Childhood. That time of life that is full of growth, learning, questions and change. A time that plays a part in defining our view of the world and what we hold as important. A time of cultivation and a time that needs wildness.
Most of my childhood was spent living seven miles south of a small college town in eastern South Dakota. Days in the summer were spent outside in the fields around our five acre plot, picking berries and vegetables in the garden (enthusiastically…some of the time) and strategically placing Breyer horse models and My Little Ponies in various little nooks and crannies around the homestead. Spring was muddy and wet, but that just meant there were streams in the back in which to splash. Fall was about apples and jumping in piles of leaves and waiting for the first snowflake. Winter was all about burrowing into the snow, sledding down the hills in the neighbor’s pasture and skating on the frozen cow pond. My brothers and I roamed.
Now I have my own child, and as she grows I’m trying to figure out how to let her have what she needs to develop into her best self. I want her to be able to function in the human world, whatever society looks like by the time she’s navigating her way through it on her own terms. But I also want her to be able to question the status quo and think for herself. And most of all, I want to give her a childhood that allows her to be on intimate terms with the wonder and beauty and life that is so often missed when caught in the throes of modern life. Of course she, not I as her parent, gets to decide what matters to her when all is said and done, and there are some things that are inherent, regardless the experiences that punctuate one’s early life. But what I can do is take her outside regularly and not pack her every waking hour with activities that might look good on paper but take away from opportunities for her to make her own adventure and write her own story.
My point is, at the end of the day, only a caregiver, in partnership with his/her child, knows what is going to serve their unique needs best. What follows are simply some ideas on to to cultivate the space that is conducive to fostering a childhood that is wild and free and full of opportunity to thrive.
Keep a limited number of toys in your child’s room/play area. Get rid of anything that’s broken and donate what hasn’t been touched in six months. (best done when the kids aren’t present) If they are old enough to understand, invite your children to select 5-7 toys to keep “out”. Put the rest in the closet or somewhere out of sight-the attic or basement is even better. Rotate periodically to keep things fresh. Be sure to stick to the rule of “one toy in, one toy out” to keep the “stuff” in your child’s room from becoming overwhelming again. Limit toys with batteries. Things like sticks, ropes, boxes, swaths of fabric, and old clothes for dress up make great playthings.
2: Let the kids get dirty.
Leave the handmade sweaters that can only be dry-cleaned at home and embrace dirt, mud, grass stains and everything else that comes from moving around outside. Worldwide studies based on children’s lifestyles demonstrate that early exposure to a healthy dose of bacteria is a key factor to a strong immune system later in life. Getting dirty is key to developing a healthy immune system!
3: Learn about the native plants and animals in your immediate area.
There’s great power in knowing your non human neighbors. Get some regional identification books, visit local nature centers and embrace the local flora and fauna.
4: Provide opportunities and then step back.
Young people are more likely to build authentic relationships with the nature world if they do it without feeling like they “have to.” Caregivers can provide direction and structure along the way, but the children have to learn to love the earth on their own terms.
5: Try not to hover.
Safety with young children is important, yet allowing opportunities to fall and get back up again are important learning experiences. Life is best experienced through an energy of curiosity and joy, rather than one punctuated with fear and worry. Children – like all living things — are fragile, resilient, delicate, and sturdy all rolled into one. When they are young, they need protection and care from those who love them. They need concerned attention and hand holding….to a point. What they don’t need is to grow up in the shadow of fear for what might happen if they try something on their own.
6: Think like a mentor.
There’s a place for instruction, to be sure. Kids need to learn and be taught..to a point. But there is so much power in walking side by side and letting the child set the pace of the learning. Lead the children in your care toward embracing nature by walking beside them and exploring it yourself. Young people watch their caregivers closely, and even when it doesn’t seem like they are watching….they are! If you foster a love and appreciation for the nature world in your own story and invite the children in your life to walk with you on the journey, everyone benefits.
As for me, I plan to do my best to give my child a chance to live in a way that reminds her she isn’t separate from nature. I won’t always do the ‘right’ thing and she won’t always want to do what I think she should. But I can offer my own love for the wilds of the world as a demonstration that we are part of the earth, and I can give her the gift of roaming, exploring and being close to nature. Wildness runs through our veins, and we need to remember to feel it. I think children know that when they come into the world, but it’s up to us as caregivers to not let them forget when culture wants to tell them otherwise.