It can be difficult to motivate the family to get out into nature, and even more so if the weather isn’t “perfect.” Everyone has her own notion of perfect weather, but on average people seem to think of it as sunny and around 75°. The trouble is, if we want our kids to truly connect with nature, we can’t wait for those lovely mild days. For one thing, they don’t come around that often. And for another, if we only go out on those days we are not experiencing the full range of benefits that nature has to offer. It’s like dating someone but only ever seeing them in their Sunday best at a fancy restaurant. You’d have a great time, but in the end the relationship would be incomplete and shallow.
The Scoop on Mud
Trudging through thick snow on a blustery day, a three-year-old falls and gets his face wet. He struggles to his feet, cries, is comforted by mama, and recovers. He’s gained a bit of resilience. These moments can add up over the course of a childhood and embed qualities of leadership, strength, and perseverance. The child who’s told never to play outside when it’s too cold, too hot, too wet, will not get the benefits of those challenging moments. He’ll also come to view the natural world as a nuisance at best and a threat at worst, rather than as a joy and a comfort.
I grew up in Ithaca, which has 158 days a year with precipitation and only 155 sunny days. We all had a lot of rain gear. On days when it rained hard enough to make a river in the street, I liked to build dams with my friend Betsey from the neighborhood. We’d take big shovels to the corner across the street from my house, where an undeveloped lot had a swatch of thick, goopy mud that formed in wet weather. We’d scoop out clumps of mud and use the shovels and our hands to build a big semicircle wall that filled with water to make a splashy squashy pool. Sometimes the dam went halfway out into the street, and the few cars that turned down the cul-de-sac would have to pick their way around it. No one ever gave us a hard time about that.
When I think about those dam-building days now, one thing that strikes me is that I don’t remember being rained on. It must have been absolutely pouring, because once the rain stops those road-rivers quickly fade. And it must have been cold. But all I remember is the feeling of stomping the shovel into the ground and pulling out a big wedge of mud. The pure joy of seeing the dam get higher and the pool get bigger. Once my boot got stuck in the thick mud (“gumbo,” my dad called it) and I fell on my butt trying to pull it out, and we laughed hysterically. I went home for a change of clothes and a cup of cocoa and we probably switched to a board game. No biggie.
Raising Rainy Day Kids
In my experience working with families in nature, most kids aren’t born with an aversion to mud, rain, and worms. They’re running towards the puddles and their parents are running after them, pulling them back. We do this out of love- maybe we’re worried they’ll get sick, or they’ll get too wet and cry. Or maybe we’re hoping to avoid another load of laundry. It’s a habit that’s worth examining and rethinking. One of the best ways to help yourself relax about those mud puddles is dressing your kid for it. Rain pants, coats, and boots are your child’s best armor in the war against nature deficit disorder. Thrift and consignment shops are great sources for rain and snow gear, as well as junky clothes you don’t mind getting dirty or torn. Rain gear for yourself is key too. (As they say, “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”) If you have a kid who really gets soaked on outings, you might want to keep a change of clothes in the car. Anything you can do to make it so that when she runs toward that puddle, you can tell yourself, “It’s OK. We’re ready for whatever happens.”
Parenting involves so many moments of risk-benefit analysis. Do you let him go down the big slide, when last year he broke his arm? Should we go to her best friend’s birthday party even though that one kid totally looks like he has pink eye? Often when it comes to having our kids in nature, it can be easier to see the risks than the benefits. But there’s a risk to avoiding those risks. You’re risking raising a kid who’s afraid of the woods, can’t handle getting dirty, and won’t try anything new or challenging. Just as you sometimes grit your teeth and let him climb that ladder for the slide of doom because you know he needs the exercise, it’s worth it to let him crouch at the edge of a rainy-day mud puddle and poke leaves with a stick. He might fall in and get soaked, he might not. But just remind yourself, no one ever died from a muddy boot.