Do you feel better when you go into a wild place? When you get away from the computer and get a deep breath of fresh air?
I’ve always been a nature lover.
I choose outside over inside whenever I can. For learning, for dining, for getting together with friends. Our backyard was designed to be our living room, and I always shoo guests into the yard even when they might prefer to stay inside.
My strongest childhood memories involve camping, hiking and playing outdoors. I’m full of nostalgia when I remember camping in the Poconos and the smell of the early morning campfire when my gruff bah humbug dad would sweet talk the chipmunks. I shudder when recalling leeches stuck to my legs after sliding down the stream cascades, and my hair was full of worms after falling off the tree swing that crossed the creek.
I climbed as high as I could in the trees around the little lake in our town. I never figured out how to climb down, but I did learn to go utterly limp when I fell, so I only ended up with bruises instead of broken bones.But I loved that wide open view at the top of the tree and kept climbing despite my falls.
At Duke, I ditched premed for Botany. While I never mastered plant identification, I learned to understand interconnected systems, biological processes, and to appreciate beauty of the outdoors. I escaped from the dorm and classrooms to the wild paths of the Duke gardens for daily destressing.
I married a man who is much happier hiking than staying at home or visiting a city. An avid backpacker, our courtship started on the Sonoma County beaches soon moved to the high Sierra trails. (You know you’ve found true love when he still thinks your beautiful after days of no showers and hot sweaty hiking and he can tempt you across the scariest steep slippery slopes of scree with a piece of chocolate and a promise of a massage.) We vowed to share our love of nature with our child, and squeeze in as many national parks per year as we could budget.
Make a Daily Habit of Getting Outdoors
It is not just quality time in nature that counts, like the big trips to the national parks, or a wilderness adventure. Quantity time makes a difference.
Instilling a daily habit of connection with nature, the value that nature is part of us, helps keep us healthy and encourages positive development in many ways. For instance, time outside helps an infant’s eyesight develop. Being outside helps us focus broadly, paying attention to many things in the environment at the same time, to take in and process many sensory inputs. When Dale had colic, nature helped to calm him. When we stepped into the cool evening air, he’d take a deep breath and settle. He always preferred the hiking backpack over the infant car seat.
To make it easy to make a daily connection with nature, we built a house on the biggest property we could afford, a third of an acre on a creek bank at the edge of town. We made the footprint of the house as small as possible to maximize the useable outdoor space. We turned most of the yard into a garden that faced the orchards and hills beyond the creek. I never realized how wild our yard seemed until a mom at a playgroup I hosted shuddered, “My god, my husband and I could never live in this wilderness with no clear edges.”
Mind you, we had a veggie garden, roses, and a bit of a lawn which seemed tame to me. But raccoons from the creek wandered into the yard to raid our grape vines, and we battled the ants and gophers without using poison. We planted an edible landscape, and used companion planting to attract birds and bees and wildlife.
We considered the frogs, lizards, and hummingbirds in our yard our family pets. As a toddler, Dale checked on his pets each day, spent time in the yard, and helped us care for the garden. He played in the sandpile, ran barefoot on the grass, or sprawled beneath the persimmon tree to look at books. From toddler to teen, going out in the yard allowed space for connecting with nature, self and others.
Even when we couldn’t visit a park, we knew we could wander out the back door and explore along the creek. We could sit beneath the fig when grumpy or wanting to be alone. I didn’t need a research study to tell me it was good for us, but I am thrilled to see the evidence to help encourage other families to prioritize getting out into nature.
Why nature is a learning resource
Before getting my teaching credential, I worked with a few environmental education programs. Their philosophy was to inspire love and respect for the whole web of life so that you want to celebrate and take care of what you love. After having lunch with Mrs. T. and learning her special teaching techniques, I was hired to drive the Terwilliger Nature Van one day a week to present programs at schools which included live and taxidermied animals. My smile was just as big as the students as I helped them hold a snake, acted out the flight patterns of birds, or played a web of life game. I loved packing up the van and driving with the California Cougar as my copilot.
Nature was a learning resource even when environmental education wasn’t the goal. Taking kids outside helped them to relax and to notice: to observe, to pay attention and to wonder. Asking questions about what you see and being inspired and motivated to find answers is what we want our children and students to do.
