Thursday, September 24, 2009


"Come on, come on, let's go! Get in the car or we're going to be late!" I barked at the kids this morning. L was due at preschool in a mere 10 minutes and they were messing around in the backyard, playing in the garden.

"Come on, get in the car" I said, aggravated and impatient. Finally the two of them walked up to me in the driveway, each with a flower they had chosen "just for you, mama."

This, of course, made me stop in my tracks.

I took a deep breath. I received the flowers they had chosen for me. I gave them each a big hug, and felt myself unwind.

As we drove to school, (and I tried not to speed!) I wondered, what's this rushing around for? Will it really matter if she's 5 minutes late to preschool? It's not a Presidential address, for goodness sakes. I tried to remember--when was the last day I allowed them to take their time, to lead me instead of the other way around? I feel like these days, I am constantly rushing my kids.

After dropping L off at school (late), I decided to forego the errands I had on our agenda, and I headed straght to a nature center in town. I told J "The morning is yours. You get to decide where we go, how long we stay, and what we do."

I set some rules for myself (see below), and here's what I learned about how J plays outside when there's no one telling him what/where/how to do things:

  • He spent most of his time inside a 10-foot radius.
  • He climbed up and down, up and down their boardwalky-bridge thing 18 times. In a row.
  • He asked me to sit next to him on the edge of this boardwalky-bridgy thing. He said, "I don't want to fall down there (pointing to a small streambed underneath) -You got me safe?"
  • He used his butt to create a slide down a slope, and I'll never get those pants clean again.
  • He spent a fair amount of time picking up sticks, large and small, and throwing them, javelin-style, through the air. Often at me.
  • Then he spent an equal amount of time jabbing them into the dirt, making caveman sounds.
  • He rolled logs with his butt.
  • He collected similar-sized rocks and lined them up in a neat row on a tree stump.
  • He found one plant that he described to me as "pokey" and;
  • He finally asked to leave after about 50 minutes.

Here's what I learned about myself during this experiment:

  • After watching him go up and down the boardwalky bridge thing 4 times, I really wanted to move on and it was hard not to try to redirect him to a different activity. I'm not sure why.
  • My first instinct was to say "no throwing sticks" but there was no one there besides us, and I knew he couldn't throw one hard enough to actually hurt me.
  • It was really difficult for me not to try to get him out of this little "circle of space" he was playing in. I felt like I needed to show him everything else there was to look at, do, etc.
  • It was hard not to ask questions about what he was doing, and why, and what he thought of things.

Try this today. Or tomorrow. But soon. It's good for everyone.

Take your child(ren) to someplace other than your usual nature destinations. Then let them be totally free to explore and play without your intervention. (I suggest a "new" place so that everyone is free from past rules, games, and expectations that have been set in familiar places)

Here are the rules:

  • Obviously, first, make sure everyone's going to be safe. Don't do this on a bluff overlooking the river.
  • Kids can do whatever they want, however they want, for as long as they want (if you need to set some parameters around this for safety's sake, fine, but allow as much freedom as possible)
  • Adults may not say 'no' unless someone is in imminent danger.
  • Adults may not lead the child into any activity. The job of the adult is to observe the child. The child decides what to do, how to do it, for how long.
  • If a child asks you to participate in some way, follow their instructions.
  • Don't ask questions. Just watch. And play, if invited.
  • When the child is ready to leave, leave. If at all possible, let the child decide when to go.

What do you think will happen? Will your kids play differently than you expect them to? How long will they be interested in things? What will the experience be like for you? Will it be difficult not to intervene in their play? Let me know what happens, and if anything surprises you.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Never say never

Once, I was leading a group of third-grade kids on a nature hike through the woods, and we accidentally disturbed a nest of yellowjacket wasps. Within seconds there were hundreds of wasps flying everywhere, stinging everyone. I vividly remember pulling them, one by throbbing one, off kids' bodies, their arms, even one unlucky boy's lip. We all ran like hell back to the nature center and spent the rest of the day doing first aid. I didn't get a single sting that day.

