My oldest child tested what I thought I knew about early childhood development. From the time we brought him home, it seemed that he was fussier and needed more than I knew was possible. I had been a nanny of a newborn, spent time with lots of new mothers, and did my Master’s partially focused on children under the age of three. I was a teacher, special educator, and worked with parents regularly giving advice on child rearing.
I feel like none of that really prepared me for being the main human responsible for caring for such a needy being. He didn’t just cry, he screamed. He needed to be held all the time. Because I saw him as such a challenge to comfort, my husband was the only one I really felt comfortable leaving him with. I thought, if he was such a challenge for me, no one could meet his needs. I was completely in love with this little boy but also at my wits end.
One summer day, in a fit of sheer desperation, I headed out of my front door in my bare feet and started walking. He immediately calmed down. I thought, finally, he’s settled. I walked a few more minutes and then stepped inside. The fussiness returned immediately. Back outside I went. He settled again and that day began what would be hours of me walking outside holding him, wearing him, or pushing him in a stroller.
Fast forward to toddlerhood which brought mobility. When he started to walk he also transitioned to what looked less like fussiness and more like outbursts of frustration with materials and with us. He was a very busy child and the confines of our tiny Arlington townhouse did not allow for him to move the way he needed. We took what we had learned (he loves being outdoors) and developed a plan.
Our routine become something like this. Wake up, eat breakfast, go across the street to the park or library. Engage in a few hours of running, playing, exploring and then head back home for snack. After snack we would pack up the car and go to a nature center for hiking and playing in the stream. Then we headed home for lunch/nap and then right back outside to the park. We spent so many weekends and holidays on this same rotation. Our personal needs now took a backseat to the immediate needs of our son.
The outdoors brought our son peace even from an early age. Even now I remember leaving the house harried from the morning to watching him wander through the woods studying, observing, and enjoying the environment with little need for us to soothe or entertain him. He would sometimes run, sometimes walk, and sometimes just stop on watch intensely the insects or small animals along the trails. He collected sticks, rocks, seeds, feathers, and whatever other treasures he could find in the woods. Rarely did he find a stream cold enough not to walk right in. We had a sturdy pair of sandals in every size for years to allow him to go in and tread over rocks and uneven surfaces securely. Our car trunk was a changing room filled with towels, extra clothes, and snacks for the worn out but happy child.
Children need to be in nature, some need it more than others. Children need to be able to move freely and explore uninterrupted to learn about the world. Our son, at 13, has a deep respect and love of nature. As he ages, I hope he remembers all of those walks in the woods and splashing in the streams and I hope that memory helps him find peace in nature the same way it did from the time he was a few weeks old. I know my sense of peace in nature has intensified by the restorative experiences we find as a family exploring the great outdoors!