Category Archives: Life Lessons from the Outdoors

Good Things Come to Kids Who Wait

It was cool among the Tamarisk, and they misted on me lightly.  I sat, hugging me legs to my chest, chin resting on my knees.  I resisted the urge to swish away the bugs exploring my ears and eyebrows.  My mind wondered to other places.  Lunch.  School the next day.  I ignored the sweat collecting in the crooks of my knees, and the way it tickled the backs of my calves.  Why was I here again?

I am not a patient person.  I am a now person.  The first thing I look at when contemplating a new recipe is how long it takes to make.  I want to know how the story ends by the last page of the second chapter.  I can’t diet worth beans because I want the weight gone by the end of the first day.

I blame society.

In a world of immediate gratification and one-click buying options, where television images change on a screen an average of every three seconds, and where short bursts of information, facebook statuses, and tweets are the norm, I am required to multi-task constantly.  In an effort to succeed in this world, I have developed the skills needed to thrive in the face of so much information, sacrificing any chance at a quiet moment.  I grew up at the cusp of this great change in our social structure.  My children, on the other hand, will be born into it.  They will have few opportunities to learn the important skill of waiting, of delaying gratification, of thinking ahead, and of focusing for more than a minute.  The implications of an entire society of young ones growing up constantly distracted are incredible, and affecting everything from the development of a young child’s brain, to how society functions in the future .

I am terrible at holding still—with one exception.  When I was a teenager my dad taught me how rewarding it can be to sit in one spot and wait for the natural world to forget you’re there.

I remember the lesson well.  We were taking a walk.  He was an avid birder and was looking for spring migrants making their way north after the cold winter.  We wandered along the edge of a lake, he stopping every few feet to eye some new movement among the Tamarisk that lined the beaches, me kicking at rocks and thinking about being somewhere else.  I don’t remember my attitude, but knowing me I was bored, easily distracted, and likely hinted repeatedly at how far from the car we had come.

“Did you see that one?” he exclaimed while holding his binoculars to his eyes.  “Western Tanager I think.  What do you think?”  he looked over at me to find that I didn’t even have my binoculars to my eyes.  “What’s wrong with you?” he asked.

I mumbled some lame excuse about there not being that much to see in a bunch of boring old Tamarisk trees.  He stared at me in incredulity for a long moment, then instructed me to follow him, and walked me to the Tamarisk grove.

“Here.  Sit down in the middle.  I’m leaving for 15 minutes.  I want you to sit here.  Don’t move.  We’ll talk about what you see when I get back.”

Slightly peeved, but mostly curious at the strange request, I sat.  In retrospect, he may have left me there in order to have 15 uninterrupted moments of bird watching—not because he expected me to learn any important outdoor skill.

But the lesson stuck; those fifteen minutes were unforgettable.  Twenty years later I still find myself looking for opportunities to hold still somewhere and see who forgets me.  Last week at the botanical gardens it was a lizard, who found my shoes were an excellent place to grab a quick lunch of bug debris.  The hummingbirds were perched above my head, and bees worked the flowers around me, oblivious to my presence.

Game: Holding Still

When played as a game, this skill isn’t too hard to learn, and it is one that you can play with your child, or (as my father did) that you can suggest they try on their own.  Advise for first timers:

  • Pick a good spot where activity is likely to happen soon (near the bird feeder in the backyard is a good spot).
  • Get comfortable so that half way through their/your legs won’t be asleep.
  • Focus on listening for the animals that will come in from all directions.  (If you turn too quickly to look, you’ll lose your chance; better to listen first.)
  • If your child finds holding still for that long too difficult at first, you can throw a blanket over them so that just their face shows.  This will allow them to twiddle their thumbs, scratch the inevitable itch, and move ever so slightly without nearby critters noticing.

Learning to hold still is the stepping stone to many wonderful natural moments.  Both hummingbirds and chickadees will land on outstretched hands that haven’t moved for some time (with hummingbirds, place your finger near a hummingbird feeder, like a perch, and wait, or do like this lady did; with chickadees, stand near your birdfeeder with seed in your outstretched hand—here is an excellent instructional on handfeeding.  Nature photography, for beginners and experts (here’s a fun example!) alike, begins with finding a good spot, and waiting as long as it takes  (if you’re into wildlife photography, here are some good tips.

The skill is an important one, especially for children.  It teaches the value of patience, the rewards that come with waiting, how to focus for long periods of time, and the important skill of observing.  It reminds them that the world doesn’t always move as fast as television would make it seem.  And it gives them something to brag about later (“I was five feet from a squirrel and he didn’t even know I was there!”).  The squirrels in my back yard move at the same speed that they did when my grandfather was a child—nature is immune to the social revolution in which your children find themselves, and provides a natural context for learning skills that apply to every generation.


