Nature's Nurture

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Fly rod in hand, I eased into the cool waters of the storied Madison River. My son, Ben, was just steps behind me, eager to wet his line. Despite my felt-bottomed shoes, I faltered slightly, slipping off the rounded, moss-covered rocks below my feet.

“Here, take my hand,” Ben said softly behind me. “I’ll help you.”

Steadied by his strength – at 6′ 3″, he now towers over me – we pushed forward against the rippling current.Mothers with children older than mine had long presaged it would happen like this: a fast-forward blur of growth spurts, sporting events, back-to-school nights and prom dates. And now Ben is holding me upright as we wade into braided waters under the wide Montana sky, a vast expanse we both love.

This was more than a casual weekend. He had called to suggest we meet for a few days of mother-son fly-fishing, an interest we have happily shared since his boyhood. After, we would head to the big celebration. In less than a week, he would marry a wonderful young woman.

It was no surprise he chose this landscape for our special time together. Gratefully, it was our way. It was our comfortable, common ground. 

The Great Outdoors 

Getting outside is one important way that my three boys and I have bonded. While we’ve shared countless extraordinary experiences, the times we treasure most are those where the wind sings through the trees, wildlife crosses our paths and jagged peaks provide a purple-hued backdrop. And just maybe, a little “weather” makes the adventure a bit more sporting.

Such outings – for a day, a week and sometimes longer – sustained and tightly stitched the fabric of our family. But it is seemingly more difficult today for parents and children to find their way to nature.

What’s in the Way?

Ask anyone with more than four or five decades tucked under his or her belt about favorite childhood memories and you are likely to hear about games of Kick the Can, Capture the Flag, and Hide and Seek. Or perhaps we’ll tell tales of lopsided tree forts, crafting boats to float downstream or capturing crawdads in the creek.

We were comfortable outside.

Yet today it is reported that kids eight to 18 years old devote an average of seven hours and 38 minutes to entertainment media on any given day. That’s more than 53 hours a week. Adults’ demanding careers, concerns about “stranger danger,” tangled traffic and easy access to technology combine to keep kids inside. Further, structured activities, from music lessons to team sports, designed to keep youngsters “competitive” leave little room for carefree, outdoor discovery.

It’s no surprise that the natural world therefore feels a little “unnatural.” All the more reason to make a nature-based family holiday a top priority.

Kids in nature in ItalyWhy It Matters

It’s good for your health.

The stress, distractions and constant stimulation of modern life sap our energy. Fortunately, a slew of scientific studies confirms a leafy, green remedy. Time in nature – hiking, paddling, camping, star gazing – not only helps us relax but has a significant positive impact on the overall health of the next generation.

Regular time outside results in significant improvements to an expanding list of modern-day parental concerns. Obesity is perhaps the most visible, but the list includes attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning challenges, creativity, and mental, psychological and emotional wellbeing.

In short, spending time in nature makes us feel better.

To wit, Richard Louv, author of the groundbreakingLast Child in the Woods and chairman of the Children & Nature Network, shares a story that begins with an issue of San Francisco magazine. He describes a “vivid photograph of a small boy, eyes wide with excitement and joy, leaping and running on a great expanse of California beach, storm clouds and towering waves behind him.”

Offers Louv: “A short article explains that the boy was hyperactive, he had been kicked out of his school, and his parents had not known what to do with him – but they had observed how nature engaged and soothed him. So for years they took their son to beaches, forests, dunes, and rivers to let nature do its work.”The photograph was taken in 1907. And the boy was the incomparable nature and landscape photographer Ansel Adams.

It’s good for your future.

If we expect our children to care for our world, isn’t it our responsibility to make proper introductions and then nurture relationships with forests, rivers, parks and mountaintops? It would be understandably difficult for a tech-savvy generation to commit to caring for wild places they hardly know. In fact, a 2006 study by Wells and Lekies suggests that youngsters’ participation in nature-based activities before the age of 11 is the most effective way to ensure their interest in caring for the environment they will inherit.

Kids in garden in Cuenca

A Landscape for Life

When it comes to planning family travel, as purveyors and participants we have options. We can make sure that our children know the sound of streams tumbling over well-worn stone, are able to identify the hoot of an owl or marvel at the sound of their own voices echoing within steep, canyon walls.

In doing so, perhaps they learn how to tap into the mysterious and healing power of the natural world. And thus, should they seek the comfort of common ground, they will know the way.

Lynn O'Rourke Hayes is the Editor of and a founding member of the Family Travel Association's Board. Find out more about the FTA Spotlight Series and share your thoughts about Family Travel.