Nature as Therapy for Families
Perhaps I am biased on the subject since I practically grew up outdoors, but this past month I realized just how badly kids and parents need nature adventures together. My sister was in charge of planning our 2016 family reunion and rented an enormous cabin in the woods near her home in Asheville, North Carolina. I arrived five days before the reunion started to help organize the 25-ish family members headed her way from all over the country. The first two days we scrapped the planning details and hit the trails to go camping in the Pisgah National Forest.
It was an emotionally, logistically and physically challenging trip – and raining all night both nights, but I was amazed at how well all of our kids behaved. Walking out of the park after a couple of days of primitive camping felt like we all had hit a reset button. I felt refreshed, with new ideas on how to conquer some old obstacles, and my son was radiant after climbing every vertical object available, learning how to start a fire and set up a tent, helping to fell a tree, swimming in freezing watering holes, and examining bugs for hours. He played exceptionally well with his cousin and a friend’s kids he had never met before. My son was respectful, polite and helpful the entire time, and he knew that I was very proud of him for it. It was one of those rare moments where I couldn’t possibly imagine having a better relationship with my offspring. Exceptionally rare for the summer we have been having.
Summer has always been a rough time for me.
The landscaping business slows down in the scorching heat at exactly the same time school is out and summer camps fire up. There have been many times over the past seven summers where the camps I enrolled my son cost more money than I was making. After those stressful summers, I decided I would keep Oliver at home with me for at least two weeks during summers to save money and spend more time with him than I do during the school year when we are only awake with each other for approximately 4 hours a day. This year, I decided to take in a few kids for the teaching practice and extra money – and to save other struggling single parents money while providing them with some quality time outside in our community garden, saving seeds and planting them. For a single parent with one child that has only taught children in a formal setting for a small chunk of the day, it was really stressful having several kids in my home for eight hours a day. I had no idea they had such complex differences in diets, sleeping habits and quirks.
During the ten hour drive to Asheville, my son and I had bickered a lot – all of the frustrations from the last couple of weeks came out in full volume. We REALLY needed to have a special experience together to get us on the same team again, which must have been fairly obvious to my nature-loving sister. We immediately hiked a mile into the woods, set up our tents, unrolled our sleeping bags and scavenged for firewood. For some reason, the physical work that camping with kids requires doesn’t feel nearly as much like ‘work’ as returning emails and scheduling new clients. We started a fire despite the dampness of the forest floor by felling a dead pine tree, which required all hands on deck. And there were no complaints. We fed the kids easy and healthy foods like hummus, bread, carrots, bananas and nuts all weekend. They ate it all, plus the not-quite-ripe blackberries we found on a trail. Without silverware. We swam in water that was so cold that Oliver’s skin turned white and went numb, but he didn’t cry the whole time. Both my sister and her friend admitted to their recent struggles with their own kids behavior but for those two days, we marveled at how none of it seemed relevant.
Apparently, they (and we) were desperately in need of a couple of nights without adhering to (or enforcing) the normal rules. During our camping trip, we didn’t use our table manners or keep our regular schedule but now that we’re back they seem a welcome and cherished part of our lives. We slept in huddled tents around a drowning fire, worried about bears and toxic spiders but knowing that in reality, drunk drivers and cancer are a bigger and less controllable threat to our urban lives. The camping experience, however short, is the closest thing that I’ve got to the village mentality, where all eyes are on all the children. With preparation and the right materials, family camping can be the break we’re all in need of.
“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.”