365Outside

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Guest Post: Reflections On Our First 365Outside

I’m always excited to hear about how embracing the 365Outside Challenge has helped other families and friends to get outside more on a daily basis. When Nina contacted me this week asking if I’d be interested in hearing her story, of course I said yes.

Nina has just completed her first year of the 365Outside Challenge, and is rolling straight into year two with another baby added to her pack. Read on to hear about how she managed to get outside over 300 days last year, with her toddler and a baby on board. Thanks for reaching out, Nina!

Reflections On Our First 365Outside

by Nina Rhoades

I first learned of 365Outside last December and decided immediately that we needed to do it. My husband and I love nature and time outside, and we consider it a cornerstone of our parenting goals that our kids play in the outdoors as often as possible. However, my son was 21 months old when we started on Jan 1, 2016, and I found out just days later that I was pregnant with our second, so getting outside every single day was definitely going to be a challenge, especially since we live in northern Utah — where the ground is snow-covered from mid-December to late March on average.  

All in all, I got outside on 312 days in 2016, and my son got out on 327 days. (We didn’t count days for my husband because his job requires him to travel regularly, but he also loves to be outside and took my son out to play whenever he was able). Most of the days lost were either during the winter, or in September when my daughter was born. It wasn’t 366/366 days, but I was happy with it — and we hope to improve upon it this year!

 

As we begin our second 365Outside, now with an almost-3-year-old and a baby, here’s what I learned over the last year:

  1. Gear does matter. No, I am not suggesting that small children need wardrobes from The North Face. But if you’re battling weather at all, you’ll want to identify the couple of items that will make you and your children most comfortable. For our snowy winters, Stonz Mittz for my son, along with some good boots (we chose Kamik) have made all of the difference in whether he wants to go out in the snow or not.
  2. A few solid outdoor toys are also REALLY helpful. Again, I’m not suggesting that spending a lot of money is necessary — I’m actually fairly minimalist when it comes to toys — but if you’re going to be spending a lot of time in your yard with a toddler, you will need something to do. For us, a sled and shovel for the snow, and a Strider bike, scooter, and water table in the summer, along with some sidewalk chalk, made a huge difference. While I wasn’t crazy about it, I also came to appreciate his “Lightning McQueen” motorized little car (approximately $60). It’s not the same as running around, but he loved that thing so dearly, and it got him outside many a day that he wasn’t otherwise interested — and you can try to change activities once you’re out there.  Idea: Ask family members and friends to gift outdoor gear or toys for birthdays/holidays.  

    Photo courtesy of Nina Rhoades

  3. That said, varying your activities is absolutely necessary. I love hiking, skiing, snowshoeing, etc., and am thankful we live close to mountains so we can do those things regularly without too much trouble. But in real life with a toddler, it’s just not practical to do that every day — just like it can be painful to draw on the sidewalk every day. I liked the book 15 Minutes Outside by Rebecca P. Cohen for additional ideas.  It’s nothing cosmic — roast marshmallows, build a birdhouse, and so on — but helped us to get out of our daily routine. Also, it doesn’t need to be fascinating.  One rainy summer day we listened to distant thunder from our porch and I taught my son the phrase, “Thunder means be careful; lightning means go inside.”  He repeated it for days.  Another night I had him help put up Christmas lights on the porch after the baby was in bed as a “special activity.”  It wasn’t exploring mountains but we got some fresh air.  
  4. Keep in mind that sometimes it’s about you — and sometimes it’s not. We have done hikes with our son (and even in the fall, our daughter) in a backpack or an Ergo, in the baby’s case, and they enjoyed it. But I’ve also driven an hour to a “perfect kid hike” and let my son determine the pace, where we stop, and how long we’re out. He loved it and spent over an hour throwing rocks into a tiny stream. They’re not going to love being outside if they’re only being dragged along.  
  5. On that note, sometimes you need to push. Sometimes you don’t. My son loves being outside (and I’m thankful to 365Outside that his love for the outdoors has increased significantly over the last year), but sometimes he’s happy doing whatever he’s doing inside, or gets distracted by a favorite train on the way out the door. Sometimes you need to shove him out the door (he rarely complained once out and often didn’t want to go back in,) and occasionally just accept that a book or other indoor activity IS the right choice that day.  
  6. Make it happen. Right now, with a 4-month-old baby, when my husband is at work, getting outside in the snow often means waiting until she takes a nap, hanging the monitor around my neck, taking my son out while staying within range of the monitor, and then going back in when she wakes up.  Sometimes I do take her out in the snow of course but it’s not realistic that she, a baby who can’t yet sit up on her own, is going to stay out for two hours like my son wants to.  I feel bad dragging him back in after 45 minutes, but 45 minutes is better than nothing.  
  7. Get out yourself.  You can see from the numbers that there were days when my son got outside and I didn’t, probably because he went outside with my husband or with the daycare that he attends two mornings a week. I like to go running and do other things that bring me outside without him, but on more than one occasion, I went out after he was in bed and went for a walk, or shoveled some snow instead of snow-blowing it, just to get some fresh air myself on a day when I otherwise wouldn’t have. I never regretted doing that. We all need fresh air.  