When I taught public school, the first thing I did was buy a class set of clipboards and attach pencils with string, so I could take the class outside. My eighth graders rolled their eyes as they shuffled and jostled out the door.
In your journal take some time to notice:
What do you see?Look more closely? What can you hear? Smell?
They calmed as they sat, observed and sketched and realized there wasn’t just one answer. Now each class period started with the question, can we go outside to observe?
My fifth-grade students eagerly claimed their nature spot and drew, comparing one week’s observations to the last. They bubbled over with questions and new discoveries and began to share what they noticed in their yards and on walks to school.
Choosing a nature observation spot in our yard was one of the favorite activities when I hosted writing summer camps at our home.
Each child picked their particular spot, settled in and wrote or drew for 15-30 minutes. They could also take photos to go along with their drawings to document observations and discoveries and spark questions for discussion or further research. Sometimes they brought back a poem or story. Other times they had new questions they wanted to find answers to.
Do you need a nature curriculum?
All you need to do is go outside, leave time for play, pay attention, and ask:
What do you see? What do you notice?
What do you wonder?
Where can you look for the answers to your questions?
Besides getting out in nature, a sketchbook, a camera, and letting kids find books or use a computer to look up answers to their questions is all the curriculum you need.
The secret is, you don’t need to control it. You will need to model that you value nature and spending time in nature. You certainly can guide the discovery by where you live where you take your kids. Start with building the love of nature with daily connection and play. Start by wandering and wondering.
Then, you can build on the questions and discoveries. You can look for places to go. Are there museums or exhibits about the topics of interest? Is there a citizen science program? An environmental organization? A festival? A community effort? A political process surrounding your child’s interest? There are many directions for the learning to unfold.
Nature is a fabulous learning resource. You just have to go outside.
Spend time nature daily.
Focus first on instilling a love of nature by wandering, wondering, being and playing in nature.
Choose a natural place for repeated visits, connection, and observation.
Over to you:
What fond memories do you have of time in nature?
Do you have a yard or live near a place that makes it easy for you to get outside on a daily basis?
How do you think time in nature would help with learning for you or your kids?
How do we help our children be happy, successful, self-directed learners?
How do we help them love learning and want to learn all life long?
That was the question I wanted to discuss last week at the HSC.org annual conference. And so did other parents, some with toddlers, middles, tweens and teens. We love our children so much and want to help them prepare for their future. Sometimes you want to hear the story of someone who has already traveled the road you are on. It was exactly the boat I was in back when Dale left school at the end of 5th grade, and we were feeling scared and overwhelmed about jumping off the well known and accepted path. Attending this conference was where I found examples, community, and courage.
More parents than could fit squeezed into a room that was not well designed for the kind of small group sharing and shifting into interest related discussion groups I had envisioned. I talked too long, trying to fit too much information into a small amount of time, sharing too many stories and suggestions in answer to questions. We didn’t end up completing the HAPPY actions plans that I’d promised, so I decided I’d to put the slides and resources here on the blog.
After the workshop an attendee said,
“I really liked when you told us about your mistakes. Because that made me feel like, well if she made mistakes and it still turned out all right for Dale, well then maybe I can do it, too. I think you should tell more of your mistakes.”
For some reason it’s easier for me to TALK about my embarrassing moments when I can see your eyes and hear your laughter than write about them here in my study. But I want to remind you that all of my insights are based on mountains of mistakes. Hindsight, is 20/20 right? They are also informed by years of reading, research, talking with other parents and getting to look back at what we did, talk with Dale, and analyze our many mistakes, goofs, and what seemed to work best for us. Let me assure you I had, and still have, many moments that make me cringe, and believe me, many times of apology and angst.
And, happily many things that ended up working out.
My biggest regret?
That we wasted so much time worrying and stressing about the future instead of enjoying the moment. That we so often fell into the trap of focusing on fear and deficits instead of strengths. When we focus on our fears, we inadvertently give our kids(especially teens) the idea that we don’t think they are ______enough to figure things out.
The academics are in many ways the least important learning.
Learning how to connect, to confidently be ourselves, and to find the ways we can each contribute in ways that work for us and are valued by the community are the challenge.
How to do that again and again, joyfully, is what we want our kids to learn so they can be happy, successful and self-directed lifelong learners.
