Those who’ve been following this blog until now will know the importance I place on introducing children to the outdoors, hopefully generating a love for the natural world and confidence in their own self-sufficiency.
Last week I spent four days hiking with my 10-year-old daughter, climbing to the summit of Frenchmans Cap, one of the most prominent mountains in Tasmania. I then took my eight-year-old son for a three-day hike around Freycinet Peninsula, circuiting its beaches and crossing the summit of Mt Graham.
Heading for the summit of Frenchmans Cap
All the while I was carrying and reading a book called On Looking, by Alexandra Horowitz. In it, Horowitz examines our natural tendency to no longer see the ordinary things around us as we walk. We file them away as familiar and, thus, automatically overlook them. Horowitz, a cognitive scientist, wrote about her subject by walking through New York with a range of people to observe their different perspectives and the things that caught their eye. Her subjects ranged from a geologist to a typographer, but also her own young child. I was struck by her take on how a child perceives a walk:
“It has nothing to do with points A, B or the getting from one to the other. It barely has anything to do with planting one’s feet in a straight line. A walk is, instead, an investigatory exercise that begins with energy and ends when (and only when) exhausted.
“A walk is exploring surfaces and textures with finger, toe and – yuck – tongue; standing still and seeing who or what comes by; trying out different forms of locomotion. It is archaeology: exploring the bit of discarded candy wrapper; collecting a fistful of pebbles and a twig and a torn corner of a paperback; swishing dirt back and forth along the ground. It is stopping to admire the murmuring of the breeze in the trees; locating the source of the bird’s song; pointing. It is a time of sharing.”
I realised that, like most parents, I have until now been pushing my kids to walk like me when I should probably be learning to walk like them again. Over the week I tried to cut down on the calls of “C’mon” or “We really should push on” (while remaining mindful of time and the need to reach camp at a reasonable hour each day). I tried to let them walk their own way.
On the summit of Mt Graham, Freycinet Peninsula
Though my children are years older than Horowitz’s son, the hikes for them still seemed to be just the frame around a bunch of distinct, individual experiences. There were the different forms of locomotion – walking, running, going out of your way to scramble over rocks, squelching through mud and then turning around to squelch back through it again… and again.
They saw bugs I didn’t notice, and they stopped dozens of times to set off trigger plants. A mountain of stones was skimmed, and the plot lines of about three different book series were narrated to me. My son gathered walking sticks from among the leaf litter – first one stick, then two, then three, until he finally decided that three sticks and two arms somehow didn’t compute. My daughter stashed her own various walking sticks at strategic points, wanting to see if they’d still be there on our walk out. There were other sticks that could be used to scoop up bits of bark as you walked, tossing them over your head.
I’d thought we were simply going for a couple of hikes, but instead we were touching and feeling the world, seeing how the natural puzzle pieces fitted together. I experienced impatience, frustration and, ultimately, great joy. And for all that, we rarely arrived in camp any later than I’d anticipated. It seems that wasting time isn’t always wasting time.