I worked at another nature center for a while that had an active honeybee colony. I had "check up duty" and had to look in on them often. Never got stung.

I have had lunch outdoors countless times with hundreds of elementary school students (oh, the sugary sweets! The juice boxes! The flailing arms, swatting at the wasps!) and never once been stung.

This afternoon, D and the kids and I were outside, and I went up to the side of the house to unravel the hose.

"Be careful." D said, pointing out a couple of yellowjackets lazing around in the air. "You don't want to rile them up."

I went about my business unwinding the hose, trying to get the kinks out. Then I noticed several wasps flying around near my ankles, and I decided it was time to bring the kids to the back yard, lest someone get stung. A few were flying up near my face. I felt one fly into the loose strands of hair that had fallen out of my ponytail.

Not being one to panic, I just ignored it. I figured it would leave as soon as it could, and that the less I interfered, the better. (Note-this is true! Swatting, running, yelling, flailing, all these behaviors are likely to provoke an attack. If you encounter a yellowjacket, best to be calm, and ignore it or just leave the area.)

"Come on, guys, the wasps are getting kind of nervous with us here. Let's go play in the back yard." D hurried them to the back yard and I dropped the hose and followed.

So, the wasp must have been a little put off by my nonchalance. I was standing by the fence chatting with D when, out of habit, I reached to tuck my hair behind my ear.

"Yeoowch!" I screeched, swatting at the side of my head, as a sharp dart of pain shot into my ear. I quickly turned and started toward the house, trying in vain to be nonchalant. Wow did it hurt!

Unlike honeybees, which die after stinging, yellowjackets can sting their percieved attacker over and over. What's more, in response to a perceived threat, they emit a chemical which other yellowjackets sense, and the others will almost always come to defend their nest. And that means stinging-lots of stinging. So, I had riled up their nest and they were pissed. At me.

"Get the kids inside! Get the kids inside!" I yelled. (So much for nonchalance. So much for not instilling fear of bugs into the hearts of my children.)

Poor sweeties. They both started screaming and crying. They were really scared! D got them inside and I rushed to the freezer for a handful of ice. I spent the afternoon with ice on the side of my head. I tried to be calm and keep hanging out with them while they played with D. I didn't want to scare them even further by just disappearing after this happened. They needed to see that it was really no big deal.

The incident occured about 6 hours ago. I am pretty sure I was stung twice on the ear and once on the side of my head. My ear looked strangely like a plum earlier this afternoon, in both size and color.

But, you know. No big deal. I'd rather it happened to me than one of them. And I'd rather they see that it's no biggie. People get stung sometimes, and it's no big deal. Yeah, my ear swelled up (another teachable moment!) and my ear was ringing for half the day, but whatever. The upside is, we got to talk a lot about how different animals defend their families and their homes. We got to talk about why I got stung and they also got to see that this mysterious thing they've feared --a wasp sting--is really not that big a deal.

I've never had poison ivy either. Tomorrow I think I'll go look for a patch of that and roll around.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What we can do

This morning on the way to L's school, J noticed a huge flock of pigeons whooshing over the top of a building.

"Look at all those birds!" he exclaimed.

The kids wondered why they were in such a large group. I told them that it was a chilly morning, and birds often roost on rooftops or other sunny places in the mornings to stay warm.

"How come we can't fly?" L asked.

"Well, flying is something really special isn't it? It's something that only animals can do -only birds, and insects, and bats. There are lots of special things that people can do that animals can't do. Can you think of a few?" I asked.


"Well," I began, hoping to get them started. "People can write, draw pictures, color, talk..."

"Give. People can give." L said.


Here's something to try:

Today, why not look at an animal and talk with your children about what that animal can do that makes it special. Maybe it's something people can't do. Maybe it's something that people do, but differently. For example, how do squirrels climb trees? How do they eat? How do animals talk to each other?