Photo courtesy of Nina Rhoades

Nina is a stay-at-home mom to two sweet and amazing children while also working very part-time for an online research company.  Before having kids, she worked as a foreign and defense policy analyst, and lived in the Middle East for two years.  She and her husband love to travel and explore, run and do Crossfit, and debate politics.  They live near Ogden, Utah.  

365Outside Sets Sail

The boys relax on the foredeck during our first day of sailing.

The boys relax on the foredeck during our first day of sailing.

It has taken me a lot longer to write about our sailing trip than I anticipated. When we first set out, even in the first 24-hours, I was thinking about how much material there was already. I was so eager to write all about it! Then as the trip went on and on, it got overwhelming. It was amazing. And it was more than just a vacation. It was a lifestyle. It was simplicity. It represented a broader vision for how we want our kids to grow up. And as my mental list of all the details I wanted to write about stretched longer and longer, I realized that I would never be able to touch on everything I wanted to.

There’s no way to describe the freedom of waking up in the cozy security of your floating home with endless possibility for the day ahead. There are no words for the first time your preschoolers spot a seal right beside the boat who mirrors their same wide eyed wonder. For pods of porpoises playing in our wake. For distant whales and distant shores. For days spent collecting seaside treasures.

All summer we were weekend warriors on the sailboat. We got onboard Friday night when possible or Saturday morning otherwise and stayed there until Sunday afternoon. We did small, local trips or just stayed on our mooring after long days at the beach beside it. It was almost a tease.

But after a summer of waiting we had the opportunity to cast our sights a bit further. The last week in August we packed up and headed out, exiting through the river mouth with plans to return in 10 days. It was our first longer cruise with the kids onboard and our first longer trip onboard our new boat. We spent all summer anticipating this week and when it finally came, it didn’t disappoint.

One of the most exciting parts of a sailing vacation is the freedom to decide where you’re going to go whenever you want. We left our options open to account for the unpredictable winds this time of year. We had hoped to head north to Maine, but when the forecast changed to northerly winds we considered heading south to the Cape and Islands instead. It’s good to have options. As luck would have it, with the departure day nearing the forecast wavered and so did our decision. We did not finally decide until less than 12 hours before departure, and even then we left it up to a final weather check the following morning.

But head north we did.

