Life at home with small children can be equal parts wondrous and suffocating. The need to escape the four walls of our living room, which feel as though they are closing in on us, often overwhelms me. All of my senses feel overloaded as I try to breathe through the constant chatter and cries, the sticky floor underfoot, the smell of burnt toast wafting from the kitchen, the mountains of clothes and dishes and toys cascading over every surface. Knowing this about myself, getting outside into nature each day is a non-negotiable, for my own wellbeing and that of my children. The weather doesn’t matter, we dress accordingly. A change in conditions offers up an exciting transformation in our surroundings–a deluge of water flowing across our path, a branch blown down across the track in the wind.
And so, despite the rain, I pack up the child paraphernalia which must accompany a so-called spontaneous daily walk these days; coats and snacks, bike, helmet– ‘Mama where’s my helmet?’–wipes, baby carrier. I have learnt to plan for every eventuality, although even that will not be enough. I am always trying to think two steps ahead; no easy feat as my sleep-deprived brain struggles to click into gear, and the noise and busyness of the house makes it hard to concentrate. Some days it all feels too hard, but there’s always that knowing, simmering away inside me, that if we can just get out the door, everything will feel lighter.We amble to the end of our street and the forest invites us into her shadowed canopy. The raindrops are audible here, a syncopated splatter and splosh in the cathedral of greenery towering above our heads. I am often stopped in my tracks by the natural beauty on offer in Aotearoa (New Zealand). Being outdoors is such a fundamental aspect of daily life for so many here, and it is little wonder. We are incredibly spoilt with the accessibility and magnificence of our natural spaces. Here in Aotearoa, Māori consider humans to have deep bonds to the land – a reciprocal relationship between the land and its people. Papatūānuku, the Earth Mother, births and sustains life. Land, soil and water are taonga (treasures), and it is our role to be guardians of these taonga. As a mother, I often ponder my role in supporting my young children to build on their innate connection with the land, and ensuring this appreciation endures. I do not need to introduce this concept – children and nature are connected from birth. However, somewhere along the way, a disconnect can form. I believe the answer lies in exposure – daily walks, explore, play, to simply be in nature. My son calls to me, bike flung into the dirt, small body crouched over something rare and precious discovered on the side of the path. A feather. He marvels at it, picks it up, strokes it, holds the softness of it in his palm. He wonders aloud: Where did it come from? Where is the bird who gave this feather? Are they missing it? Can I take it home? We set off again, feather tenderly tucked in his pocket, until the next stop. Such is a daily walk with a toddler, who has nowhere to be, and all the time in the world. A long to-do list does not wait for them at home. All that matters is this moment, right here and now: this feather and finding the bird who dropped it. Many of us spend much of our adult life attempting to return to this state. I am in constant awe of the way he lives so presently, trying to tap into this mindful state for myself.My three year old son views the world through fresh eyes; everything is new, wondrous, interesting. Even the most unassuming of discoveries. In fact, it is often in the ordinary, the unseen, that he finds the most beauty. When do we lose this sense of wonder? When do we become so disillusioned that we rush through life without stopping to look and to feel?
In these moments I am always brought back to the poetry of Mary Oliver. Her attentiveness to the natural world and sense of wonder guide me to slow down. “Attention is the beginning of devotion,” wrote Oliver, and indeed I find when I get out of my busy mind and into my present ‘toddler mind’, I am constantly in awe of the beauty that surrounds me. We must simply be open to being astonished by the world–being rather than constant doing. I resonate with Oliver’s sentiments when she wrote, “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”
To do this, I must forget my discomfort at the rain seeping into my jacket and dripping down my neck. Ignore my aching shoulders, the washing and dishes that lie in wait back at home. The jobs never end, and to attempt to complete them would lead to utter frustration and exhaustion. Instead, I try to imagine what it must feel like to be three months old, like my baby nestled snugly on my front, and to be seeing this for the first time. How mesmerizing the waving leaves must be, how vivid the thousand shades of green. How intoxicating this smell of plants and soil and sea, as she inhales the cool morning air.
Richard Louv, in his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, writes about the growing research showing how essential exposure to nature is for healthy development, physical and emotional health. While his work focuses on children, nature plays a healing role in children and adults alike. “Nature—the sublime, the harsh, and the beautiful—offers something that the street or gated community or computer game cannot. Unlike television, nature does not steal time; it amplifies it.” writes Louv. “In nature, a child finds freedom, fantasy, and privacy: a place distant from the adult world, a separate peace.”
As we are enveloped into this pocket of nature at the end of our street, I know that Louv speaks the truth. Nothing can compare to that which nature has to offer my children, or myself. I think back to a carefree trip to Japan many years ago, before children, when I first learnt of the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, meaning ‘forest bathing’. The therapeutic benefits of spending time in the forest for physical and mental wellbeing is so valued, it is promoted by Japanese doctors. I am entranced by this notion of ‘bathing’ in the atmosphere found in nature. There are no breaks as a parent, but immersing myself and my senses in the bush while living in the present moment comes close.
We all benefit from these daily explorations in nature. My nervous system is calmed, I am able to recharge, reset and take a breath. My son is immersed in all the wonders nature has to offer. He’s dragging branches through the undergrowth now, propping them up on a tree trunk to create a cubby. They keep falling over, and I stand back and watch as he tries balancing them in different ways. The opportunities for learning here are immense. In this simple moment I watch him develop his resilience, problem-solving, imagination and creativity, communication, risk assessment abilities and mathematical understanding of shape, space, measurement, estimation. Meanwhile, my baby is immersed in learning all of her own. She is mesmerised by the sounds, sensations, colours, shapes and lighting. As she takes in the sensory offerings of this natural space, she is growing, learning, and connecting with the earth.
As I bask in this moment, I am brought back to the words of Rachel Carson in her classic book The Sense of Wonder:
“The lasting pleasures of contact with the natural world are not reserved for scientists but are available to anyone who will place himself under the influence of earth, sea, and sky and their amazing life.”
It is my hope that these adventures awaken a love and fascination for the environment in my children, and that by forming a strong bond with Papatūānuku, they are compelled to care for, nourish, protect and defend our earth throughout their lives.
Essay/Article commissioned by: TDLM Editorial
Written by: Eve Croskery
[Teacher; Deakin University, Melbourne, Writer]Graphics/Art/Illustration by: TDLM Design Team
‘Daily Walks Despite, With and For Children’ First Published in The Daily Life Magazine on March 16, 2023