What Matters

Last Sunday was Earth Day, and, by tradition, we honored it by picking up litter that’s accumulated along the sides of our road. Actually, because Ursula needed to be in town for the day, “we” this year was just Jim and Virgil.

Ursula and I went one direction in the car, our windshield wipers clearing off the misting rain, and Jim and Virgil tromped off in the other in raincoats and rubber boots. Through the rear-view mirror, I saw that Virgil was pulling the old red wagon behind him. We used to take him for rides in that wagon as a baby. On this day, discarded coffee cups, crumpled cigarette packs, and especially empty beer cans would soon rattle against its slats.

If past experience held, Virgil wouldn’t make it to our closest neighbor before he’d want to call it quits. In an effort to forestall that eventuality, Jim offered to pay him a penny for each five items he collected. Even then, Jim wasn’t sure how far they’d get, especially on such a wet day.

Virgil, though, noticed cans nearly buried under leaves in the ditch, scrambled down muddy slopes to collect dirt-caked bottles that had been chucked into the woods from moving cars, and didn’t hand the wagon over to Jim until they’d crested the steep hill far past our neighbors. The money wasn’t what was motivating him, Jim decided; he thought Virgil was partly enjoying the fun of the chase, and maybe also feeling the pride of taking care of this place, this land, this home.

Back at the garage, Virgil sorted their haul: 152 bottles and cans (mostly Budweiser and Natural Light, leading Virgil to ask his dad, “What’s up with that?”) went into our recycling bins, Styrofoam cups and other trash into the garbage. That earned Virgil 30 cents at the negotiated rate, but he didn’t bother to collect.

Later that night, telling me this story, Jim reminded me that my first posts on this blog were about motivating Virgil, our then six-year-old reluctant hiker. We used M&Ms on the trail then — “the Hansel and Gretel ploy,” I called it — and tried handfuls of other ideas, some of them pretty desperate, to keep him going. Somewhere along the line, he appears to have developed an internal sense that green, wild places matter, and that taking care of those places is a good thing in itself.

I thought of my own parents, who took me and my brothers on an early Earth Day river clean-up. I’ll bet that we resisted going, even if we kept our resistance to ourselves. Because they insisted, though, we knew that taking care of rivers and roadsides mattered. Because it mattered to them, it mattered to us. And now it may matter to Virgil.

I’m thinking about all this as I write my final entry for AMC’s Great Kids, Great Outdoors.

Although the blog will continue (with Heather as the writer), and I will still write about children and nature occasionally for AMC, I am stepping down from the demands of regular blogging to focus on writing my next book. It’s been a great pleasure to work with Heather, AMC senior editor Marc Chalufour, and many others around AMC; I can tell already that I’ll miss this regular forum.

And regular it has been: Over nearly 300 posts, I’ve had the chance to explore the interconnections among things that matter: parenting, wild places, science and natural history, environmental issues. In doing so, I’ve discovered that those of us who care about kids and families in the outdoors are part of a growing movement. We’re part of a community that’s interested not only in recreation but also in combining our care for children and our concern for the natural world in new and important ways. It matters that we work together, raise issues together, and share our stories together.

I’ve spent the last few days looking back over the information and topics that this blog has brought to the larger conversation:

·      Research into the effects of screen time, green time, imaginative free play, summer vacation, "loose parts" playgrounds, and the benefits to children of spending even small amounts of time outside, with their parents and on their own.

·      The work of people and organizations helping children and their parents get outside, appreciate nature, and become stewards of natural places and green spaces, such as Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign against childhood obesity, collaborations in a small Massachusetts town between a teacher and an AMC staff member, Safe Routes to School, forest kindergartens and outdoor classrooms, environmental mentoring programs, school-garden and farm-to-school programs, AMC’s vision for youth and family participation in the outdoors, and other healthy-community organizations.
·      Businesses, scientists, and organizations making connections between children’s health and a concern for the natural world.

·      The science of being outdoors: why the sky is blue, why gray squirrels eat acorns from white oaks first, how red squirrels “tap” sugar maples, how “three strikes you’re out” helps identify the pitch pine, the geology and plants of the White Mountains.
Writing this blog has also given me the chance to think more deeply about my own children’s experience in the outdoors and about myself as an outdoors parent. In these posts, we’ve caught leaves, looked up at the stars, and used funnelators to launch water balloons. I’ve tracked Ursula in the snow and watched her “swing birches”; racked up “phoenix points” on skis with Virgil; and listened in while they and their friends caught leeches and bullfrogs. I’ve considered risks small and large, the blessings of skinned knees and broken arms, and the value of boys- or girls-only outings. I’ve felt cross-species parental sympathy with a pair of loons.

It’s been an honor.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine and Heather Stephenson. Kristen wrote this post.

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