Our town is a popular weekend getaway spot, just half an hour from the big city. It boasts unique shopping venues, bed and breakfast places, and local restaurants all situated on a beautiful lake. In addition, the town recently created a beach. Yes, a beach. They took a chunk of the lake side, imported sand, added a splash pad and pavilions with grass-covered tops, and opened it up to the public. It’s a perfectly-planned place for having outdoor family fun, communing with nature, right between a Hilton and some lakeside condos.
Don’t get me wrong, I love taking my kids there. It’s free. It’s fun. It guarantees afternoon naps. Still, I can’t escape the ironies. Think about it: A city destroys part of the natural ecosystem of its lake, re-creating a newer and more convenient form of nature, all to boost tourist revenue by encouraging visitors to get outdoors.
Going to the beach park also requires effort. I pack a bag with towels, swim diapers, goggles, sunglasses, buckets and cups for sand castles. I stock an ice chest with snacks and water. We strap on swimsuits, load up the kids, drive over to the park, haul everything from the parking lot to the beach, slather on sunscreen, and distribute goggles, buckets, and cups.
Then, we go play in the water.
Of course, during our “nature outing,” we add at least 3 bathroom runs (conveniently located on the beach) and trips back and forth for water and snacks. Eventually, we pick up all the trash, rinse off, walk to the car, pack up, buckle up, drive home, unload, strip off swimsuits, take baths. My reward is a long, luxurious family nap in the afternoon. Somehow though, at the end of the day, I don’t know if I’ve really introduced my children to nature.
You see, there are recent trends emphasizing how parents should intentionally involve their children with the outdoors. It’s good for their physical and mental health. They get away from the brain-eating television and soul-sucking computer screens to become one with the natural world. The charge to get outdoors though comes with warning labels: harmful rays, dehydration, kidnappers, and West Nile virus. Because of these conflicting messages, I’ve noticed a sort of sterile version of nature becoming more common, and we’ve lost the spontaneity of just being outside.
A couple of weeks ago, the kids and I headed over to one of our local parks. Still familiarizing myself with the park’s features, I happened to notice a little grassy area, which seemed to open all the way down to the lake. And in fact, it did. The kids and I headed down there to check out the scene.
This part of the lake was not a manmade beach. We immediately found rocks to throw in the water. Soon, I pointed out some little bird tracks by the shore. We noticed shells and started collecting a pile for our nature jar at home. Soon, in the shell-collecting excitement, all three kids stood right by the lake’s edge, ankle deep in mud.
I hastily told them to take off their shoes. And once their shoes were off, they started playing in the shallow end of the water, kicking and splashing, spotting little fish swimming around their toes. Of course, within five minutes, my daughter plopped right down in the water, inflating her diaper to twice its size. My middle son decided to show off, busting out his latest dance moves. He, of course, slipped and face planted. My oldest son, in his attempts to scold his brother for showing off, lost his footing and fell in, too. We laughed.
We ended up leaving an hour or so later, wind blown, soaked, tired. Luckily, I had changes of clothes in the car, wipes, and a plastic bag for holding all of the wet clothes.
After these two excursions with my kids, I couldn’t help but think of the scene in Jane Austen’s Emma, where the characters all plan a day of leisure to Box Hill, a beautiful scenic spot, ideal for picnics and walking. Of course, the picnic involved extensive planning for travel and food, not to mention extra equipment and servants to pull off a successful party in the woods, connecting with nature. Yet all of their planning and conspiring to create a perfect afternoon fell flat. The picnic ended up being not worth the trouble. Emma said insulting things to her friend, Miss Bates, and Mr. Knightly gave Emma a good Jane Austen-style verbal thrashing (very handsomely, I might add). The expectations of allowing nature to inspire them did not match up to the effort required to make the outing happen.
Sometimes as parents, our efforts to experience the outdoors with our children end up being more trouble than they are worth. Sometimes, we just need to go outside.