It’s not a one time deal. It’s a process – as needs change, as we learn and grow, as circumstances change, we have to adapt. And we can show them that we are taking responsibility and choosing to learn, joyfully, all the time!
The workshop was designed to cover three sections –
Section 1 – How do we define happiness, success and what we want for our kids and then how do we go about creating that?
Section 2 – Specifically what makes us happy and what are things we can do to increase or manage our happiness? And how can we apply this to ourselves and the members of our family? This is where the HAPPY action plan comes in.
Section 3 – Self-direction and how do we transfer the process and ownership of learning to the child? How do we prepare them so they take on managing the aspects of their lives that influence their feeling happy, successful and fulfilled?
Of course, when you’re talking about learning and real life, things don’t really break down into three neat boxes. There are a lot of overlapping ideas and underlying assumptions. Life and learning are messy and not linear. So today is the first in a series I aim to complete this week to give you the information from the workshop and a chance to work through it on you own.
I hope you will engage and wrestle with the ideas as well as filling out the HAPPY Action plan.
Please add your questions and ideas so we can have a conversation in the comments!
I will add links to the other sections of the series as I get them published, and if you sign up for the newsletter and let me know you want them, I will send you the PDF.s. So let’s go.
What do you mean by happiness and success?
Here is one reflection on happiness:
“Happiness does not rely on who you are, or what you have, but solely on what you think. ”
And from Maya Angelou on success:
“Success is liking who you are, what you do, and how you do it. ”
But more importantly, what do YOU mean, how do you define happiness and success?
Go ahead, get some paper and something to write with and get your ideas down to complete these sentences:
What I want for my child….
What I think my child might want for themselves….
( If you want put them in the comments )
What can you do to help your child be happy?
How can you do it?
If happiness and success are more internal than external, what can you do to help your child be happy? Be curious and courageous and feel successful in learning and life? How do you keep that curiosity and creativity alive?
You choose to:
1. Create conditions for trust and courage.
2. Embrace who they are and be WITH them on their journey. Embrace unconditional love.
3. Let Go: provide options, show them a process and transfer power and decision making.
4. Model the values you want them to learn, be the change you want to see.
5. Pay attention, listen, reflect and connect.
We choose to be brave and take a completely honest look at ourselves and ask some important questions:
How am I operating? What conditions have I created so far?
Do I love conditionally or unconditionally?
What do I believe and want? Why?
Are my actions consistent with what I am trying to create?
Is my child hearing/or experiencing the message I am intending?
And then you have to look at your answers and decide what you will do.
This is not easy stuff. Sometimes we have a lot of work to do on ourselves. Even if we thought we’ve already done the work.
( I wish I had recorded my workshop because I suspect this is one of the areas I was sharing a LOT of my mistakes! I’m working up the courage to be vulnerable enough to try to make some videos.)
Go Against the Grain.
And once we reflect, we choose to be brave and do what we need to do even if it is scary, or unpopular or different.
We allow our children to be different – from us, from sibs, from neighbors. We celebrate differences, instead of trying to fix them.
We are willing to go against the grain.
(Even when family members give us a hard time, and former friends stop speaking to us. This is such a great way to model standing up to peer pressure!)
And one critical way to go against the grain is to focus on love, not fear.
To see strengths rather than deficits, and opportunities instead of problems, abundance instead of lack.
To honor intrinsic motivation and focus on the joy of learning and doing, not results and rewards or grades, prizes or external factors.
We can choose acceptance instead of resistance. Acceptance of what is, ourselves, our situations, our “perfectly imperfect” children just the way they are.
Oh, if I could take back the times I’ve said, “why can’t you just be…”
It is so easy to get caught up in the fears and to think we need to optimize our kids! Or make them into something they aren’t.
Or we do it to ourselves, a surefire way to curtail our creativity and confidence.
What mindsets are you operating under?
Your mindsets and mantras, those tapes playing in your head, can make a huge difference in your day.
I always liked the Ms. Frizzle approach; the books were new to the scene when Dale was young.
Take chances, get messy, make mistakes. Do things. Show up, try and fail and get up again.
Let your children do things, too. Let them take chances and get messy and make mistakes.
Zip your lips while they figure things out. I am so guilty here. Talk too much, trying to control the outcome.
