Parenting, Fear and the Great Outdoors

OutdoorBaby.net home page imageI recently was introduced to a wonderful website for parents who love being active outdoors with their children: www.OutdoorBaby.net. This website contains a plethora of resources, tips and information on how to enjoy just about any outdoor activity with little ones, whether it be hiking, fishing, climbing or backpacking. OutdoorBaby invites experts and bloggers to contribute articles on their outdoor recreation experiences with their family, and these articles are sometimes funny, and always useful and inspiring.

Heidi Ahrens, the woman who started the website, is a former public school teacher and educator for Outward Bound. I was excited to learn of her project because I understand the importance of exposing children to both structured and unstructured time in nature (see my blog post about contemplative nature activities for children). It’s good to see there are more and more resources and information for parents who know the importance of outdoor education and activities for their kids and are looking for no-cost or low-cost ways of having fun and doing something healthful with them.

I asked Heidi a few questions about her mission and background:

What is your earliest and best childhood memory of time spent in nature?

Heidi: My parents lived in a variety of ramshackle houses with drafts, outhouses, and snow pilling up to the second story window. My earliest memory is using the outhouse.

My best earliest memories are of going on walks in Fundy Park with my dad and looking at marshland and flowers and playing in the woods around furry trees (the trees probably had a kind of beard like lichen on them).

My best teenaged memories of the outdoors: As a teen I went hiking alone, camping, and visited cabins that were only accessible by rowboats.  My parents and my friends’ parents trusted us and were not fearful.  At sixteen I crossed half of Canada by bicycle with a girlfriend.  We knocked on doors and asked farmers if we could stay on their land.

In your work as both a teacher at a public school and an instructor at Outward Bound, what do you see as the biggest differences in kids who spend a lot of time outside in nature or who have a love of the outdoors, versus those that don’t?

Heidi: I have worked with students from such varied backgrounds, but it is really hard to generalize about children who spend time outdoors and those who did not.  I believe that the students who spend no time outdoors because of economic hardship, social stigma, inaccessibility, or cultural differences often exhibit the same positive adaptability and creativity that kids who spend time outdoors exhibit. The kids that exhibit, in my view, worrisome behavior are those that grow up in a sheltered environment, in suburbs and have parents that are fearful of the world outside their door.

What do you think are the factors that prevent parents from being more active outdoors with their children? What do you usually tell people when they say it’s too much of a hassle to take their kids hiking/biking/walking/exploring with them?

Heidi: Probably the top factors are time, inexperience, fear, and money.

I think that a lot of people think that it is too much of a hassle to take kids exploring in nature.  It takes a lot of work and dedication but it is work that pays off in the end.  It is also a hassle to go shopping with your kids or going to the movies or going to a restaurant, but people do that every day.  The payoff for getting into the outdoors with your kids is that you get these wonderful experiences that you can build a positive, happy relationship on.  You have memories, health, and intellectual curiosity building while hiking with your kids or observing wildlife; this is not true with going to the mall.

I also need to say this.  It becomes easier when you create systems to organize yourself and when you let go of expectations and ideas about performance and go out just to be together.

Your website is filled with practical and user-tested tips for families who are active outdoors and want to include their young children. What gave you the inspiration for this specific model of website?

OutdoorBaby.net was created because I saw a need to use my skills as an educator, a mom, and as an outdoorsperson to help others.  I decided to stay home with my children and I wanted to continue my intellectual curiosity and I wanted to continue to learn.

If money and funding were no object, what kind of outdoor education program would you design for young children in public schools? How about teens?

I have worked very hard at creating projects like training materials for teachers, workshops, that OutdoorBaby.net can build on so that we can reach the largest number of families. Some of these projects are in school trainings and others are community based.  Yes, if we had the money we would be able to build these programs quite quickly since I have the background to produce such materials, but these days it seems like people like to fund research and materials that are based on intellectual development rather than on hands on or rather simply what I would call person building initiatives

So outdoor education programs should be modeled after the idea that we are going to build positive, creative, and inquisitive minds.  I don’t believe the goal should be at first to get children to identify three different kinds of trees.  Children should be guided in realizing the interconnectedness species, adaptability and creativity through experience rather than through lectures or set standards. Our bodies are strong , powerful, intuitive and capable to consciously live in this world.

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If you would like tips and stories on how to get your kids outside in nature and make sure everyone in your family has a safe and fun time, visit OutdoorBaby.net.