Get The Kids Started Loving Nature Early

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I know that it has been a little while since I’ve written, but I have good reason. Part is due to fulfilling my duties as Best Man for my brother’s upcoming wedding in a couple of weeks, including planning and executing the bachelor party. I have to say that it turned out great, even though I got sick just 2 days before the party. Hence the other part of the reason, being sick. I ended up getting pink eye in not only one, but both of my eyes, along with a deep respiratory infection. The sickness caused a fever along with chills and night sweats, and took so much of my energy, causing such a headache for days on end that I was having trouble even thinking about what to write, let alone being able to stare at a computer screen.

All in all, I’m back to normal, the bachelor party is over, and the only thing I have left to really put some time into is finishing writing my speech for the wedding. However, being out of it for as long as I was, I needed a bit of a release and needed to get back out on the trails with the weather being as nice as it has been. I was lucky enough to have this past Tuesday off of work. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and we saw 80 plus degree temps. My wife had a cleaning job to do, and I was blessed with no plans for myself and my youngest daughter, Allie. She’s one and half years old and becoming a pro at walking. So, I figured that she may enjoy going on her first actual hike (not in a stroller).

Start ‘em out young, that’s what I say…at least when it comes to hiking and beginning to enjoy nature. I mean, I am The Outdoor Soul, and a damn good Father if I say so myself. I was prepared since I’ve already gone through this with my older daughter. Say what you will, but I purchased a little backpack for Allie to wear that has a leash attached to it. These things are absolutely wonderful for little ones at this age for a couple of reasons. First, they can’t run away and out of reach, into danger like cliffs or patches of poison ivy, or into streets, or too close to wild animals, or into rivers. I could go on with the many other dangers that such little ones don’t know are dangerous yet. Second, when you are in a place with lots of other people, they could easily get lost in the crowd or taken in the blink of an eye. I want my little ones to experience life and be able to walk around themselves at such a young age, but I will have them on a leash, at least for a little while, until they are old enough to listen and understand me, and the dangers around them.

So, back to the preparations for Allie’s first hike; I had her backpack and leash. I had my own daypack with a full water bladder for hydration and a couple of backup water bottles, first aid kit, pocket knife, compass, a small pad of paper and pen, and a few other small items that I always carry with me for day hikes. I remembered what great trails they had at the Stage Nature Center, from when I had taken Allie there in the early fall, pushing her in her stroller. However, there would be no stroller this time. For those of you Michigan natives or those planning to visit, the Lloyd A. Stage Nature Center is located in Troy, off of Coolidge Highway, just south of South Blvd.

I called my neighbor, Bill, and asked if he had any plans in the morning, as I knew that he had his 2-year-old daughter, Evelyn, with him. Evie and Allie get along so well together, and I thought it would be a stupendous idea if they were able to join us. Bill had no plans, so I told him that I would like to try and leave the house around 9:30 am the next morning, so we aren’t out during the hottest part of the day, and we could get back home in time to allow the girls to nap, as I am sure this will tire their tiny little bodies out.

In the morning, I called Bill. He was getting breakfast and preparing his own bag as well. Allie and I got our stuff together, and we headed out for our hike. When we pulled into the parking lot of the Nature Center, we could barely find a parking spot. I was both surprised, yet worried that the trails would be full of people. However, as we walked to the Nature Center, as you must go through the building to access the trails, I noticed that the majority of people from the overwhelming amount of vehicles in the parking lot were actually inside the building with their children. They were holding an outdoor education class for the kids. I thought it was a great idea, but glad that they weren’t all out on the trails, and we could truly enjoy our time and the solitude.

As we walked through the building and out the back doors toward the trailhead, I was curious as to how Allie, only being one and a half years old, would do on the trails. We had about a two-mile loop ahead of us. Would she tire easily and I would have to carry her for the majority of the hike? Would she start crying and not enjoy herself, causing a not-so-tranquil hike for the rest of us? Would she not understand that there is a path to follow, and continuously veer off-trail? I had no idea what she would do, how she would react, and if she would enjoy this, but I was determined to find out, and put my best foot forward to show her why I love nature as much as I do, and hopefully instill a love for nature in her so early in her life.

