Saturday, August 21, 2010

Exploring outdoors with a young child: the walk without "no-no's"

(Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it is good for young children.)

This past week I spent considerable time with my 2-year old grandson walking around in the forest on our property.  I keep a system of paths mowed through the woods, so it is easy to stroll around the place, even for a toddler.  After a couple of walks, I developed the following rules for myself:

1.  spend as much time as he wants walking around, which usually lasts about an hour
2.  let him choose the direction we walk
3.  let him throw all the sticks and rocks he finds on the path that he wants; 150 seemed to be about the desired number
4.  make the walk as much fun as you can, and nothing but fun
5.  never, and I mean, never say "no" to the kid while on this walk

I call this walkabout "the walk without no-no's".  This must be liberating, maybe even empowering, for the youngster.  If you go when the weather is decent and biting insects are not bad, there is little that can hurt him.  So let him do whatever he wants the entire time.  This is such a different experience than being in the house, where there are sharp, pointed objects ("no-no"), household chemicals and cleaning supplies ("no-no"), basement stairs ("no-no"), and valuable, fragile personal possessions ("no-no-no!").  There is none of that in the woods.

My grandson and I made a game out of it.  He saw me picking up rocks from the path and tossing them into the woods.  I do this so the mower does not hit them, but he loves to throw, so it looked like fun.  He chose sticks instead of rocks, but close enough.  I called these objects we were throwing "funky dogs".  I don't know why; the term just came to me.  "Brayden, here is another funky dog.  Grandpa just threw a funky dog into the woods."  Pretty soon, he was tossing and saying "funky dawg", or something close enough for government work.  I let him lead and I followed him.  Every time we came to a fork in the path, he stuck his little index finger in the air and said questioningly, "this way?".  I immediately said OK.  And he always looked at me with an expression of amazement, like "Can we really go the way that I said?  I'm too young to know the right way, or am I?"  The thing is, there is no right way or wrong way.  We spent much of our time going around in a big circle.  But who cares.  The circuit was new to my grandson, even though it was old and familiar to me.  But that was fine, because I was there for HIM, not for ME.  I wanted him to have so much fun that he would go again the next day if I asked him.

And we learned some natural history during our walk.  Two days ago we found a single, perfectly ripe black raspberry perched on the end of a spiny branch.  Brayden recognized it immediately as a raspberry, because his mother buys those exact fruits for him in the grocery store.  I told him he could eat it and, after popping it in his mouth, uttered the technical word, "umm".  But then I got a bit worried.  Maybe he will think that all fruit he sees growing on plants outside is edible.  Near the raspberry bush was a patch of gray dogwood, loaded with its white berries.  I pointed these out and used the word "yucky".  Yesterday, we took the same walk, saw some dogwood fruits, and HE told me these were yucky.  He remembered.  On this same walk, I heard and then saw a Hairy Woodpecker pecking on a dead white pine directly above us.  I pointed it out to Brayden, who stopped tossing sticks long enough to look.  I told him what it was and that it was pecking for insects on the tree.  He used the word "banging", but close enough.  He knows that word inside the house, as in "Brayden, don't bang on the table.  Brayden, don't bang on the wall." I never lectured the kid.  I just put some words, phrases, and ideas out there that I thought would have impact on him.  ("Are you pickin up what I'm layin down?").

Whenever we returned to the house and to his mother or grandmother, I encouraged him to retell the story of our walk.  On this occasion, he said something about a woodpecker banging.  I think a debriefing, or summary, at the end of the walk is good practice.  It must result in some sort of consolidation of ideas or facts in that little brain.  These young children are like a factoid sponge.  They can remember and retain a tremendous amount of information.  Remember, these are the young things who learn a foreign language in about three years.  If you are over 30, start today trying to learn a foreign language and then report back to me in three years.  You will be very disappointed with yourself.  But young humans can do it, and in some places in the world they learn 2-3 such languages.  So don't worry; their little head is not going to explode due to an overload of information.  Just ain't gonna happen.

Sometimes he tried to point out some natural history to me.  Yesterday, he raised his little index finger next to his nose, and said "Papa, listen, a bird". I admit he should have placed his little finger next to his ear, not his nose, but again this was close enough. Maybe anatomy is not his strong suit.  I listened and was able to tell him that it was not a bird, but a squirrel.  Sometimes a barking gray squirrel can sound like a bird.  And so it went, one light bulb after another going on in that young head, all positive and interesting, no restrictions, no rules, no household chemicals to worry about.
Now, obviously, if there are certain dangers like a grizzly bear or a cliff, you may have to invoke executive power to avoid a problem.  For example, yesterday my grandson wanted to sit on a stump that was covered with poison ivy.  Instead of saying "no, you can't sit there", I used it as an educational moment.  I explained that if you touched this plant, it will make you really itchy.  He bought my explanation, and chose another stump.  I don't like the notion that we teach that there are good plants and animals and bad plants and animals.  Some organisms have defense mechanisms that humans don't like.  No need to sugar-coat what goes on out there in the wild, but we don't need to start little ones off with a "them and us" attitude about the natural world.  You may not like the ticks that cause Lyme disease, but try to explain the fascinating biology that creature represents (if you know it) rather than simply denigrate the species in a word or two.

I was always amazed at how few questions university undergrads asked in a class that I taught.  Two-year old children may not ask that many either, but by the age of four they are non-stop questioners of everything they see or hear.  Take them on a walk in the woods, and you could be hoarse by the time you return after their Q&A session.  Never discourage this!  I have long been afraid that our school systems do discourage the asking of questions in students, so that by the time they enter college, they sit there dutifully, take notes, and keep their mouths shut.  Give me a 5-year old's curiosity over this sedateness any day.  So wake up parents and grandparents, get outside with those young ones and their questions, and their innate, unbridled wonder of the natural world, and leave those "no's" (AND CELL PHONES!!!) at home.

"In the end we will conserve only what we love. We love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught."  Baba Dioum.


  1. This is marvelous, Tom! Just so you know, I am still asking way too many questions at age 49 and have raised two kids to ask questions. Good thing I became a Unitarian, where the culture is to question everything! I am thrilled to read your blog, and grateful that I once had you as a prof. ~ Lynn Bachman Sherman

  2. Great to hear Lynn. Keep on askin!

  3. When I used to teach pre-school nature day camp, at the end of every day's explorations we'd come back to the nature center and make a "Journal Poster" for the day. We'd ask the kids what we should write, and they would tell us all the fun things that they saw, did, or even ate during the day. Afterwards, they'd illustrate the poster with whatever they decided their favorite part of the day was. By the end of the week, we had these amazing posters to show off to their parents, and the kids would give "tours' of their week with the help of the posters. They loved it!

  4. You can not miss by taking a walk with a young child in the woods or fields. They always love it.

  5. Hello Professor Gavin
    What a wonderful essay especially as I have twin toddlers and can very much relate to your experience. Hey, girls - check out the cute worm! And look, DIRT! Can't wait to read more from you.Jill Clougherty

  6. Really a wonderful post.
    Thank You Dr Tom!
    My boys are real outdoor adventurers.
    Now they are aged 4 and 6, they draw 'maps' after their venture. The maps usually include such things as where they spotted the lizard, that fallen tree that made a bridge and the toadstool circle where the faeries dance...
    A great way to reflect and have some quiet down time, after all that action!

    1. Thank you Hinterland Mama. Your boys are at that perfect age where the natural world is truly magical. Our job is to keep that feeling going for a lifetime.