Friday, September 26, 2014

A Parent’s Guide to Nature Play

I recently stumbled across this great resource for parents… or grandparents… or cool aunts and uncles… or anyone else with a child in their life.  I wish I would have found this booklet earlier so that I could have done some of these activities with my kids when they were even younger!  And I want to share it with all of you, so that you can put some of these great ideas into action!

This booklet “A Parent’s Guide to Nature Play: How to Give Your Children More Outdoor Play… and Why You Should” is written by Ken Finch of the Green Hearts Institute for Nature in Childhood.  Check it out!  Have fun with the kids you love!  Get mud on their feet!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Monday Meditation

“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.”
– Mahatma Gandhi

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Security of Nature

I enjoyed this essay by Sarah Walker, a member of the Board of Directors for the Child and Nature Alliance of Canada.  She makes a great point.  In many ways we are teaching children to be afraid of the world.  We need to counterbalance those messages by helping them find places in the natural world where they feel connected, secure and confident.  We need to help them understand life is good.  Here is a snippet from Sarah’s essay:

“Today’s kids live in world where society largely believes that leaving the backyard to play is too dangerous, walking to school is too risky and exploring the small river in the park is a health hazard. The only place to be absolutely safe is inside…  

However, there is something that we can do to make sure this generation of children reaches adulthood feeling secure and safe in their individuality and surroundings. Take your child outside; let them discover at what height they can jump from before it hurts, or how fast they can run down a grassy hill before they fall. Let them explore the fascinating world that is nature, let them watch a caterpillar turn into a butterfly and understand that their potential has no bounds.”

Read Sarah’s full article HERE.  Then take your kids outside and help them fall in love with the world they live in!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Feeling Small in a Big Universe

Last summer my son Noah and I spent a magical August night sleeping beneath the stars.  We were backpacking along the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River, and we decided to brave a night outside the tent—and we couldn’t have timed it better.

As I snuggled into my sleeping bag Noah announced, “Shooting star!”

“Really?”  I hurried onto my back and looked up.  I’d only waited a few minutes when another shot right above us, leaving a bright, long tail across the sky.

“Cool,” we both said, and the meteors just kept coming.

The sky darkened to black, filling with so many stars that a person could spend an entire lifetime trying to count them.  The rushing of the river seemed to fill everything, the sky so huge that we were almost nothing in comparison.  We were tiny and awake and breathing.

Feeling small—not belittled or minimized—but small and very much alive in a fathomless universe is a wonderful experience.

Feeling small in a big universe puts things in perspective.  It momentarily washes away the neurotic fussing of our egos.  It creates reverence.

Somehow, lying against the Earth on my back, gazing up at a sky drenched in stars, puts me in touch with things that matter and erases things that don’t.  On some instinctual level it forces me to grasp all that has transpired on this chunk of space rock we call home—a chunk of space rock that has transformed from a flaming blotch adrift in the vacuum of space to become this astonishing entanglement of life… still adrift in the vacuum of space.  The atoms in our bodies, every one of them, yours and mine, were once stardust.  As Carl Sagan put it, "Our planet, our society, and we ourselves are built of star stuff."  That’s cool.

As parents we want our kids to grow up felling large enough to face all the things life will throw at them.  Of course we do.  But sometimes, in the most marvelous of ways, we should also hope that they feel small.

As I laid there with Noah, looking into the endless space above, I thought of an article I once read by David James Duncan.  In it, he described an image captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.  The telescope was aimed at one of the darkest parts of space, focused on an interstellar region the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length.  Researchers aimed the telescope at this dark fraction of the universe and captured 276 exposures over 10 days, gathering traces of distant light.  What they found is hard for me to fathom.  This tiny speck of our universe, one of the darkest patches in the night sky, contains a vast stretch of galaxies.  Entire galaxies!  Lots of them!

In the article, Duncan wrote, “Even the tiniest points in this image, the astronomers say, are not stars but galaxies.  The light from some, travelling 186,000 mile per second, takes 11 billion years to reach Earth.  That is what I call a Roadless Area!  This is true wilderness.”

For me, trying to wrap my mind around such vastness, such endlessness, drives home the point that all the small things right here in our daily lives are truly miraculous.  The simple fact that we’re here, that we have this fleeting opportunity to be a small part of it all, is something we should each marvel at now and again.  And we should help our kids marvel at it too.  It puts us in touch with the sacredness of things.

A while back an old college friend of mine named John Saunders posted the following comment on my blog.  “I have a buddy who has taught biology for non-majors at San Jose State for 40 years.  He polls his class every semester by show of hands to see how many students have ever spent the night outside.  The number declined steadily until ultimately not one student in a class of 200 college freshmen had ever spent a night outdoors.”

That makes me sad.  Each of these young adults had been alive on this planet for more than 6,000 nights, and they hadn’t spent a single one of them outside.  They’d never had the experience of waking up after some dark midnight with a vast sea of stars to put them in their place.

