Disclaimer: This blog is from a mom who happens to know her individual kids very well. It does not necessarily reflect exactly how we teach at Trackers Camps.


By Molly Deis, Trackers Founder & Mom

Remember when Calvin, from the Calvin & Hobbes comic, bellowed at his mother to watch TV, ran amok around the house, or, as Spaceman Spiff, blew something up? After which, Calvin’s mom promptly tossed him outside.

When my own kids start to lose it, I do the same thing. Minus the actual tossing.

Love or hate it, most of us have used the classic “time out” when our kids get challenging. However, being sent to your room can be a strange mix of punishment and reward: there are toys, but also four walls (like a classroom… or a prison).

On the other hand, Time-Outside is different. The blue sky doesn’t respond to tantrums. The trees are unmoved by screams. The bugs could care less about your bad mood. There is no audience. All that remains is an outlet for self-creativity in the form of sticks, grass and mud.

There are many pathways to challenging behavior. Maybe the child is bored. Maybe they’re too reliant on us parents for their perceived needs. Maybe they’re bouncing off the walls as a plea for freedom. Or maybe they just choose to be selfish that day. These are all human problems that Nature could care less about.

When you go back far enough, we all had hunter-gatherer ancestors who raised their kids in a world not defined by four walls. Instead, a child’s playroom stretched to the horizon, filled with rivers, meadows, and forest. Children are supposed to start out as selfish with other humans in the family. A child who vocalizes her needs is employing a survival strategy that ensures the tribe feeds and cares for her. Some researchers even suggest crying could be a natural mechanism that helps stave off the birth of additional siblings—additional competition for resources (a phenomenon I’m sure many parents will vouch for).

Parental proximity amplifies this selfish instinct. Research shows that children cry more when they know a parent is around. As vexing as this can be, it demonstrates a healthy and instinctive dependence on essential caregivers. But nature also provides a balance for this. Survival skills for the wilderness helps pull children into autonomy and competent adulthood.

In the hunter-gatherer world, no matter how hard you cry the fish won’t jump onto your hook, the deer won’t walk into your arrow, and the cattail root won’t leap out of the mud and into your basket.

Nature does not reward behavior with the same attention as a parent. While we’re genetically coded to tolerate (to some degree) the pleadings of our own offspring, the rest of nature have no such ties. Birds don’t ask, “Are you okay?” when you’re throwing a fit. Nor do they say, “You’re bad.” They might see you as a threat, watching you and alarming from the trees until you calm down.

Any child attentive to wildlife soon recognizes the importance of attuned senses, stillness, and blending in (camouflage). Thus, by sparking even the most basic interest in Nature, parents can help these “animals teachers” transform their child from human dependent to wilder diplomat.

So, even though nature doesn’t give a fig, it’s incredibly engaging. From the worst tantrum, it rarely takes more than 20 minutes for my kids to calm down once they get outside. Usually far shorter, especially if I’m not right there to be their foil.

The improvement is swift and impressive as four-year-old Annie quickly forgets she needed to watch Wild Kratts. Instead, she embarks on a creature-power-adventure with the actual squirrels in her own yard. The bonus? I have some much-needed peace and quiet to get some work done, like writing this blog! (Though I do peek my head out every so often to confirm she and her brother are still alive.)

In reading this, hopefully you don’t think I’m a callous mother, abandoning her children’s emotional plights to a world of spiders, moles and squirrels. My goal is freedom for my children. Freedom from the stuff in their room. Freedom from me telling them what is right or wrong. Mostly importantly, freedom to discover their own resilience.

Time-Outside works so well, sometimes I give myself one. When I realize I’m not handling parenting as well as I should, I head outdoors to keep the goats company and watch the barn swallows feed their own begging chicks. However, time out in nature shouldn’t be limited to parenting challenges. There are countless reasons to head into the unspoiled, rural or urban wilderness. Go watch the stars. Garden in the dirt. Play in the sprinkler!

When the weather is warm, children should stay outside as much as possible during daylight hours—maybe beyond. Set up a blanket for picnic lunches. Hang a hammock. Suggest they build a stick fort if they crave the “indoors”. The more you keep them outside, the less you’ll see that selfish front kids put up for us as parents. The more you’re outside with them, the happier everyone will be.

So if you do come to my house this summer, please take the driveway slowly. Beware the feral children roaming amok with a certain stuffed tiger named after a comic sitting in their currently empty room.

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