It’s easy to get caught up in the “shoulds” of parenthood: what should the baby eat, how long should the baby sleep, at what age should my baby roll over, sit, watch an educational DVD, crawl, walk, talk, or poop in the toilet. Our overwhelming love and urge to protect and teach drives us to push all sorts of well-meaning toys and activities on our children in an effort to encourage early learning, to give their already gifted genius the challenge it needs to excel.
No matter how many books you read or people you speak with, nothing prepares you for the wonder of parenthood. Most moms and dads will agree that the sleepless nights, the soiled diapers, fluids from all orifices, and unpredictable outbursts, do absolutely nothing to dull the pure joy and pride of watching your little cherub smile, recognize you, recognize his or her own hand, and begin discovering the world around them.
When our Noah would repeat “heh-wo” to the word “hello” in his first month of life, I was (and remain!) convinced (like all parents) that my child has a phenomenal little mind. He will be two years old next month, and is now clearly attempting to read words. He identifies numbers, and is practicing counting to 100 (thanks to a song I made up for bedtime, originally intended to be so boring and repetitive as to leave no reason to remain awake). He can identify shapes and colors, and knows the difference between a whale, a dolphin and a shark. He blows my mind.
When our first was born, my husband made some very attractive flash cards, with the hope that we might nurture his intellect from infancy. Our boys both like them enough, but watching them grow has taught me a very basic lesson in parenting: Our parents and their parents had it right (more or less.) I say “more or less” because my sons would not be able to categorize animals, for instance, if we did not provide a plethora of tiny plastic replicas, or read about them in picture books regularly (i.e.: parental involvement and learning materials required). However, the flash cards are kind of silly (no offence to my better half, we’re learning all this together.)
While we are diligent about providing our children with educational toys and books, and offer them trips to local parks, the zoo, museums, and libraries, their particular “aha!” moments come from the most elementary sources—digging in dirt or sand with a shovel, flying a kite, banging on one thing using another to make a loud sound, building a tower from blocks, kicking a ball or pulling something on wheels (pretty much all the same things our grandparents did when they were little and weren’t yet acquainted with Playhouse Disney or Baby Einstein.)
We’ve been visiting potential schools our children might one day attend (We live in a community where school options are plentiful and we want to be confident in our decision when the time comes. Yeah, right.) During this process we’ve been presented with a variety of teaching methods, yet one thing remains absolutely clear—a child will “get” something if he or she is ready, and if the interest is there. Some kids are far better served by waiting until first grade to learn the alphabet, instead experiencing the world through imaginative play, and other children are fiercely determined to write their own name in nursery or pre-school.
One thing is certain: I need to pare down and keep it simple. This week, a day after a trip to Santa Ana Zoo (where the kids had a lovely time), I decided to go check out a park I’d driven by a hundred times. The Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park completely surprised me with its 3,879 awe-inspiring acres of green serenity. I’ve lived in Orange County for over two years now, and our venture made me crashingly aware of the peace we’ve been missing. Nowhere were noises of traffic or endless bustling bodies or cement boundaries. More importantly, as I chided myself for not having sought out this place long before, my child was receiving his surroundings in an entirely powerful way. He has visited the woods in Canada on trips to see Gramma and Grandpa, and he has enjoyed numerous days at the beach and neighborhood parks, but I’m embarrassed to admit how overcome he was by the dirt path and the rocks. How citified we’ve been! Our own backyard has recycled tire chips beneath his playhouse and slide—environmentally friendly, but not, well, environment. As we walked along, we listened to birds chirping and insects calling and water running. Again, no traffic in the background. (Even the waves at the beach echo traffic noise.) We came across the occasional jogger or mountain biker, and Noah shared his excitement with them. There were some bushes humming loudly with insects, sending him running to grab my leg, but the best of all were the caterpillars. “Pill!” he squealed (his word for caterpillar)—he recognized them right away, he knew exactly what they were from books, but this was astounding, for both of us. Within seconds we were on our knees, observing, gently touching, smiling excitedly at one another. He even chased one, being careful not to block its path. In a few weeks, they will be butterflies. He “knows” that from Eric Carle, but he won’t really know it until we come back and witness it.
I know I must sound horrible, aren’t these experiences so rudimentary? But, if I had “forgotten” to get away from the noise and business of life and into nature, maybe other moms and dads have been pounding the pavement too? Having a kid means being tight on time, and those jogs or hikes we used to take when we were solo can slip away with the demands of parenthood. But, while we are too busy running our household, our children are also missing out. Let’s make time for nature (and its learning materials), remembering our own childhoods, and leave the concrete world behind for a while.