Three Lazuli Buntings, the color of jewels and rainbows, flew into the grove and proceeded to squabble, completely unaware of my presence.  A Western Tanager flew to a perch somewhere over my head and serenaded the world.  I contemplated turning to get a better look when I heard a noise beside me.  Slowly, ever so slowly, I moved my head.  There, sharing the shade of the Tamarisk grove with me, was a jack rabbit.  Not five feet from my hunched self, he stretched his back legs out behind him, pressed his belly into the cool dirt, laid his long ears flat across his back, and closed his eyes.  I could see the hair on his rump was ruffled, I could see the nick in his ear, and I could see how very big his nose was.  Why was I here again?  For this moment.

What do your children think you value?

I heard about a study awhile back that crosses my mind on almost a daily basis. Maybe it’s just my lifestyle, but I really do think about it quite a bit.

This study involved two groups of moms. Group one never opened a book all day long. They just went about their motherly business while their kids were at home. Group two at a minimum had a book open on their laps whenever possible. If they weren’t actually reading, they at least gave the pretense of it. The study found that the kids whose moms were in group two were significantly more likely to become readers than the kids who grew up in the homes of group one.

To tell you the truth I can’t find that study anywhere to provide you with the link. Don’t remember where I heard it, or whether I heard it or read it. Maybe I dreamed the whole thing, I don’t know (if so, props to me for dreaming about scientific studies!). But I guess that’s also not really the point for me.

The findings are not shocking by any means, I’m pretty sure we can all agree that our kids watch us. Our actions speak far louder than our words. They do what we do. They learn to value what we value.

After reading (or dreaming) about the study, I started to mentally mull over my day. I imagined what it was that I was showing my kids about what I valued. Exercise? Computer? Work? Outdoors? Phone? Service? Them? Cooking? Health? Art? TV? Reading? Funny how what you think you value isn’t always reflected in how you choose to spend your time every day. I also thought a lot about what I wanted my kids to know that I value, and subsequently what I want them to value.

I made a few changes in my weekly routine. (more…)

Rock Climbing, therapy for kids with ADHD?

I got an email a few weeks ago from a Mom by the name of Sarah. She was seeking advice about outdoor play/activities for children with learning challenges, specifically ADHD. Because I have little to no experience with this kind of thing I invited her to write up her experience in hopes that other parents might have more advice to share than I did.

If you have a child with a learning challenge or special need and have used the outdoors as a tool, we want to hear from you.(See the bottom of Sarah’s article for more specific questions, or add your own thoughts).

Thanks for sharing your story Sarah, I absolutely love this post. I for one think Michael is a pretty lucky kid.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

This is my firstborn, Michael:

His little fetus self hit me in the gut at twelve weeks pregnant and didn’t stop moving the rest of the pregnancy. At twenty weeks, he kicked the TV controls off my belly. After his birth, he screamed for three months straight.

I stopped comparing him to other kids, or asking for help from other moms a year into the adventure. My son was just—different. Tough, independent, confident, and able to take down a full grocery cart in 2.3 seconds. He climbed out of his car seat before other kids even realized they were in one. (P.S. Duct tape around the straps solved this problem for awhile).

Around his third birthday, he was evaluated for early learning disabilities (including autism and ADHD). Twenty minutes into the evaluation he pulled out every toy, had to be told to go back to his seat fifteen times, ran into the door twice, and spun in a circle for three full minutes… Oh and he tried to set some turtles free. Anyways, after all this, the evaluator scrunched up her face and went, “Yeah. It looks like ADHD.” As if to drive this point home, the kid ran into the concrete block wall and bounced off with a huge smile. Then did it again.

One of her suggestions—find a gross motor activity that allows him to practice his missing executive function skills. (more…)

Death and destruction at the hands of a child: Our connection with living critters.

GrasshopperThe other day I was teaching an after school science lab at our local elementary school. My students hadn’t come to my classroom yet, so while I waited I watched the fourth and fifth graders playing outside. Soccer balls bounced on the field, girls hung from the bars, and two little boys squatted over an insect that had emerged too early and was struggling to deal with mud and snow. They poked at it with a stick for a minute—and then skewered it.

I winced for some reason, and then watched as they, fascinated, lifted the part of the skewered bug that stuck to their stick and examined its legs up close. One reached out to touch the hard exoskeleton. Then the other grabbed the stick and started chasing the girls with it.

Boys will by boys, I thought.

But what is it about boys that leads them to skewer animals, tie strings to flies, stomp on ants with wild abandon, and eventually ask dad if they can try out the beebee gun on the birds in the backyard? And is it bad? (more…)

Letting your kids see you fail

Last spring was the first time I’d taken up playboating with any degree of seriousness. Playboating is where you dabble in the waves, skirting the edge of tumult, and using the force of the water to move around, but never really downstream.  Truth be told I’d rather run a river any day, but unfortunately my life situation (little kids to care for, a husband with a job, and–oh yeah–the lack of rivers in Nevada) doesn’t allow much time for that. Instead I started going down to the kayak park with a friend of mine; a fellow Mom and an amazingly good playboater.

I often met her down at the kayak park just as Joe was getting off work. I’d bring the kids down and Joe would meet us there on his bike. Joe and the kids would catch crawdads, throw rocks and play on the playground. I would play on the waves and as soon as I had sufficiently trashed myself we’d all drive home together.

