Barefoot children climbing trees. Muddy hands, skinned up knees. Berry stained faces and bright, wild eyes. Catching jars of fireflies. Pockets of fungus and acorns and rocks. Running with joy through a million raindrops. This is what childhood is made of.
A text: “We did mud camp today, one of the parents complained that her child came home too dirty. I consider that a success.”
A camper: (showing off his scraped up arm) “Look what happened today Miss Sarah!” There was pride in his voice.
A story from a friend: “[my niece] was on the rock and asked if she could slide down. I said that if she felt comfortable, yes. Another family walked by and the grandfather yelled “No don’t do that! You’ll give me a heart attack!” To which my friend replied “It’s ok, I trust her to make her own decision of what is comfortable. I am ok with it if she is.”
A teacher to a boy walking on a log no higher than 30 inches off the ground: “Get off that, you’ll fall and hurt yourself.” My response: “Oh my goodness, you’re an amazing climber, you’re like a mountain goat!” He beamed.
I love Day Camp at Audubon, I love what we do in general. But sometimes I wish I could reach out to the adults and shake them. Hard. I wish I could look into their eyes and intensely demand “Do you remember being a child? What happened to you?”
I just read an article in the paper about kids committing suicide because their parents took away their video games, their tablets, their phones. I read an article about how there are now special counselors to help parents treat their children’s screen addictions, because that’s what they are, addictions. At 8 years old. Maybe the question isn’t “what happened to you?” but rather “what happened to us?”
Tangent. I just got a book titled “The Lost Words.” I could write thousands of words about that book, but another time. The point in mentioning it here is that it captures the words lost from children’s vocabulary and gives people spells to magically reinstate them. There are 20 words brought back to life in the book, but only if you read the words aloud and conjure them. We need that for the outdoor spaces and activities that are the palaces of children’s imaginations.
For this is what unfettered time in nature can do for children. It can conjure magic. It can build character. It can grow minds and deepen souls, heal wounds, connect hearts. Our children are losing not just the words but the context. They don’t know what a forest really is, they don’t know that there is mud at the bottom of a pond that squishes between their toes. Dirt is something bad, to avoid. Rain is a tragedy, heat an enemy.
My heart cries when I see a child cringe at a raindrop rather than rejoice at its kiss. I wince inside when a child asks what an acorn is, what a tadpole is, or what a firefly is. The knowledge of nature, the knowledge of youth, is fading, more quickly than your heart races after a deer leaps in front of your car at twilight.
Another tangent. I saw bats the other night, plural. The first time in a long time. The women mostly shuddered, shrieked, and ran for cover. Then men ignored them. The girl stared at the sky in rapture. She wanted them to come closer. As if by magic a memory returned, of standing in my driveway flinging small pebbles with all my might straight up into the air to get the bats to swoop close to my head. I handed her some small stones, took her up to the yard away from the cars, and told her how to throw them straight up when she saw a bat. Her shrieks were of joy. “Mom! Mom! Mom! Watch!”
I could have cried. I thought this was gone. The bats, the reckless flinging of stones, the delight. I had forgotten, and then I remembered.
Some of my favorite words from this summer from a parent: “My little girl has come back. School this year just seemed to pull everything out of her, but since she’s been [at Audubon] she is the confident, sassy little girl I know she is.”
Audubon does a good job at getting kids out, muddy, and wild. Our Day Camp shirt this year captures five of the ways to have a great day. There are more, of course. But it is a good day if you get muddy, bloody, bitten, slimed/pooped on/peed on, or stinky sweaty. The campers have added more suggestions throughout the summer: bruised, eaten something wild, lost a shoe, or berry-stained.
But we need your help. Take your child — or any child — outside, better yet, let your child go outside without you. Teach them what blackberries look like and that the scratches are worth it. Remember that dirt isn’t evil. Rainstorms are for celebrating, flinging doors open wide, and rushing into with laughter and carelessness. Even better, do all those things yourself.
Don’t lose the world that you grew up in, for we are frighteningly close. Don’t lose the words that make it real. Say it all out loud until it returns: Barefoot children climbing trees. Muddy hands, skinned up knees. Berry stained faces and bright, wild eyes. Catching jars of fireflies. Pockets of fungus and acorns and rocks. Running with joy through a million raindrops. This is what childhood is made of.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.