Being put in our place…  We tend to use that phrase to express something punitive, the act of making someone feel less powerful than an authority figure (or a bully).  But feeling small in a vast universe can put us in our place in a positive way.  Staring into the night sky and feeling small can help us understand the marvel of being alive, of having a planet overrun by a cacophony of living wonders, a planet that makes our very lives possible.  This place is a blessing!  Being here is a miracle!

Letting the universe put us in our place can also help us understand that the gifts of our individual lives don’t last forever, so we better do something meaningful with them.  We better live thoughtfully.  We better start now.

That night along the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River, Noah and I saw at least ten more meteors before I finally got too tired and had to close my eyes.  I was almost asleep when Noah said, “Thanks, Dad.”

“Thank you,” I answered, and I scooted closer to him.  It gave me the happiest feeling, just knowing that he was laying there beside me soaking up a sky full of stars, feeling small and alive.  I’m not sure how long he stayed awake watching the sky.  I dozed off long before he did.

Jason Kapchinske is the author of Coyote Summer.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Risky play and skinned knees are key to healthy child development

I enjoyed this article by Andrea Gordon in the Toronto Star.  Safety for our children is, of course, very important—but there are also risks in taking safety too far.  Here is a snippet from the article:

“Here’s what kids at play have always liked to do: Race, climb, wrestle, hang, throw, balance, fence with sticks, jump from heights and gravitate toward sharp objects. Ideally, while escaping the watchful eye of grown-ups.

Here’s what today’s kids hear when they’re even flirting with such pursuits: Slow down, get down, put that down. No throwing, no sticks allowed, don’t jump from there. Don’t touch, that’s too dangerous, be careful. And for goodness sake, don’t go anywhere without an adult.

In the last generation, adults have been consumed with protecting kids against all odds. But now, some child injury prevention experts are warning too much bubble wrap may be thwarting healthy development.”

Read the full article HERE.  And let us know what you think!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Monday Meditation

“What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”
– Jane Goodall

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Gray Hairs are Alright with Me!

Despite some new aches and pains, some patches of gray in my beard, a little downturn in energy, I’ve found there is a real joy in growing up.  You get to venture into the world unleashed and find your place in it all.  You get to realize who you are—and if you do it right you get to realize that there is so much more to it all than who you are.  The world, the universe, is quite a place.

For me growing up has been a very gradual process… a process that didn’t really take hold until I was well into my thirties.  And I’m sure Pam would be happy to tell all of you that I’m still very early in the game.  But so far I like the game.  I’m excited to keep playing.

Becoming a parent was a huge turning point for me.  This isn’t to say that you must have kids to grow up.  Certainly not.  Some of the most grown-up people—that is to say some of the wisest, kindest, most mindful people—that I have been lucky enough to know were not parents.  But for me, coming to grips with the fact that I had children, that they called me Dad and looked at me the way I looked at my own parents, was life changing in the best kind of way.  It gave me a big slap upside the face and shouted, “It’s not all about you!”  It made me want to be a part of bigger things.

Of course it was a hard transition.  I slapped back.  It’s a shock to go from being a moneyless but free-wheeling ski bum, focused on how fun it was for me to strap on my skis and hit my secret powder stashes in my free time, to being a dad changing someone else’s diaper and wiping someone else’s butt at someone else’s whim.  Of course there was the whole marriage thing too… and don’t even get me started on the nine-to-five job with one week of annual vacation!  Let’s just say there have been plenty of times when I didn’t handle it well.  When I resisted.  When I fought hard to hang on to my juvenile tendencies.

Growing up means there’s a lot to juggle—the people you love and make commitments to, the bills you have to pay, the job you have to keep in order to pay those bills, the dreams you have to put on the back burner or maybe even let go of.  It’s tricky to navigate the rat race without becoming a rat.  It’s not easy to hang onto your soul when so many drivers of our modern economy are soulless.  It’s all too easy to let heartless forces creep in and run our very lives, to harden us.

Part of me hardened in my late twenties and early thirties, as I entered a point in my life when it felt like a daily struggle just to keep my financial head above water and avoid drowning.  Without consciously thinking about it, I even started to feel that one of my primary roles as a father was to harden my children in order to ready them for the world.  But I was wrong.  Of course helping our children toughen a bit is a good thing, so they learn to dust themselves off, hold their chins up and keep trucking after life knocks them down, skins their knees or bruises their egos.  But toughening is different than hardening.  And slowly the process of loving my children has taught me that growing up shouldn’t be a hardening at all.  It should be a softening.  An opening.

As grownups, shouldn’t making the world a good place for children be our primary responsibility?  In this very moment and in every moment that follows, we can stop being rats.  We can kindle those untended fires in our souls and take action to ensure that our communities are places where children learn how to be kind and patient and mindful… places where they can grow up right.

And that’s what makes growing up so cool!  If we open ourselves up to these bigger responsibilities and seize the opportunities they offer—to enhance our societies, to be conscientious parents, to be stewards of life on this planet—our existence takes on new meanings.  Our lives get repainted with a whole new pallet of colors.  It’s like finally getting the super-big box of crayons, only cooler!