Stepping back to look at ourselves and the big picture, long term goals will serve our children and us well. It helps you have a touchstone, to know why you do things and what your priorities are to help you make choices in line with your values. It helps when you feel like you need to defend your choices or hit a rough patch. (And there will be rough patches, count on it. That’s life !)
I heard several moms talk about the feeling of competition, and stress and pressure to be a certain way, or make sure their kids participate in __________________, or which kind of curriculum to pick, or thinking ahead to college and future issues.
If you are feeling like that, stepping back for some reflection and meditation can help and take a look at the big picture and creating the mindsets, and establishing the skills, habits, values and priorities that will serve your children for a lifetime no matter where there path leads. To help them know and love themselves, learning and how to make their ideas happen.
What mindsets and skills did we try to instill? Here is what we were aiming for:
Growth + L.A.T.T.E. that you can learn and improve if you are intentional, deliberate, and show up. Mistakes or failure are okay, they are data for growth and learning. And you are Learning All The Time Enthusiastically! Learning happens anywhere, anytime, and you can learn from anyone.
100% Responsibility : What you choose to do, everyday, matters. You are responsible for your life and learning and actions.
How do you cultivate the joy of cooking? How do you teach your kid to cook so they keep on cooking?
I get this question a lot. Especially from folks who have seen Dale happily take a turn cooking at a gathering, hosting a dinner party, or posting a photo of something he just cooked.
Parents of teens, especially teen boys, or new parents thinking ahead, often ask what did you do? What can I do?
A: Have fun and get creative with cooking. Establish the routine of cooking together. Make it delicious, joyful and heartfelt.
Mealtimes offer daily powerful times to connect. Meals can become a celebration of everyday life and opportunity for expressing gratitude.You can choose to make sharing meals and meal preparation and adventure.
Meals made with love and laughter and fresh ingredients taste better.
How and when did we start to cultivate the joy of cooking?
As soon as Dale was born, he was worn in the snugli or perched beside us when we cooked. Even though he was too young to actively participate, I chatted about the food, tastes and smells. I talked about how delicious it would be, and how much daddy, or guests, would love the meal.
Cooking to Start the Day with Good Cheer
Dale’s internal alarm clock went off around 4:30 am. It was cold and dark. We were trying to let Daddy get a little more sleep before heading off to work, so what could we do? We cooked breakfast.
We baked to warm up the house and to create something delicious and beautiful.
We figured out what to make with the ingredients on hand in the amount of time we had so that Pierre would be able to eat before driving off to work. We met the challenge of doing everything quietly in our open, echoing kitchen.We experimented and set the table to make it beautiful.
I know you’re thinking, she’s crazy! Table decoration at the crack of dawn?
Because, when you are a sleep-deprived, grumpy mama who does not want to poison the atmosphere and ruin the day by complaining, if you focus on making love visible and getting the creative juices flowing, you can often flip the switch from grumpy to gratitude.
Instead of grumbling I could be grateful for:
quality time together to connect.
quiet moments to share my love and values with my child.
a roof over our heads, a working oven, and food on the table.
my ability to choose to enjoy a cooking adventure
Cooking and Creativity: Inventing, Improvising, and Problem Solving
First we turned on the oven. Then we grabbed a cookbook, or two, and snuggled on the couch. What should we make?
We would turn the pages looking for inspiration. We used recipes not as a formula, but as a starting point for creating and improvising.
Once we had an idea we moved back into the kitchen. We put on our aprons, I love aprons, and set out the ingredients. If we were missing something we talked about how to compensate. Sometimes we just wanted to experiment – how about if we add _______? What will happen if we _____________? We are out of eggs, what can we use instead? What do you think? Let’s see!
Dale either sat on the counter or stood beside me on a stool. He loved dipping into the flour jar with the measuring cups and pouring the ingredients into the mixing bowl. Managing the measuring spoons was trickier, trying to get just the right amount of baking powder in the spoon and smoothing it off with a dull knife.Often we got too much of something in the bowl, no big deal. If I was really concerned about a recipe being exact, then I had Dale measure into a smaller container first, before adding the ingredient to the main bowl. Stressing about exact amounts and mess can spoil the camaraderie which is just not worth it.
Stirring, pounding, rolling, greasing the pans, getting the dough into the muffin tins or cutting the scones to size were all things a child can do.
Was it messy? Yes.
Could I have done it faster by myself? Yes.
Did that matter? No.