Monday, September 14, 2009

The End

In my work as a naturalist, I have always tried to be honest about "the hard stuff:" life, death, the fact that not all animals beat the odds, that sort of thing. I'm not overly dramatic or sorrowful, this stuff just happens. It is what it is. When I'm teaching a class of adults, it's much easier to be matter-of-fact about it. With kids, not so much. During early childhood, some kids can be almost neutral towards the idea of death, others are torn apart by it, others are fascinated. It's hard to predict what their reaction will be. Best to be prepared for anything.

Late that evening, I checked on "our" butterfly again (where our story begins), when I went to take the garbage out. She was still there, hanging from a leaf. She didn't look too bad, but still. Something wasn't quite right with the one wing. It was a bit warped, and didn't align properly with her hindwing. Something had definitely happened to her after she emerged. Either she fell, or she was released too soon, her wings still soft. We'd never know. So, she hadn't flown away, and she most likely wouldn't, she admitted. Butterflies don't fly at night or when it's overcast: the sun's warmth powers their bodies.

Trying to predict the reaction our kids would have consumed the better part of an evening for myself and D.

Did I worry that knowing the butterfly had died would somehow cast a pall over their whole experience? Of course. I really didn't want to burst the bubble of enthusiasm. And of course I wanted my kids to be proud, to feel they had had a hand in helping a butterfly find her way in the world. Who wouldn't? And obviously, I would have preferred to avoid the sadness and loss of knowing she died.

In the end, D relented and accepted that I was going to tell them what had really happened. He wasn't thrilled about this; he figured, what's the harm in letting them believe the butterfly flew away happily? And, in reality, there's no harm in it at all. None. I just want them to have authentic experiences. And not all of those experiences are going to have happy endings. And butterflies die if their wings get crushed, because they can't fly. This stuff just happens.

Within moments of coming downstairs the next morning, the kids were clamoring to go check on the butterfly. I led them outside, all of us still in our jammies, and braced myself for the scene: We'd find her crumpled body there in the garden, under the lantana where we'd released her, and maybe we'd have a funeral of sorts for her. We'd talk about how butterfly wings work, and how delicate and fragile they are, and how there are so many butterflies in this world, flying right now.

But she wasn't there. The butterfly was gone. I looked around the plants, the mulch. There was no sign of a monarch anywhere. (Which means, dear reader, not that she flew away, but that she was probably eaten by a toad or a raccoon in the night. Sorry.)

"Hooray!" The kids yelled, jumping up and down. "She's gone! She's gone!"

Uh, well....can't argue with that one....

"Maybe she flew away!" They rejoiced.

You're going to call me a cheater here. Now technically, the kids were under no illusions at this point. They were happy that the butterfly was gone. They said "maybe." They realized it was possible she had flown away. There is an implication there that they also realize it's possible she didn't. That some other fate befell our lady. What they were happy about, then, was the fact that the butterfly was gone, and that maybe she flew away. I didn't press the issue. Lucky me--I could "neither confirm nor deny" as they say.

(If one of them had said, "What happened to the butterfly, mama?" Well, then, we'd have had to have a little talk. But no one said that.) I decided in that instant to let them live with the conclusion they drew based on what they saw. (A basic scientific practice, I might add) I don't believe I misled my children. My children were reacting to one interpretation of events. And that interpretation is possible. Not likely, but possible. I will never know either way.

"Maybe she did!" I crowed, relief washing over me like a hot shower. We played in the yard for a good long time before I managed to get them inside for breakfast.

"You know what would have been really great, Mama?" L said, her mouth full of cinnamon toast. "If that butterfly couldn't fly. Then she could have been an indoor butterfly and stayed with us. "
I just had to gulp down more coffee, and bite my tongue.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

To be continued...

We reared a monarch caterpillar this summer and watched as it spun a chrysalis, then emerged a couple of weeks later as a butterfly. We were all giddy with excitement when it came time to release her. She had spent some time hanging upside down on the lid of her "home," after emerging from her chrysalis. This is a very important and vulnerable time for butterflies. When they emerge from a chrysalis, their wings are crumpled and damp, and for a few hours they hang and are very still. During this time, they pump their wings full of fluid, so they can unfurl and straignten and become strong. When the time is right, they begin to flap their wings a bit and walk around.