I’m not always good at all this.  Sometimes the pictures I create with all those crayons turn out ugly, even scary.  Sometimes I still just grab the black and haul off with some quick, thoughtless scribbling.  I’ve even broken a few of my favorite colors and had to tape them back together.  I’ve failed miserably at times.  But I want to be a good grownup.  I’ll keep working at it.

My son Kai was born with a club foot.  It was awkwardly twisted, like a hook, and at the moment of his birth I was afraid he might never walk.  As a baby he had to wear a brace—stiff leather boots that angled his feet and bound them to a bar, like being strapped into uncomfortable snowboard bindings all day and all night and not being able to unbuckle.  At night he woke several times and struggled against it, so he slept with Pam and I until he was two, so we could comfort him when he woke.  There was a lot of waking up, and I was tired during those years, but there were magical moments when he woke me up in a much bigger sense.

One morning, shortly after he learned to speak his first words, I woke to the sound of Kai saying “Hi” and looking down right into my face.  It was 4:30 AM and the first hint of dawn was just teasing the horizon outside my window.  But he had the biggest smile on his face, the brightest look in his eyes, as if just being there awake together in that moment was the greatest thing that could possibly happen.  And it was.  I reached up and he put his tiny hand in mine and his smile spread into me and filled me up.

We got out of bed and woke Kai’s older brother Noah, and I took them both to a patch of old growth forest near our home at the time, Bellingham, Washington.  We spent a couple hours there, just exploring beneath the giant trees, climbing on fallen logs, watching a heron in the wetland… until the coffee shop opened and we went for treats.

It was a simple morning.  It was the best kind of morning.  It was the kind of experience that I think of as a reward for growing up, and it filled me with the best kind of feelings.

One thing about being a grownup is that you get to share things that give your life meaning with the next generation.  You get to help them understand the things you’ve found that make the world worth living in.  Of course it doesn’t just happen.  You have to seize that opportunity.  You have to muster the energy and make it so…  You have to turn off your damn cell phone and put it away for a while.

For me, nature has always been at the top of my list of important things to share with my boys.  I want so strongly to share with them the wilderness that has given my life meaning—that has fed my soul and given me purpose.  But I can’t really put it all into words, at least not in a way that any kid would want to listen to.  It reminds me of a great quote by David James Duncan.  “But from boyhood through manhood it has been my experience that trying to grasp an insight, a deep mystery, a transrational experience, or any act of love via reason alone is rather like trying to play a guitar with one’s butt.”

So I try to make time to get outside with my boys, to provide some gentle guidance and share experiences.  And I just hope that we do this often enough that they find something and it speaks to them, helps them find their place in the universe, helps them see the miracles of their own lives and of all the other living things they share this planet with, helps them realize the possibilities that their beating hearts afford them… helps them comprehend the fact that none of it last forever, and that it’s okay.

Making time just to be in nature with no other agenda was one of the most wonderful gifts that my parents shared with me.  One of the fun things about growing up is that I get to pay that gift forward.

We all grow older.  Eventually it just happens to you, no matter how many multivitamins you take.  But growing up is different.  We have to work at becoming good grownups, at being mindful elders and stewards.  There’s a lot to balance.  It can be a lot of work to stay curious, enthused and playful.  It takes effort and desire.  But I think it’s worth it.  Big time.

I’m pretty sure e.e. cummings understood—and each of us can probably learn from his approach. 

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old

I’d love to hear some of the things all of you enjoy about growing up.  Please share your thoughts and experiences with a comment below.

Jason Kapchinske is the author of Coyote Summer.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Treasure Lakes – A Great Backpacking Trip for Kids

Treasure Lakes is an idyllic spot located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, near Bishop, California.  It is a short hike, approximately three miles from the trailhead to the first lake—which makes it a great location for parents looking for a fun backpacking experience with kids.  The hike in is mostly uphill and somewhat tough, but given that it is only three miles you can take your time and keep it enjoyable for the children you are hiking with.  And the lakes, once you reach them, are a playground for kids—shallow areas to wade, rock islands, and fish visible in the clear water.  Enjoy a cross-country day hike along a narrow stream to the upper lakes as well.

The Treasure Lakes area is located in the John Muir Wilderness of Inyo National Forest, and you will need to obtain a Wilderness Permit before you begin.  My family visited this area in late August.  The days were warm, but the early mornings and evenings were chilly, so bring plenty of warm layers.  And of course storms are always a possibility, so be prepared.

Trailhead and Directions:  This trip starts at the South Lake/Treasure Lakes Trailhead.  To get there, turn west on Line Street in Bishop then follow Hwy 168 and South Lake Road.  A paved parking lot for day hiking with some overnight parking spots is located past the boat ramp at the road’s end.  My family stayed in hiker cabins at Parcher’s Resort (very close to the trailhead) before and after our trip.

If you go, please drop me a comment and let me know!  Happy Trails!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Monday Meditation

"Truly it may be said that the outside of a mountain is good for the inside of a man."
– George Wherrya