Without any experience on longer sails or offshore, the boys were our limiting factor for this trip. We planned to sail for no longer than 4-5 hours at a time, though we sometimes sailed 4 hours in the morning and did the same again in the afternoon after a picnic lunch ashore. We covered about 350 nautical miles over the course of seven days (returning home 2 days earlier than scheduled due to a hurricane making its way up the coast). As it turns out, the boys did wonderfully. They put up with everything from no wind and big rolling glassy seas, to 35 knots of fresh breeze and choppy waves breaking over the rails. Though Junior felt seasick a few times, each time he was able to eat some crackers, fall asleep on deck in the cockpit, and wake feeling much better. The boys of course had some of their usual tussles along the way but we were actually surprised that not once was there a meltdown about being bored or not wanting to sail or wanting to get off the boat. So in the most basic sense, it was a major victory.

The boys’ tears upon hearing that we were heading home just echoed our own emotions. We can’t wait to do it again.

And because words are not enough and because I’ve put it off long enough for fear of not doing justice to the experience, please enjoy it through our eyes below.

Happy Birthday, 365Outside.org!

September 2015

September 2015

Although the original 365Outside Challenge started for our family nearly two years ago, this week marks a year since I started the 365Outside blog. It also marks my seventh wedding anniversary with The Captain, the beginning of our first extended sailing trip with the kids (heading out for 10 days on Friday, more on that coming soon), the first time I’ve ventured camping with the boys on my own, and the last week before the boys head back to school. It’s a week of many milestones and as such, I’ve been reflecting on the past year quite a bit.

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” – Zora Neale Hurston

October 2015

October 2015

We know all the cliches about how fast kids grow up. Looking back at some of our first posts on the blog, I can hardly believe that less than 365 short days have passed since my boys were that little. They are growing stronger, smarter and feistier by the minute.

And as our kids grow, so do we. 

A lot has changed for me this year. Our first year of the 365Outside Challenge cleansed my mental health. This second time, I’ve recommitted to a healthier physical lifestyle – eating more nutritiously, drinking less alcohol and exercising more regularly. In doing so, I’m regaining some of the energy and strength I lost after having 2 kids in a year and a half. I can do pull ups again and my endurance is finally back. There are little shadows of abs and biceps that were hidden for years. My body will never be the same as it was before babies, but I’m proud of it and confident in its abilities. The softness in my belly was my babies’ first home. These saggy boobs provided their first meals. The streaks of white rubbery stretch marks outline sacrifices to create new life.

November 2015

November 2015

I’ve recommitted to my writing career this year as well and achieved my goal of getting published offsite at least once a month. Since the launch of my writing website I’m finding work as a content writer too, producing pieces I’m proud of for companies I believe in and getting paid along the way.

I’m proud of my kids all the time. But it feels good to be proud of me for once, too. 

December 2015

December 2015

And of course, with all our growth and change comes more independence all around. The boys play for extended periods in the yard on their own. They climb trees. They build ramps and jumps for their bikes. They know how to dig clams and paddle a surfboard. This summer I’ve started taking them out on the boat by myself. Knowing I can trust them on the boat has allowed us to explore the river on quiet days when The Captain is working. And now we are camping without the Captain for the first time. We are with good friends, so there is plenty of support. But the packing and parenting are all on me.

January 2016

January 2016

The first time we were preparing to go for a boat ride without The Captain, Junior asked sweetly, “But who will drive the boat?” I froze. I thought I was raising feminists and here was my four-year-old thinking that I can’t even drive a boat on my own. After an uneventful trip to the beach and back he turned to me and said, “Good job, Mama. Good job driving that boat.” I smirked back, kind of grateful and kind of indignant, and told him “Good job to you too, honey. Good job riding in that boat.”

February 2016

February 2016

It was kind of sarcastic but kind of true. If it weren’t for each other and the ways we’ve grown this year, we wouldn’t be able to do it on our own. But here we are, just one short year later, and somehow one long year stronger, one year smarter, one year feistier.

Happy anniversary to us. 

There’s another big year ahead. Look out, world.         

March 2016

March 2016

April 2016

April 2016

May 2016

May 2016

June 2016

June 2016

July 2016

July 2016

August 2016

August 2016

How Do You Find Awe?