When "our" butterfly seemed ready to go, D opened the container and lay it on its side. The kids and I had been out running errands, and I had instructed him to call me when it was "time."He checked the container throughout the day on the day she emerged, and when she was flapping her wings a bit and standing on the floor of the container, he called me. We raced home.

We arrived home and the butterfly....was...just standing there, on the lantana.

The kids cheered to her "Fly butterfly! You can do it!" "We love you!"

They quickly turned to other things, like sliding rocks down the slide, and I tried to hide my concern. I squatted down and noticed that one of her wings was not quite flattened out. It looked a little wrinkled. I wasn't sure this butterfly could fly.

The kids came back to check on her. "What's taking her so long?" L demanded. "Will she fly?"

"Well, honey, I'm sure she'll fly eventually. She's just taking her time right now. Getting her strength up." Which might have been true. She may still have been pumping those wings full of fluid. Or, she may have been injured, perhaps she'd fallen in the container and D hadn't noticed.

After a long half hour, it was time to bring the kids in to get ready for bed. D and I exchanged worried looks every time the kids asked about the butterfly.

"Is she going to fly tonight? Will she be there in the morning?"

All I could say was, "I don't know."

The kids finally got to sleep and though it was dusk, I went out to check on the butterfly. She was still standing on the plant, though she had moved a bit from her original location. Things were not looking good. Usually, butterflies fly within a few minutes of being released.

We'd spent weeks talking about this. The kids were so interested in the chrysalis, and we'd checked it every day, numerous times. We read books about butterflies. We scouted them out when we were on walks. They were counting on "their" butterfly flying away.

"That butterfly is going to fly away tonight, whether it's on her own or into the compost heap." D said ominously. I wanted to agree with him. I wanted my kids to wake up thinking the butterfly had happily flown away and joined the legions of other happy monarchs. If that meant hiding the dead body to maintain the illusion, hey, so be it.

But. I really don't believe in lying to my kids. I have this "truth whenever it's developmentally appropriate" policy. In situations like this, it's mighty inconvenient.

Still. If they believe that she flew, wouldn't it encourage joy, wonder, appreciation? Wouldn't they feel great that they helped this butterfly grow, and then fly away? If they are told that she didn't make it, would it squelch the excitement about butterflies? Make them very sad? Or would it help develop empathy. The honest truth is, in nature, things die. Not every caterpillar becomes a butterfly. And sometimes, despite our best efforts, things don't always go as planned.

D reminded me that they are 2 and 4 years old, and would it really hurt to let them believe she flew away? I reminded him of this "Policy of truth" that we try to maintain, and that this situation was no exception. We fretted. Wrung our hands. What to say. Which angle to present to them. Reality or ideal.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Judgment call

Something really bad could have happened to my daughter today. I'm not at all sure what it was. Maybe you can tell me.

After a lovely afternoon of swimming with the kids this afternoon, I was driving "the long way" home around the lake. The sunroof and windows were wide open, and the kids took notice of all the sounds they were hearing-the waves, the breeze in the trees, the sounds of people laughing as they walked. Most intriguing of all was the "clink clink" of the ropes and lines on the sailboats moored by the east shore of the lake. Although they were both tired from swimming all afternoon, they wanted to sit by the shore and listen to the boats.

Happy to prolong our picture-perfect afternoon, I parked along the road, and we got out, still in our damp swimsuits. We walked across the road, crossed the grassy "boulevard" between the sidewalk and the road, and planted ourselves on a park bench about, oh, 100 feet from the car. We cuddled up on the bench, hunkered down together, watching the boats and the frothy water, a chilly breeze coming off the lake.

"I'm shivering," L said.

"Let's go to the car and get our clothes on, then we can come back here to this bench."

"Noooo!" she protested, "I want to wait here and watch the water."

I sat there a moment, thinking. The car was so close. I knew they were both tired and would most likely stay right there on the bench. But there was no barrier between the bench and the water, and J is after all, only 2. L, I knew, would stay put. And I could be to the car and back in less than a minute. It was literally just across the road. Then we could all be warm and cozy and stay a while.

