sandstone back to sand, or even how the tide erases all the sandcastles and footprints, like “time heals all wounds.” The possibilities of tide truly are nearly endless. (But please, don’t read your kids the poem “Footprints.” Let’s just give that one a rest for awhile, okay?)

For these, and many more, reasons, consider swimming natural, the next time the kids are complaining about this summer’s heat. Does it take some getting used to? Yes. Are there potential surprises? Yes. Is the water clear, and neatly predictable? No, it isn’t. But it is also for just these reasons, that this kind of swimming is remembered far more fondly than “the pool.” When your kids are one day grandparents, what kind of stories do you want them to tell? The scary ropeswing at the swimming hole? Or the lines on the bottom of the pool?

 

Inspired by Grace ‘N’ Tater’s Dad, I want to tell you about the outdoors where I grew up. And keeping in mind the sort of guiding principle of the website this will be published on, I’m thinking about the parts of my outdoor upbringing that I’d want my daughter to know about someday.

I live in Massachusetts now, but I haven’t always. I grew up in western Pennsylvania. If you know anything about root words or know what “sylvan” means, you can guess that I spent a whole lot of time in the woods.

Old BMW Bike by Fran Hogan

A vast majority of my time was spent in two spots: Grandpa’s Orchard and Hickory Creek (pronounced “Crick” where I come from).

To reach the creek you walked down a short path next to our garage, into the neighbor’s yard, crossed that to reach the house my mom grew up in (no longer owned by the family), and then crossed that yard to reach a grassy field. Once you crossed the grass, you found a trail into the woods. One of my oldest memories is thinking how great that trail would be for a minibike. It was on this trail that the seed of my eventual love of mountain bikes was founded.

At Hickory Creek I skipped rocks, flipped larger rocks over to look underneath them, and tried to find a way to get across the stream while remaining dry. I remember precious few instances of standing on that opposite shore. Sorry to go uber-philosophical on you, but it seems feasible that on all the adventures and explorations I still go on today, it may very well be that far shore of Hickory Creek I’m looking for.

And then there was the Orchard. It really consisted of four main locations and one honorable mention. The honorable mention was my uncle’s home-made kayak in my grandparents’ basement. It was never finished, and I don’t know how close it ever got. I don’t know why he wanted a kayak, or why he didn’t finish. Or why if he wasn’t going to finish, the boat just sat there. But I can still picture it today- white canvas stretched on a wooden frame, above the dirt floor of the old farmhouse they lived in until I was in high school.

The four spots were these: The corn crib, the chicken coop, the woodpile & sandbox, and the garage. These were the landmarks of my childhood imagination and if I’m honest, perhaps my current life.

The corn crib fell down while I was still

young, but I remember it as an old wooden dried out building with many rooms. My grandpa had once been a farmer, but had sold the barn before my time, and the Amish had bought the barn and taken it away, rebuilding it in another place. What remained of the corn crib was its roof, which amounted to a rusting steel incline with a shifting foundation. Alongside this incline were five or six long drainage pipes. Of course I didn’t know that then. To me they were giant metal pieces of pasta or balance beams.

The chicken coop housed my uncle’s motorcycle and Janis Joplin posters. I know there were others as well, but it is Joplin I remember. The door was always locked, but we sometimes found the window unlocked and crawled inside and sat on the motorcycle. As I’ve written in other places, I think I’m still trying to recreate this space in every living space I own, with my bike hooks and posters. You might think this sounds like an “indoor” memory, but I don’t think of it that way. I picture that room as a part of the woods.

Near a large tree—surely a maple or oak—my Grandpa parked his Camper (a Swiss Colony) and piled up wood for the next camping trip. Or in my case, for building jumps for my bike, or anything else my young mind saw fit to do with lengths of weathered lumber. Come to think of it, the wood may well have come from the collapsed corn crib. Either way, they had poured a load of sand on the other side of the tree, and hung some rope from a high branch so that I had a swing (it was a secondary one- the other was in front of the house and had a seat and everything).

And finally there was Grandpa’s garage. Again, you may suggest this to be an indoor memory, but in fact there was no garage door, and no glass in the windows. Add in a lawn tractor parked inside, and it is indeed outdoors. In the back of that garage were two rooms, filled wall-to-wall with… stuff. No other word could describe them. One had a dresser which had drawers filled nearly to bursting with… stuff. Nuts, bolts, old toilets, games my aunts and uncles and Mom had once played with a generation before… It was all in there and there was no one to see if I touched it. There was a barrel near the front door (which, as I’ve said, was never there) that served as a table for all of Grandpa’s sprays: paint, carburetor cleaner, and a mysterious substance called “Gunk.”