What mattered was learning that you can have fun making your own food and food for someone you love.
We slid the pans into the oven. “Is it time to wake Daddy?”
“Not yet. Let’s get the table ready. Hmm, how do we want to make it look today?” A potential “lesson” in creating atmosphere and ambience.
If it was a holiday, well, then we went with whatever the special day was. We found or made something to decorate the center of the table and then choose which dishes, napkins or glasses to use according to our mood and design. Just for clarification, it’s not that we had lots of different sets of dishes, just that we had an eclectic collection of crockery found in thrift stores or received as wedding gifts.
We squeezed juice from our oranges and put it into fancy wine glasses. Or we made hot cocoa and used the crockery mugs.
If it was summer, and there was a hint of light we went into the yard to gather a bouquet or berries if they were ripe.
We tried to make our world even more beautiful than it already was.
“MMMMM’ smells good. Now it’s time to wake Daddy!” We put the butter, homemade jam, and other supplies on the table.By now our mouths were watering.
Once everything was one the table and we were sitting together, we sometimes took a moment for a blessing or to give thanks. We toasted with our juice or mugs: Cheers! Here is to a wonderful day.
After we ate, we all cleared our places and got to work. Pierre made his lunch and headed out the door. Dale and I put on the tunes danced as we cleaned up our cooking mess.
This is how our cooking together started. It wasn’t just breakfast and it wasn’t always ceremonial, but it was always a celebration of creativity, sustenance, and love.
7 Ideas to Help You Raise a Kid Who Cooks
Cooking is a creative process. And creativity is often improved with constraints. We had the constant constraints of our budget and what was ripe in the garden to fuel our inventiveness.
What else can you do to help?
1. Play with your food! Be silly with the food on the plates, food as table decorations and presentation.
2. Have contests and games to see how many new ways you can cook a __________.
3. Use cook books and recipes as ideas starters rather than missals that had to be followed exactly. Invent new recipes name them, and write them down.
4. Check out new cookbooks from the library for inspiration.
5. Try new foods, flavors and recipes from different cultures.
6. Let kids cook with you and learn new cooking skills together.
7. Let kids cook and create on their own.
One year my mom gave us a subscription to Family Fun Magazine. A monthly column, called “Kids Cooking Class”, was set up for the child to independently follow the directions and learn how to cook meals. One time it had a recipe for calzones, another time crepes, another time Chinese Beef. Dale looked forward to trying each new recipe and his confidence with cooking soared. He eagerly awaited the magazine and turned directly to the Kid’s Cooking Class recipe. Then he would check for ingredients and make a shopping list. I had to remind myself not to interfere, and let him do it himself.
Pierre usually took over cooking on camping trips, took over the BBQ and was always part of preparing meals for holidays and guests. So Dale had plenty of time to cook with Dad, too.
In fifth grade, Dale was responsible for preparing one dinner a week. He decided what he wanted to make and took care of the process from start to finish.On Sunday evenings we talked about our schedule for the week, and roughly planned out the meals. Everyone had a chance to offer suggestions or hankerings. We tried not to get in too much of a rut.Dale cooked on the night that was best for him, the crock pot meal was slotted on the busiest day, and leftover party was near the end of the week. Planning included checking for ingredients so shopping could happen once. I am not a fan of extra trips to the store.
Dale often made his favorite, homemade macaroni and cheese with 3 cheeses, with sides of tomatoes, broccoli and salad. This recipe is still a hit and what we all consider comfort food.
Dale loved socializing, and food was always thecenterpiece of gatherings with friends or family. We typically cooked our own meals for holiday celebrations, casually inviting people to dinner, and even for our wedding and large anniversary parties. Figuring out affordable, delicious, sanity saving food prep for more than 100 was another creative cooking challenge.
Cooking together on a daily basis was a habit that helped our budget and provided connection and a jumping off point for many areas of learning.
Raising a young adult who cooks started with spreading the joy of sharing and preparing meals for those you love, and continued by forming the habit of cooking.
Let the kids cook. Don’t stress about mess or mistakes.
Make it a habit and make it fun. Enjoy the whole experience because meals made with love and laughter and fresh ingredients taste better.
Do you cook with your kids? Do you have favorite blogs, books or resources you use for cooking?
I would love to hear your ideas to add to the list in the comments, Lisa.