One day in particular Joe and the kids were sitting on the sidelines watching me. As usual, I kept getting dumped over in the wave (i.e. tipped upside down). Despite the fact that I’d always roll back up, this really concerned Ari. He kept yelling at me to “be careful!”  Eventually he caught on to what was happening. He would still get worried when I went upside down, but he also started to celebrate with me if I actually did something that resembled a trick. “You did it Mom!” became music to my ears. So was “try it again Mom”. He made me try harder. (more…)

I Can Do Hard Things


There’s a whole list of life lessons that we as parents want to help our kids learn, and it seems that every parent prioritizes this list differently.

The lesson I tend to focus on the most is I can do hard things.  I think this stems from the fact that Ari’s first reaction to any task set before him is that he “can’t do it”.  This concerns me.  Life is full of hard things.  Making decisions, learning a new skill, standing up for what you believe, passing a test, etc.  Life requires a certain amount of perseverance to survive, and an even bigger amount if you want to actually succeed.  I want Ari to know he has it in him.

For this reason I’m constantly pointing out to Ari when he does something that he was convinced he couldn’t do.  Fold his own laundry, draw a picture of a train, learn to read, jump off a rock, check the mail by himself, ride a bike, and hike to the top of a volcano.

Yes, a volcano. (more…)

How to encourage creativity: Embrace chaos

I love TED talks.  They are varied, fascinating, and stimulating.  They make me think of things that it never occurred to me to think about. Here is one that I watched not too long ago. It has been viewed over 5 million times, and has been extremely well-received.

At first I was inspired: the idea that we can be ‘educated out of our creative capacities’ hit a chord with me, the girl who has spent the last 29 years being educated and is currently feeling rather water-cracker bland.

Then it hit me what he seemed to be implying and I felt slightly indignant. (more…)

Teach Anticipation and Foresight. Plan a Hike.

I just read this fascinating article in Psychology Today that talked about what skills the current generation will need in order to be successful by the time they’re old enough to hold down a job.  The author points out that the model for our current education system was invented over a hundred years ago—when telephones were just being invented, refrigerators were blocks of ice, and television was pure science fiction.  In other words, during a time that today’s children absolutely cannot comprehend.  More importantly, the goals of education differed significantly a hundred years ago.  Today (as the author says):

“The best jobs will go to applicants who have the skillsets to analyze information as it becomes available, the flexibility to adapt when what were believed to be facts are revised, and to collaborate with other experts on a global playing field requiring tolerance, willingness to consider alternative perspectives, and articulately communicate one’s ideas successfully.”

How do we prepare our children for this future?  The author suggests encouraging activities that teach “predicting, planning, revising, and accountability”.

Here’s an idea: let your child plan the next hike. (more…)

Bonnie: Raising Outdoor Savvy Kids

I know Bonnie because I know her daughters. I met Liv and Sus while living and working with them in the Grand Staircase. Never have I met women more selfless, self-sufficient, compassionate, strong, capable and outdoor savvy. I wondered how it was possible for two sisters to turn out so utterly amazing. I soon found out.

You should hear the stories Liv and Sus tell of their Mom.  She taught them how to slide down glaciers on the balls of their feet, using a stick as a rudder.  By excusing them from classes for a day of hiking, she reminded them never to let school get in the way of a good education.  She demonstrated the joy of mischievousness when she hid with them, snickering in the pitch black of a lava tube, while other tourists walked by unaware that anyone else was around.

She encouraged confidence by challenging them to jump off of even bigger sand dunes, swim in the even the coldest lakes, and find a way across (or down) even the angriest rivers.  And she taught them to appreciate fully the moment they were in, even as they prepared for what might come.  If you’d ever had the privilege to hearing these stories you would understand why I deemed Bonnie the perfect candidate for an OutsideMom interview.

Thanks for doing the interview Bonnie. Thanks for emphasizing that outdoor time can teach us about living no matter where we find ourselves. Thanks for reminding us of the value of spontaneity and the importance of throwing structure out the window.

Why did you emphasize the outdoors when raising your girls?

Being outside teaches children to see themselves in context. In the built environment of the city, everything natural is controlled. I think children in the city eventually come to believe that control of everything is their right, and even (sadly) their responsibility. It burdens them with an inflated sense of their own importance.

If you think about it, it’s just cruel. In the natural world, they are one part of something bigger. Their individual contribution makes a difference and can change things, but it doesn’t bring down the house if they make a mistake. They are free to play, act, wonder, discover and experiment and to learn the consequences of doing just that. For city kids, the loss of a life is an earth-shattering event.  For a natural kid, it’s part of a never-ending, life-affirming pattern. (more…)


    I'm Lindsey. I'm an environmental educator, my husband's a biologist. The outdoors is infused into everything we do; which explains why I'm better at mud pies than home decorating. More About Me

    I don't blog alone! Meet outsidemom contributer Olivia