Have you ever been to an aquarium that had an ocean tunnel? You walk through a clear tube, surrounded on all sides by colorful tropical fish, gently waving corals, and perhaps the ominous shadow of a shark passing overhead. It’s beautiful, and it gives you a small taste of what it must be like to walk on the bottom of the sea. But you’re not really in the ocean. You’re comfortable and dry, you’re surrounded by tourists snapping pictures, and in a moment you’ll walk on through to the next exhibit.
Sometimes when we go for a walk with our kids in nature, we are experiencing it much like a visitor to one of those aquarium tunnels. We stay on the mulched or paved path, either because the park doesn’t allow off-trail exploration or because we are afraid. We can see nature all around us, and it’s relaxing and lovely. We can hear birdsong, smell the rotting leaves, and see chipmunks darting across the path and disappearing into the forest. For many of us — especially adults — this is enough. For kids, though, this aquarium-tunnel-type experience of nature is not satisfying. Much as babies experience the world by putting everything into their mouths, kids experience the world by touching and doing. Ever taken your kids on a nature walk, only to have them drag their feet and quickly declare, “I’m BORED!” Listen to what they’re saying. They don’t want to march along on the path, passively looking at nature as it passes by. They want to climb a tree, balance on a log, pull up swatches of moss for a fairy house, throw rocks into the water, poke mushrooms with sticks. Our job as parents is to stand back and let them do this, as much as the current surroundings allow.
Here are some tips for avoiding The Tunnel Effect for your next nature excursion.
1) Find a place for off-path walks. Some parks have explicit rules about off-path walking. This may be to protect the area’s plants and animals, or because the officials are worried visitors will sue if they fall off a rock and get hurt. If you can, find a place where your kids can feel free to roam off path. If it doesn’t have signs saying you can’t go off path, it’s probably fine. And when choosing the site for your outing, remember that your kids will be happier in a scrubby patch of woods where they can climb and dig than at a stately botanical garden filled with signs saying “Don’t Touch” and “Be Quiet.”
2) Be patient, and let them lead. You may have brought your kids to a trail that leads up a mountain, and you’re excited to get to the top. Try not to be in a hurry about it. Let the kids stop, climb logs, look under rocks for salamanders. Bring a book if you find you really have trouble waiting while they explore. (But don’t get out your phone, as media and screens can break the spell of being in the forest and pull the kids away from what they’re doing.) When your child asks where to go next, tell her, “It’s up to you! You’re the leader!” and follow her at her own pace. If you have more than one kid with you, let them take turns being the leader. You’ll be amazed how their enthusiasm and confidence grow. And if you’re really itching to do that fast, goal-oriented adult-type hiking, see if you can schedule time to do that with your partner or a friend.
3) Be aware of how much meddling a given spot can support. When I take my kids to a botanical garden, they know they can’t touch or pick anything. At a state park, it’s pretty much the same thing, although there they might gather nuts or break sticks — things that are plentiful and renewable. In a wild spot that isn’t frequented too much by people, like if we’ve walked off a biking trail into a random patch of nearby woods, that’s when I might let them gather moss and pick grass. In a field of wildflowers, I’ll say yes to making a bouquet of the abundant clover, but might gently stop my daughter from picking the solitary ladyslipper growing near the path. “Let’s leave that there for everybody to see.” It takes practice, but you can develop your own (and your kids’) judgement about when to pick and when to leave it be. For more on the pros and cons of letting kids make their mark on nature, take a look at this excellent article, “Let Kids Run Wild in the Woods.”
4) Curb your fears. One of the biggest barriers to off-trail exploration is parental fear. One way to lesson your fears, and then avoid passing them on to your kids, is to educate yourself. Learn what (if any) potentially dangerous animals are in the area and how to identify them. There’s no need to jump in fear away from a snake if you know it’s a harmless garter. It’s pretty easy to identify poison ivy, and there’s no need to panic if you see some- just walk around it and don’t touch. Terrified of spiders? (That’s my Achilles’ heel!) At the very least, try not to freak when you see one.Your kids are watching you. If you want them to be comfortable in nature, try to model that comfort yourself (even if you have to fake it).
5) Be careful when you say, “Be careful.” Please try to avoid saying that much-loved parent phrase: “Be careful.” When your kid is climbing a rock or balancing on a log, he is already doing his best not to fall. When you say “Be careful,” the message you’re sending him is, “I don’t trust your judgement or your coordination. You can’t do this. You’re going to get hurt.” Your kids may get hurt sometimes- that’s part of the learning process. If you see them doing something life-threatening like balancing on the edge of a high cliff, definitely do what you gotta do. But before you say, “Be careful,” think for a moment. What’s the risk if she falls? Is that risk worth my chipping away at her self confidence at this moment? If the answer is no, give your child the gift of your confidence in her abilities by remaining silent. And notice when he’s done something cool. “You climbed all the way to the top- how did you do it? Tell me all about it!”
I hope these tips can help you avoid the dreaded “I’m bored” the next time you go exploring with your family. (And if you see a big spider, please don’t send me a picture.)