“Who wants to go for a sunset paddle before dessert?,” I asked, ever the instigator for Active Outdoors adventures. We’d just finished a grand dinner in rented house overlooking a lovely lake in Maine. There were nine of us: seven adults, Dan (who is the 12-year-old son of our friend Susan), and me.
Clearly I didn’t fit in the adult category since the adults were all willing to sit around to sip wine and talk after an already-active day of biking, paddling and walking. But I’d had to work while they were biking, so I was eager to get out. Dan was up and at the door before any of the adults even had a chance to shake their heads “no.”
We spent the next hour paddling in the evening breeze on the empty pond, admiring the dramatic play of light on clouds as the sun set behind the surrounding hills, listening to the lap of small waves and the loons warming up for their nighttime serenade. On the way back to the landing, I tried to tempt a barred owl we’d heard the night before to join in the conversation, but got only echoes in reply.
In the dark, Dan helped me to load my kayaks on the roof of my car so my sweetheart, Marilyn, and I could get an early start home in the morning. He’s big and strong enough now to do his fair share of the work that makes play possible. At least he didn’t shirk from lending a hand when asked.
My buddy David and I have been taking Dan with us on some short adventures with an eye toward maybe doing something more challenging in the future—depending, of course, on his level of interest and ability. He recently helped us cut wood, split and stack it at one of our regular fall backpack campsites. He worked as hard as we did and earned the right to go out with us again.
Dan’s 12-years-old in physical age, but much younger in outdoor experience—he’s never spent time just roaming in the woods. But he’s catching on, learning to pay attention to his surroundings, to see hear and touch what’s really there. Those are skills that you can’t learn with headphones on and a computer or TV screen blocking your view.
It’s been a busy summer for Dan as he also got to spend some time on a working lobster boat along the Maine coast and, presumably, to learn something from that environment.
David’s also teaching Dan how to ride both road and mountain bikes. I gave him a ski lesson last winter and plan more for this winter. We’ve both shown him how to move a kayak across the water. In each case, we’re showing him the basics, letting him define his level of interest. If he decides one day to do any of these things on his own, or specifically asks to do more, we’ll take his initiative and give him the support he needs to run with it.
Right now, I’m in that awkward stage between kids and grandkids. When one of my twin sons (usually Justin) will go hiking or fishing with me, it’s as a fellow adult. I miss the days when I actually knew more than he did. So, like many adults in this situation, I’m happy to borrow a kid occasionally. Having a kid along on any adventure forces you to really think about what you are doing and how they are perceiving it. It’s good for the adult and better for the kid. Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out with a kid and enjoy!
LOOKING AT TREES
As a means to opening up Dan’s perceptions of the world, David and I have been teaching him to identify some of the common trees in our forests. There’s a huge difference between looking at something tall and green and thinking “tree,” and looking at the same object and thinking “evergreen, short, flat, feathery needles . . . Hemlock.” Or, “smooth, silver bark and arrow-head shaped leaves . . . Beech.” It’s a big task, and a whole a new way of looking for Dan. He’s struggling with some of it, but he’s learning how to learn this stuff and we are all celebrating his successes.
If you don’t know about trees yourself, now is a wonderful time of year to learn, since the colors of the leaves will give you a big clue in helping to identify the trees of the forest. Go to your local library and take out their tree identification books. Each of them will have different features and slightly different approaches. Chances are one will work for you and that’s the one to eventually buy.
SEVEN TIPS FOR KIDS AND THE GREAT OUTDOORS
1) Choose appropriate activities. Short hikes and paddling a quiet pond are perfect ways to introduce kids to the outdoors. You want them to be challenged but also to succeed. Of course some kids are more adventuresome than others and can take on more.
2) Set appropriate goals and let the child take the lead and set the pace. It may be very important for you to get to the top of the big mountain or to the end of the long bike trail or all the way around the lake, but it may not be that important for the child.
3) Make sure the child is adequately dressed for the weather. Cold, wet, or overheated kids aren’t going to have any more fun than you would. Layers work as well on kids as they do on adults.
4) Always bring enough food and water. Kids of all ages run out of fuel faster than adults do. Teenagers, can carry their own food—and some for you, too!
5) Adequate protection from sun and bugs is a must!
6) If the weather turns sour, retreat before it gets really bad.
7) Be flexible. If you and your kid companion aren’t having fun, quit, find something else to, or try another day.