But the best memory of all related to the garage (other than throwing a football on its roof and waiting for it to roll down so I could catch it, or the fact that Grandma’s clothesline sprouted from the side of said garage) was when he would leave his toolbox unlocked (are you noticing the same theme here as me?) It was then that my gold Stingray got flipped over and I got to use wrenches on it. Did I know how to use them? No, but I learned. Or rounded off the nuts. I can’t remember exactly, but what I can remember is my Great Grandfather swearing his head off at me while I worked. It confused me- maybe even frightened me- but precious tool time couldn’t be wasted. I have no idea what I ever accomplished with those wrenches, but I sure remember the thrill of using them.

And so it went. That is how I discovered the outdoors. With a “Crick,” some rocks, a can of Gunk, a room full of junk, a fallen-down corn storage building, some drainpipe, and a motorcycle.

How could I have turned out any other way? A tree grows from its roots, after all. Let us each remember that as we guide our children into the outdoors.

From time to time I feel the need to add my two cents about stuff that is only peripherally related to the core mission of this site. Today is one of those times.

Last week our county held an election. On the ballot were candidates for the school board, a recall of our village leadership (what, again?), and a library millage. I could care less about the rest, but the millage was important to me. The library leaders were not overreaching in their request. The money would simply maintain current hours and resources. Heck, I would have asked for more. Our library system has already made deep cuts in the past several years, and as it stands, it’s only open eight hours a day now, and closed on Fridays and Sundays.

I believe in libraries. Our library system is one of the best things this county has going for it. From my computer I can browse collections from around the state and have books delivered just a few doors down from my house. An report from a group that tracks happiness nationally found our county to be one of the saddest in the country, so things like libraries can’t be taken for granted. They are essential.

That said, I was discussing the library and the millage with a friend at one of the diners in town and was shocked to hear him say, “I voted for the millage, but libraries are really unnecessary. In ten years, we won’t need them at all.” This raised my hackles, and if I didn’t know the person to be a functioning illiterate, I would have really taken offense. But it did get under my craw, and in response I mount this defense of libraries.

The argument against libraries was never fully articulated by my friend (and it is perhaps unfair for me to respond so fully to such a weak argument), but based on previous conversations, I know where he’s coming from. Essentially, he’s a tech-junkie (an Apple freak to the core). This means he totes around his iPhone, iPad, and Mac Airbook everywhere he goes. Though he boasts having six books downloaded to his iPad, he once told me he doesn’t like to read and instead listens to podcasts for his personal pursuit of lifelong learning. This belief in the salvific power of technology is central to his argument for the end of libraries, and it has two points—one practical and one that speaks to a larger cultural shift:

  1. The progress of technology means that we don’t need physical places for physical books. The world exists in our pocket now.
  2. Books themselves, digitally or otherwise, are simply inferior to a list of bullet points or a twenty-minute podcast.

Let me begin by responding to the physicality of books and libraries.

Books and children, raising children without screens

When I think of libraries, I automatically think of kids. Kids love libraries. There are books and DVDs, reading nooks, and story-time stages. As they get older, and their interests mature, kids move from picture books, to juvenile and YA fiction, and eventually over to the “adult” shelves. Libraries also run programs, everything from magic shows to summer reading contests. Skilled librarians are on hand to offer expert advice to parents on different books for their dinosaur lover or young aspiring chefs.

In Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv talks a lot about how kids learn. Learning for children is hands-on. They learn through manipulating and feeling with their hands. Books offer this kind of experience. Recently I read a report on the growing number of children’s picture books coming to e-readers, and it grieved me. What about Pat the Bunny? What about The Very Hungry Caterpillar? For years books like these have engaged kids on a physical level as they are introduced to a very cerebral activity. In fact, all books do that, from the great illustrated books by Mo Willems to my copy of Anna Karenina. I don’t say this lightly. I am not, like the Amazon commercial suggests, a lover of folding down the corners of pages to mark my place in a book. (In fact, I find that an appalling idea.) Rather, I am saying that screens are taking over and removing a generation from having real experiences. So much so, that now even the vicarious act of reading has become more vicarious.

Closer to home, I want my daughter to have the full gamut of childhood experience. I want her to be in her twenties and have a smell or sound remind her of her childhood. I am not saying I want her to fall in love with the smell of books, but I want her to fall in love with the smell of something. (Have you ever noticed that our computers and iPods never smell like anything?)

