My wife Vickie and I recently returned from Estes Park, Colorado, where we spent close to a week doing nothing but hiking trails through the gorgeous Rocky Mountains. These were all pre-approved, well maintained, and clearly marked trails, I might add. We are not the kind of people that tend to jump out of a car and go all Rambo within the confines of a national park, so this kind of outdoor excursion befitted us quite well. I must say that, however easy-breezy the park system makes it for amateur hikers to enjoy the solitude and splendor of the outdoors, the going-up part is entirely up to the physical capabilities of said hikers. More than once my wife and I were asked by others how we were doing. The common response? “Acclimating.” We are from Kansas, which is about as sea-level as you can get.
It is not typically my job to educate my wife “on all things outdoors” as she is keenly aware of the nature that surrounds us, but I felt compelled during our hikes to point out things that she might not be familiar with, as in different kinds of bugs, high altitude squirrels, and all manner of deciduous conifers (trees–oops, there I go again). Yes, I thoroughly enjoyed our few days on the trails, but could not help thinking of what a great opportunity it would be to teach.
Have you ever taken your kids on a hike? I don’t mean backpacking into the furthest reaches of the Alaskan wilderness, or setting off across Death Valley with just a pocket knife and a smattering of extra smoky beef jerky. I mean just a hike. In a local park. Even around the neighborhood.
All the while we were hiking in the mountains, I kept referring to the entire process as “real 3D,” and complaining that no photos could actually do justice to what we witnessed. I could imagine leading a group of my nephews and nieces up the winding trails, all the while explaining what everything around us was all about.
Why the trees have the shapes and the colors that they do. Why certain trees only grow in certain places. What kinds of food do they provide for the animals and what kind of food do they themselves require? And what happens to the trees and their furry counterparts when the wind starts to blow and the snow starts to fall?
Orienteering, map reading, weather observation, food and water conservation, trail reading. I even became keenly aware that a person should never hike until they are tired, as that person can quickly forget that the hike back will take nearly as much energy and resources. Animals in abundance, from tiny chipmunks to really, really large bull elk. Rocks the size of houses imperceptibly perched upon much smaller rocks (here’s a great lesson on plate tectonics on a scale that is up close and personal). In short, all kinds of things to discuss.
Sure, there are a lot of things to use as a learning tool out in the wilds of Northern Colorado, but I would argue that there are just as many opportunities (if not more) to teach that are well within your neighborhood. It’s as simple as putting your shoes on, grabbing one or more of your children, and opening the door. Here are a few things to get you started:
You spot some water in a gutter. Ask your kids to observe and determine where it possibly came from and where it’s going. Use this to explain that one part of your street is higher than another. Watch other people as they walk by. Can you tell by the way they are dressed what their occupation likely is?
There are usually birds everywhere… are any of them different in any way form the birds you typically see? Are they ‘locals’ or are they passing through? And if so, which way would you guess they are heading? Clouds. They can tell us a great deal if we watch them for a bit. Wind. Did you know that if you put your back to the wind, you are facing the direction of a low pressure system with potentially less-than-pleasant weather? (Wind always blows from areas of high pressure to areas of low pressure.)
Listen. What do you hear? Is it traffic or something else? If it is traffic, is it louder or quieter than usual (which typically denotes what time of day it is–people coming and going from work or school). Smell. What is it you pick up on? Is it the bakery three blocks to the South? Hmm. the wind must be out of the South, eh?
To me, the ability to pick up and read the clues around you is one of the best methods of teaching ever. And it doesn’t have to be one of those certified educational moments either. The grocery store, a football game, church, riding in the car, even watching TV; all can be moments when you discuss the things you touch, hear, taste, and see with your kids. Don’t forget to have the kids ask the questions every now and then, and don’t be surprised or upset if they enlighten you with a bit of wisdom of their own. See the next paragraph…
Teach. Learn. Enjoy!