"Please go get my clothes, mama!" She implored.

"Can you stay right here? Don't get off this bench for any reason. Stay right here. I'm taking J and we'll be back with sweatshirts to warm us all up."

I scooped up a shivering J and we shuffled towards the car. We'd gone maybe 25 feet when I got to the edge of the grassy boulevard, and I heard this from behind me:

"That's really not a good idea, ma'am."

I turned to see two women, one probably in her 60's, and one who looked to be about 10 years older than me, standing together on the path, shaking their heads, looking at me.

"Excuse me?" I said, surprised.

"That's really not a good idea." One of them, I don't know which, said again.

I was totally flustered. I had no idea what to say. "We'll be fine!" I spat, and practically ran to the bench, yanked L off without a word, and rushed both my kids to the car. I was shaking and kind of frantic, a mixture of anger, shame, and fear rushing through me.

I had the following thoughts, all at the same time:

Who do they think they are, questioning my judgment as a mother? Do they really think I'd put my daughter in harm's way?

What was I thinking? How could I be so stupid? What's wrong with me?

My God, what if something happened to her?

When we got home, I watched her little-kid body, her damp, stringy hair, her tanned legs as she hopped to the back door, singing a song about sunshine and boats. My eyes filled with tears. What was I thinking? What if something had happened?

But here's the thing: I try to let my kids have some of the basic freedoms that I enjoyed as a kid. I don't believe in living in fear. I want my kids to feel safe and secure, and not be worried that the boogyman is going to get them, or that nature, or their community is a place to be afraid. I had a highly anxious mother, and spent a lot of my own childhood worrying and being afraid of things I couldn't quite define.

To me, at the time, this decision to run to the car seemed totally reasonable. Middle of the afternoon, me less than 150 feet from her, for maybe a minute, and within eyeshot the whole time. That didn't seem so risky to me.

Now, I'm not so sure. Circling back around the lake on the way home, when I saw the two ladies walking on the path, I considered stopping the car and asking them what they had thought was going to happen. Why, exactly, it was such a bad idea. Were they thinking she'd jump in the lake and drown? Get abducted? Molested?

My mind is reeling. And I feel horribly, horribly guilty for even considering leaving her there for a minute. Ashamed. What if they were right? What if I had left her and one of those things had happened?

Was I (almost) negligent? Where do we, as mothers, draw the line between being OK with a small amount of risk and being stupid? And which of those things was I, today?

Monday, September 7, 2009

Going for it

This tree isn 't quite as big as it looks. But my daughter, she is larger than life.

All at once, she's developed this fascination with tree-climbing. A few weeks ago, we were playing in this wonderful little grove of trees near the house, and she just started going up.

Now, she's unstoppable. Even when she's riding in the car, she's scoping out the trees as we pass: "That looks like a good one to climb, we'll have to come back to that tree."
As you might have guessed, I'm a big fan of trees over plastic play equipent. Let's just compare plastic play equipment, such as you might find at your local neighborhood park, with trees and rocks.

Your typical "jungle gym" apparatus at a park offers basically one way to go up or down. You use the ladder, or the fake rock-climbing bumps. There is a "right way" (i.e. one way that gets you to the top) and all the other ways-which don't get you to the top of the structure, where the other "experiences" await. The rungs on the ladder, the bars, are all the exact same size and dimension. And there is only one place to go. One outcome: reach the top.

A tree on the other hand, offers a variety of ways to get from one place to another. Reaching the "top" is usually not the goal. (Although for some kids, it certainly might be.)There are exciting and interesting things to be found in all sorts of places within the branches of a tree. Tree branches differ wildly in size, shape, strength and texture. This offers great physical challenge and requires the development of balance well beyond what a series of uniform metal bars offers. It also requires coordination and concentration.