Books, a worthwhile investment of time

The second part of my friend’s feelings on libraries is that they are depositories for books, which he considers an antiquated medium for sharing information. Antiquated because, I believe he would argue, technology allows us easier ways to get the same information (listening, watching, etc.). I think the argument for book-length writing has been made quite strongly by folks like Neil Postman, and I won’t try to replicate their efforts here. I will just say this, the necessary effort and investment that goes into writing and then reading a prolonged treatise on any subject bears significantly more fruit than the same information distilled down to a 700-word essay, podcast, or animated YouTube short.

I like listening to people who are experts in what they do. One thing I find they often have in common is a sense of context. Great architects understand the architecture that came before them. Great preachers have read the sermons of John Chrysostom, Martin Luther, and John Donne. Presidents seem to often have a historians appreciation for the administrations that have come before them. This kind of expertise only comes from a life of reading, and reading deeply. And it is through learning to love reading books that children develop the kind of deep thinking that will potentially lead to lives of real greatness.

Libraries as our last non-commercial community space

All over town we have businesses trying to become the “third place.” Bookstores, health clubs, and any number of coffee shops are all competing for our attention. They want us to make their place our third place. One thing they have in common? They all want our money. The library is one of the last non-commercial public spaces we have as communities. Where else are you going to meet your neighbors? There’s church, but that’s one of the most “segregated hours” in the week. The post office typically doesn’t have chairs. The court house couldn’t be less hospitable. And hanging out at the urgent care is just … weird. The library is to the only institution to offer you a chance to engage with your neighbors in a meaningful way.

Now, I am not an idiot. I realize people aren’t meeting new people every day at the library and engaging in Socratic dialog. I myself don’t make a lot of friends at the library, but by taking advantage of their kids programs, visiting regularly to borrow books and movies, and sometimes just finding a desk to work on to get away from the home office, I’ve found the library to be a great community center with the potential for connecting with others.

 

Okay, I’ve gone on too long. I would love to spend some real time on this, add more from outside sources, and really craft a solid argument, but I think you get where I am going. It’s time to get off my horse. (And, by the way, our library millage passed!)

For today’s post I asked my friend Rob Kristoff to share a bit about his family’s experience outdoors. Rob is a freelance writer who lives on Boston’s North Shore with his charming wife and precocious daughter. He’s written a guide to local mountain biking trails, a must-have for anyone searching out the best trails around Boston.

It’s hard to summarize how important it has been to our daughter to get outside.  And I really do think that some of the reason she loves being outside comes from how we treated nature with her when she was a baby.

I know when she was very small her mother had to spend some time in the hospital, and I took her around the (extremely large) building and closely showed her the trees they had growing in the atrium:  letting her feel them and putting her face close to the leaves. Did that have an effect? Who knows.

And even before this, because I had a job plowing skating trails on local lakes (yeah, it was as cool a job as it sounds), her mom would bring her out to see what I was doing (within reason and only for very short periods of time). She would’ve been just weeks old then.

Another moment came when she was barely walking and I tried to get her to sit quietly in her stroller as we walked through the state forest, where there was a paved road closed to cars. She cried and cried until I (almost randomly) thought to let her get out and try to walk by pushing the stroller. She did that for about three seconds, while continually glancing to the forest at the side of the road. “Do you want to get off the paved road? Go ahead,” I said, jokingly. Her face lit up a little bit and she let go of the stroller and headed straight for the woods—up a rather tough incline for a two year old, I thought. I’m pretty sure if I’d have let her continue she’d have pressed on straight into the woods.

Or I think of taking her for walks in her baby-backpack. We’d walk trails and sing songs. Occasionally—I won’t lie to you—I’d accidentally smack her in the face with low-hanging leaves.  Just the tips of branches, nothing serious. But I’d feel bad and say “Oops!”  She thought it was hilarious. We’d walk for hours that way, taking our little dad and daughter adventures.

With all these moments in mind, were we crazy? Did I not know she was a small baby and that there was some danger or risk involved?  That it was cold out by those lakes? No, we were not bad parents, and yes, we knew there was some risk involved. I kept it to a bare minimum, was very careful when need demanded it. But for the greater goal it felt worth it, and I think we’ve been proved right.

I can’t, and wouldn’t want to, tell you what to do with your baby, but in our family, even my wife (who was a nature lover, but not so much of an adventurer before this) would say that it has been nothing but good for our daughter to go outdoors on adventures, especially including when she was very small. “Raise up a child in the way she should go, and when she is old she will not depart from it”…