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Published May 03, 2009, 12:00 AM

ANN BAILEY: Being outdoors fosters creativity and teaches kids how to survive

I think parents, our children’s primary teachers, also need to do our part to introduce children to the outdoors. Children, as we all know, learn by example, so if we get off the couch and show interest in the outdoors, our children will likely do the same.

By: Ann Bailey, Grand Forks Herald

When I was a child growing up on the farm, helping my mom in the garden, building forts in the woods around our house and watching birds and wildlife were typical activities. Many of my friends spent their days similarly and it was fun to go to their houses and find out what their moms were growing and check out the new terrain to play in.

Though many of my friends’ farms were within 10 miles of ours and a few were as close as a couple of miles, each farmstead had its own topography and type of farm groves. It was especially exciting for me to go to a friend’s house whose farm had a slightly rolling farm yard. I remember standing in the bottom of a dip and singing “Down in the Valley.” For a girl who lived on a tabletop-flat farmstead, my friend’s “valley” was an exciting place to play.

Meanwhile, I also enjoyed checking out the gardens of my friends’ moms to see if they were growing any kinds of vegetables or flowers that my mom didn’t. I always admired the perennial flower gardens of the mom of one of my friends who lived down the road from us. Edith also was an experienced birder and easily identified the feathered friends that came into her yard and passed along the information to her daughter and me.

Because of my experiences as a child, I have become an avid gardener and enjoy spending time outdoors camping, wildlife watching or simply hiking through our woods. Our children are following in our footsteps and have built many forts throughout our woods, help plant the garden and like watching the deer, rabbits and birds that come into our yard.

Unnatural

Given my own experiences as a child with gardening and the outdoors, and now observing my children enjoying the same things, it surprises me that we are in the minority these days. In recent months I have visited with both a naturalist and garden expert who have told me that they and their colleagues are concerned about the lack of children’s contact with nature and their disinterest in gardening.

The naturalists and horticulturalists not only are concerned because being outdoors and gardening are healthy ways for children to get exercise. They’re also worried because it may affect the future of their disciplines, and ultimately, the Earth. Without an appreciation for, and understanding of nature, gardening and wildlife, children will have no reason to be stewards of the Earth in the future. The people who have careers relating to outdoors-related activities and gardening are striving for ways to excite children about the outdoors so they will develop a relationship with it, and a reason to care, for it.

To combat the trend, parks are hosting outdoor programs that teach children about some aspect of nature. Garden experts, meanwhile, are getting children involved by encouraging them to plant flowers such as sunflowers, which not only are a bright, beautiful addition to gardens, but also will become bird food when they’re mature.

Leading by example

I think parents, our children’s primary teachers, also need to do our part. Children, as we all know, learn by example, so if we get off the couch and show interest in the outdoors, our children will likely do the same.

In my family, our children Brendan, Thomas and Ellen, have worked alongside my husband, Brian, and me in the yard and have gone for walks with us in the woods or down the road since they were several months old. When they were too young to walk, they laid in a blanket on the grass in the yard while we worked or were pulled in the wagon when we went on a walk. While walking down the road might not seem like a way to commune with nature, it’s amazing how much it offers in the way of teaching kids, if you keep your eyes open. Badger holes, animal tracks and hawks swooping down on field mice are just a few things that we have sighted during an evening walk in the country.

Even the simple combination of a bird feeder and good reference guide can be great teaching tools. Our trio can identify many of the birds who frequent the feeder outside of our kitchen window by sight, and if they can’t, love the challenge of looking in the bird book to figure out what kind of bird the new feathered friend is.

Boys vs. wild

If the outdoors is the primary focus of interest and television, a secondary, pastime, it even can be an aid when it comes to getting kids outdoors.

For example, the other day Brendan, Thomas and their friend Aaron were doing their own adaption of a popular outdoor adventure program. The boys’ adaption, which could be titled “Boys vs. wild,” involved a five-hour adventure in Aaron’s woods in which they made a homemade bow out of sticks and shoestring, built forts and ate grubs from a tree.

While I wasn’t surprised by the first two because my sons are pretty creative when it comes to play, the grub-eating amazed me. My sons are fairly picky eaters and turn up their noses at the most innocuous food combinations, so the idea of them downing worms is astonishing. I guess I’ll have to throw in a few grubs the next time I make hamburger and macaroni hot dish.

I figured my parental duty was to give the boys a little lecture on only eating things that they had positively identified, so I told them that the guys on television were experts and knew whether the stuff they were consuming was poisonous or not. Still, I told them, I was impressed by their adventurous spirit.

Not only is being outdoors, healthy and fosters creativity, it also teaches kids about how to survive. I doubt that they’ll ever be in a situation where they need to make a homemade bow and arrow to hunt for food or eat grubs to stave off starvation, but the creativity, skills and spirit they developed doing those things will stand them in good stead for the many challenges they will face in life.

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