During much of my career in education, I have provided professional development to environmental educators. I understand the importance of sharing nature with children, but in my role as a parent, it has not always been so easy to practice what I preach. Despite my best intentions, my daughter Katie, now a senior in college, discovered the power of nature through an experience that did not involve either her father or me.
A Mother Reflects on Raising Her Children Surrounded by Nature
When my daughters were infants, I had dreams about how we would raise them and who they would become. I pictured long afternoons in the woods and frequent family camping trips. I imagined us playing together in a tree house, happily slogging through swamps and romping along beaches. Well, some of those things happened and some didn’t. Though my husband and I have tried to be good parents, we were blissfully ignorant of the realities of raising a family while working at two jobs and running a household. Practical matters interfered with my idealistic plans to raise two nature lovers. As the girls got older, they had their own interests and activities. The influence of friends, boyfriends, and instant messaging were strong. Our girls were living in a world that was, as Louv puts it, is “….teaching young people to avoid direct experience in nature” (p. 2). Then my oldest, Katie, came home from college one semester break and announced her intention to hike the Hundred Mile Wilderness in Maine. I was happy, proud, and worried, but my first reaction was, “Katie…… HIKING?” I was shocked that this was something she’d want to do. Katie’s experience on this challenging section of the Appalachian Trail turned out to be life altering for her. My daughter’s comfort in and knowledge of the natural world now far surpasses my own. I am still wondering how this kid, who not so long ago thought a sleeping bag was best used on the living room couch, turned out this way. So I sat down to talk with Katie about how her relationship with nature developed.
My Daughter and I Remember Our Walks in Nature
The Early Years
Daughter: My earliest remembered outdoor experiences were exploring games. The woods behind our house were so inviting. Time to explore gave me a sense of freedom to move at whatever pace I chose. I could have a fast and steady march to the top of the mountain or I could go only a few yards into the woods and dedicate my energy to discovering what moss looks like up close. These times are my happiest memories of being outside as a child. I liked bringing my imagination outdoors. Mother: In elementary school, Katie loved going out to play, but as she got older, that’s not what she and her friends liked to do any more. To do anything outdoors as a family, we had to drag the girls along. Groaning often preceded our family’s traditional hike on the morning of Christmas Eve. Some years, we spent so little time outdoors that a walk in the woods became a Mother’s Day event. Daughter: Growing up, family hikes were not uncommon. I usually began them feeling like they were a bit of a chore but ended them more satisfied. Looking back, I imagine they were my first look at what the outdoors meant to other people. Dad would launch into the story, told fifty times before, of some adventure when his sleeping bag froze solid or he was pinned under his boat on a kayaking trip. Though the stories were almost always misadventures, I remember how excited Dad was to tell them. I remember Mom’s science stories about how to identify trees by making bark rubbings or what sorts of creepy crawlies make for a healthy stream. These stories didn’t make me a naturalist but they did leave a lasting impression. I learned that nature could mean different things to different people. To Dad it was an endless opportunity for adventure, a force that could be negotiated but never beaten. For Mom it seemed to be an intricate web of life that should be explored scientifically but always retained a kind of magic- the kind of magic that kept ferns their perfect emerald shade of green and gave rotting logs their musty but comforting scent. Looking back, I can see how the way I experience nature contains elements of both my parents’ values, as well as new ones of my own. The Middle School Transition
Daughter: In about 6th grade, being smart, playing outside, and knowing how the bark of an oak was different from that of a dogwood tree became suddenly and unequivocally uncool. The power of cool is impossible to overstate. Though I continued to enjoy the outdoors at home, well out of the view of the popular girls, it was no longer important in my life. Mother: Later, when Katie graduated from high school and went off to college, I was excited about all the opportunities she would have. I encouraged her to get to know her professors and to explore new interests. I would never have predicted that it would be hiking that would change her life. College Introduces an Unexpected Transition
Daughter: It wasn’t until I was 20 years old in a university classroom that the woods would reenter my life. A professor of religious studies was taking a group of students to Maine to hike a section of the Appalachian Trail. He asked if anyone was interested and, though I felt strangely captivated by the idea, I was too shy to raise my hand. No one else did either; maybe nature still wasn’t all that cool. But I found myself unable to escape this hike idea. Though I had not been thinking at all about being outside, I had been feeling stagnant. I had been aching for adventure and variety. I felt like my new, more adult life was missing something, something big. So I added my name to the list of “Maine Pilgrims.” Having made the commitment to walk 120 miles over unknown and supposedly difficult terrain, I realized that I was completely unprepared. People who had experience advised me to begin practicing. So I walked around a bit over trail surfaces that, at the time, I considered to be varied. I became more comfortable walking with a pack and though I knew I wasn’t completely prepared, I figured it was at least better than nothing. I was excited about the upcoming hike. I focused on preparing my gear and becoming more physically fit. I was nervous but I assumed that the mere presence of a professor would save me from any real danger. I thought about whether or not I would get along with the other Pilgrims. I did not realize that there would be much more to it than that. Now, having actually done it, being on the other side of those 120-odd miles, I know that I completely misjudged the situation. That said, I am so thankful that I misjudged it because I may not have learned half of what I did otherwise. The walk was more physically demanding than I could have ever imagined. It was emotionally trying in ways I could not have anticipated. It changed me almost completely. I became more self aware, more universally aware, more confident, and more free. I understand the sheer scope of the natural world better and paradoxically, my individual unimportance and the collective impact of man.
Recommendations for Inspiring a Healthy Appreciation for Nature
Now, Katie hopes to hike the entire Appalachian Trail after college graduation and she and her dad plan to go winter camping this year. Here I am again- excited, proud, and worried about her as she plans these two trips. Katie’s relationship with nature is very different from mine--- I would never do either of those things! But as I amble through my favorite woods this fall, or dig in my garden or lie under a tree in my hammock with a good book, I will remember the common sense I already knew about parenting. The best we can do is give our children many safe opportunities to explore when they are young, be the models and anchors they need as they build their own identities, and actively support the positive choices they make as young adults. They may turn out just as we had dreamed they would, but by walking a path very much their own. Laurie McCullough, Ed.D. is the Director of Instruction for Waynesboro, Virginia Public Schools. She has taught elementary, middle and high school as well as at the undergraduate and graduate levels. She teaches and conducts staff development in math and science education as well as in cognitive coaching and educational leadership. Katie McCartney is a senior at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. She is an interdisciplinary major with emphases in History, English, and Political Science, and is earning a minor in leadership studies. After hiking the Appalachian Trail, she plans to work in the curatorial department of a museum or in the area of historic preservation.