At the trailhead, I set her down on the ground and decided to keep the leash tucked into the backpack itself and zipped up. I wanted to begin by seeing what she would do. As I set her down on the ground just outside the back of the Nature Center building, we were at a small bridge over the Rouge River. It was just a tiny stream and not a wide, raging river. The sound of the water babbling over the rocks was peaceful, and Allie heard it immediately. I set her down and she looked up at me, almost awaiting my approval for her to wander and explore. I smiled and nodded in approval. A giant smile came upon her beautiful face, and she immediately scurried to the spindles on the bridge to see what was causing the babbling sound. I could see the amazement in her eyes, and my eyes began to tear up.

She wanted to go around the end of the bridge and go down to the river, but I told her no, and she listened to me. I had coach her a little bit on staying on and following the path, which was clearly lined by cut and fallen trees. However, after just a minute or two of coaching, she became a pro. She loved the hike and stayed on the paths. Since the trails are back in the wetlands/marsh areas, there were portions of the trail with wooden footbridges over the really wet areas. When we arrived at the first footbridge, Allie stopped dead in her tracks and looked down at the wood planks. She then looked up at me, almost asking if this was the correct way to go.

About a quarter of the way through our hike, we came upon a large hill. It was absolutely adorable watching her walk up it, and seeing how her pace slowed dramatically, but she was determined to make it to the top on her own. When we arrived at the top, we were provided an amazing view overlooking a large meadow and a couple of wooden benches to rest. We pulled out our snacks, and I offered Allie a drink of water from my water bladder tube out of my backpack. The end of the tube has a valve that you must squeeze with your teeth to allow the water to flow. I figured I had to squeeze it by hand to allow her to drink. However, I was thrown back when she grabbed the tube out of my hands and began drinking it all on her own. She was a natural.

As we continued on our hike, there were moments that she would stop dead in her tracks and point and babble as she noticed birds, owls, squirrels, chipmunks, and deer. You could see the wonderment in her eyes with each new discovery of hers. She would pause when new sounds arose, and she would wonder in amazement with new and beautiful sights. She continued to astonish me with how good she was at following and staying on trail throughout the rest of the hike.

About halfway through, we found another set of benches to take a break, have some more snacks, and hydrate with more water. We pulled out the small bags of chips we had brought with us. I guess the sweet sound of the crinkling of the chip bags was heard by the local deer. As we were sitting there, about 4 or 5 deer crept up closer and closer to us, most likely hoping to snag the crumbs and chips that we drop on the ground. The deer were absolutely gorgeous, and when Allie noticed the one sneaking up behind us on the benches, she slowly pulled herself to stand up backward on the bench. I could see the eye to eye connection she had made with the doe that was only about 7 or 8 feet away from us. Allie just stared at the beautiful doe for a good minute or two, not making a sound or any sudden movements, but just relishing in the connection she had made.

By the time we made it along the entire trail loop and back to the Nature Center, I could tell that the kids were exhausted. You could see it in their eyes. We put them in their car seats and got back on the road to head home. I don’t even think we made it a half of a mile up the road and the girls were out cold, snoozing away with the sun shining and the breeze from the open windows and sunroof. What a day, what a hike, what an adventure.

I have stated before how important I believe it is to get kids out in nature more. Getting them started at an early age is paramount in making sure that they gain the experiences at such a young age so they are used to it as they get a little bit older, and it doesn’t become such a huge chore to try and get them out when they get to school age. I am also planning on taking Allie on her first tent camping trip this summer. I still have a few months to get her ready for it by setting up the tents in the backyard for some practice rounds.

As discussed in one of my prior posts titled Nature Deficit Disorder – Our Children Need More Nature,  I believe that Nature Deficit Disorder is a large issue these days for most kids. I will not allow my children to get to that point, as long as I have anything to say or do about it. As stated on the Child Mind Institute site in an article titled Why Kids Need to Spend Time In Nature,

“The average American child is said to spend 4 to 7 minutes a day in unstructured play outdoors, and over 7 hours a day in front of a screen.”

This astounds me, yet I can see why so many children are headed in the wrong direction regarding healthy weight, attention difficulties, stress, and many other things.

Getting the little ones outdoors may require a bit more planning on your part as a parent, but it will be worth it. The connection a parent experiences with their young ones in opportunities like this are different than every other day. They are more pure and lasting since there isn’t much else around to distract, it’s tranquil and soothing.

I am so glad I have these opportunities to get outdoors with my children as much as I do, even though I wish it could be more. Allie had such an amazing time. I could not believe that she walked almost the entire 2 miles of the hike on her own, but I was unbelievably proud. Here’s to more adventures like this with my kids. Happy hiking fellow Outdoor Souls.

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