There is usually only "one thing to do" with plastic playground equipment. You climb to the top of something, you slide down. You swing. Plastic play equipment is great for letting off steam. Kids love to climb, slide, and swing. Mine are no exception. But it is rather one-sided, kind of a "flat" experience. Go to any playground, there's just not much variation in the way kids play. Get out in nature, on the other hand, and something else happens.

Kids use their imaginations more freely when playing in nature: "Hmm, here's a great big tree. What can I do here? I can climb it, bounce on the low limbs, swing from the branches, hide in the boughs." "Here are some huge rocks--I can jump from them, crawl, lie on my belly, lean against them." With no pieces of equipment directing how kids play, they can be free to make up their own rules and set their own goals for play.

All that aside, it's at times challenging as a mom to let my kids climb trees, jump off boulders, and the like. Occasionally, one of them will jump off something kinda high, "land wrong" and get a minor owie. And sometimes they go really high. Out of my reach. And there are often rocks and roots and other hard, sharp things on the ground beneath them. And what if she falls and hits a branch on her way down? Or, what if he falls off that boulder and cuts his head open?

When these thoughts creep in, and believe me, they do, I really try to see it as a chance for me to work on my own balance and strength. (because, frankly, I've got the "creativity" part down-I can think of a million what-ifs for any given situation)

The thing is, I've got to let them do this. I really believe this is important-it's good for them in a way that nothing else is. And, really, what are the chances of one of these random bad things actually happening? Extremely, extremely small. Is it any less likely that something bad will happen on a playground? Probably more likely, actually.

So, I take a deep breath. I lift him to a bough he can hang from. I give her a boost up to that next branch. And I stand there, under the tree, and we all grow.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

souvenirs from the North Shore

What an utterly beautiful week we had. (Since I haven't bothered to upload a single picture, you'll have to take my word for it!)

Our first official day of vacation started at that heavenly place, Lake Superior, where we spent a glorious day walking along the lake and picking up rocks, throwing rocks (and Crocs) into the lake and collecting sea glass. We spent a long time wandering, watching gulls slice through the air with their chiseled wings, and listening to the water on the rocks.

We lay on the shoreline, watching the water, feeling the cool air on our faces, and bonding with rock after rock. We were in heaven. Well, the kids and I were, anyway. D is not so much into rocks. But he was a trooper and sat there until we were ready to leave.

The kids have treasure boxes that are positively overflowing now, with bits of sea glass, and rocks "shaped like potatoes" (according to J) and tiny sticks of driftwood.

Although many folks frown upon it, I'm a big believer in collecting things we find outside. Of course, if we find an endangered plant or mushroom or live animal or something, I draw the line. But wildflowers? Gorgeous sticks? Pinecones? I say, if we can get 'em home, let's go for it. And you already know how I feel about rocks. (We filled a whole grocery bag at Lake Superior!)

Sure, sure, some people feel you should "take only pictures, leave only footprints" and all that. But I really believe that if my kids are connecting with something from nature on a personal level, and that thing is not critically endangered or in otherwise desperate straits, being able to take something home and give it a special place of honor really deepens their appreciation.

And frankly (though my other naturalist friends will kill me for saying so) it really doesn't do harm to nature to pick a flower. Or grab a leaf from a tree. Or remove a rock from the forest floor. (Nod to my naturalist friends: When I was leading 5-6 school groups of 30 kids each into the woods daily for months at a time, I was singing a different tune. But you see the difference, I'm sure)

We sift over our treasures at home, recalling our walks where we came across this pinecone or that feather. We examine our shells closely, with magnifiers. We compare feathers, noting how different ones feel on cheeks, arms, and the back of your hand. We wrap up our stones in silk scarves, presents for each other from our favorite places.

Sure, at times, we look at photos from our trips (when D or I ever get around to uploading them. heh.) But nothing connects us more quickly to nature than having something of nature in our hands. For many people, children especially, having something real and physical to hold is so important. It builds connection. It calls up memories. It returns us to the woods, the lake, the meadow. We can experience the textures, the sounds, the temperatures of rocks, feathers, pinecones. And this brings us back to a shared experience that we savor together.