Our kids need trees.
They need to smell damp pine needles, feel rough bark under wandering fingertips and be dizzy from gazing at the tops of 400 year old Sequoias. Imaginations expand, lungs expand. Suddenly life is stripped of pixelated images pre-populated on flat glossy screens, and adventures are experienced using all of our amazing senses. The forest is a playground. Trees are meant to be climbed, conquered, leapt from and occasionally fallen out of. We can’t practice the arts of balance and problem solving; build muscle along with confidence, or expel energy while simultaneously gaining appreciation for nature from just looking at faded images in a dogeared, 5th grade science textbook. These green spaces are classrooms for teaching independence, cognitive thinking, curiosity. How did this tree fall over? Was it a violent and fierce winter storm, or did Sasquatch do it? What was the purpose of this mossy covered structure? Was it an old CCC camp? Who built it? Why? The details of our environment suddenly become significant, spiderwebs are artwork and worthy of stopping to admire.
(Unless discovered unannounced by one’s face).
When we are in nature, regardless if it’s fishing on the bank of the Guadalupe River or submerged in the Olympic National rainforest, our bodies respond. Blood pressure is lowered, oxygen levels rise and all these amazing chemicals are released in our brains that give us a dose of the “feels”. We become a calmer, more centered version of ourselves. Richard Louv wrote an insightful book called Last Child in the Woods that describes a term he coined as “nature-deficient disorder”. Younger generations are suffering because they lack organic exposure to the outdoors. Plainly said: kids don’t grow up with access to trees. They don’t explore vacant wooded lots, undeveloped parcels of neighborhood land or spend summers on their grandparents farmland free to follow fence lines and creek beds. Recess is replaced by lecture. Urban development and techy gadgets have changed how idle time is spent, and it is impacting development so drastically it can be traced down to a cellular level. This is worth chewing on for a moment, as we live in a society that tells us our children are not capable of focusing, paying attention, listening and are plagued with various behavioral ailments. Let them loose in the woods for a while and see what happens. Go camping. Eat dirt. Walk in a river. Gaze at stars. Find bugs and breath some fresh air.
My son is ten, and while I’d love to tell you that every hike and outdoor adventure has been rich in bonding memories and inspiring conversation, I simply can’t. We have been rained out, forgotten water, forgotten socks, acquired blisters and mosquito bites, tripped, rolled ankles and lost our map a time or two. We have drifted off the trail, and admittedly; mom has dropped some colorful words while trudging through underbrush trying to find any sign of civilization. Sometimes whining and arguing are included on these treks, usually remedied by plenty of snacks, cheap powdery hot cocoa, and wine (always pack wine).
Here is the remarkable point to this: despite whatever negative energy might cross our path, despite uncooperative weather or setbacks, soggy firewood or doses of grumpiness; we always, always depart in a better mindset that when we entered. Every single time.This is exactly why I will continue to drag him out and into the woods, ditching Mine-crafty games for the tangible 3D version. My dad did the same for me, under great protest I would begrudgingly follow him on hikes or long walks, pouting because I was pried away from some beloved after school cartoon (sound familiar?). I would often return tired, thirsty, yet relaxed and content. In hindsight I see now it was the only way my dad knew how to connect with me, and I am forever grateful he instilled in my brain the benefits of engaging with the outdoors. The noise of daily life dissipates, no need to worry about the time, agendas, traffic, updating a tablet, or how to sit still for yet another multiple-choice standardized test. The only rhythm is that of the water flowing under a kayak paddle, the breeze, or the stride of steps on a trail.This is how we learn to just chill-out, to cope with external pressures and escape from the constant stimuli of technology. Yes, trees are our “reset” buttons, and exactly why our kids need them more than ever.
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