A moment of awe onboard Little Wing

A moment of awe onboard Little Wing

I read an article recently about the importance of awe in our lives. The term “awesome” has taken on a totally new meaning over just a few generations but when you whittle it back to its original essence, it’s a pretty important experience. Essential, even. And what I found most interesting about this article was the working definition of awe. Who thinks to define such a deep concept and how could they possibly capture its essence?

Turns out that awe is, simply put, equal parts vastness and new understanding. Pretty simple, but pretty dead accurate if you ask me.

I had never thought of it that way. In fact, despite experiencing awe on what I would describe as an above average frequency, I had never once stopped to consider why these experiences created such an overwhelming feeling of reverence in me. This weekend was the first time that I experienced true awe since reading the article, and it opened in me a new understanding of why we react the way we do to the beauty around us.

Perfect way to spend a heatwave.

Perfect way to spend a heatwave.

Since we bought Little Wing, we have been very lucky to experience a series of amazing weekends. We have slept on the boat every Saturday night for two months, (except for the weekend we went camping) leaving us all day Saturday and Sunday to be surrounded by nature and soaking up sunshine.

This weekend was no different. We took the powerboat to the beach on Saturday and spent the afternoon with good friends, swimming with the kids, digging in the sand and paddling boogie boards around. When the day began to slow down and people began to trickle home, we headed for the sailboat instead. There were storms forecast and the clouds were turning dark. We didn’t want to sail anywhere due to the forecast. But just to be there out in the middle of it, even if on our mooring, was plenty good enough for us.

Last romp on the tidal flats before the storm rolled in.

Last romp on the tidal flats before the storm.

As the sun sank lower and the clouds grew darker, we ate some dinner and brought the boys and their energetic pooch for one last romp on the sandbar. These fringe times, early morning and late evening, are my favorites at the beach. It is quiet and peaceful and we have the place to ourselves.

Back on the boat, I rinsed the kids off and got them cozy in their pajamas. The temperature was dropping steadily and the cloud cover was building. Down below on the boat, the boys played and read books until the thunder started. We closed the hatches tightly and cuddled the boys beneath a blanket. They were a little scared.

The storm brews on the horizon.

The storm brews on the horizon.

On deck, The Captain and I were keeping an eye on the mooring line and the other boats swinging around us when I spotted a dinghy across the channel. Someone in a small inflatable dinghy, with outboard tilted up, was trying to row against the ferocious winds but instead was being beaten back, making negative progress and blowing quickly towards the dry banks of the exposed marsh. The Captain jumped into the skiff and sped over to assist him as the wind whipped ferociously and the violent rain began to pelt down. Alone on the boat with the kids, I went into risk management mode and mentally ran through what-if scenarios and my response plans. Then I put the kids in their lifejackets, just in case. Even though they were safe down below and our boat was safe on the mooring and the storm was more than likely just a passing one, the last thing I wanted was to have to choose in the middle of an emergency between operating the boat and getting my kids in their lifejackets.

Our reward for waiting out the storm.

Our reward for waiting out the storm.

The storm was over even more quickly than it came upon us. By the time The Captain got back to the boat, the rain had stopped and the boys were peaking their heads out from the hatch, asking if it was over yet.

The boys watch the lightning on the opposite horizon.

The boys watch the lightning on the opposite horizon.

The clouds were parting and a spectacular sunset was our reward after the chaos. On one horizon, the sun lit up the sky, radiating streams of fiery orange and red. On the opposite horizon, lightning glimmered and a rainbow struggled out. The boys were amazed. They exclaimed gleefully each time they saw the lightning. It was the first time they’d been able to watch lightning outside from afar.

The sunset proved more and more spectacular as it progressed and the boys did not get bored of the amazement around us. We were all well and truly in awe.

The last drops of a delicious sunset.

The last drops of a delicious sunset.

It was a simple moment. It was just a half an hour of watching the sunset after a vicious summer thunderstorm. But we were together and we were grateful and we were amazed at the stark contrasts that nature can provide in just an hour.

It’s moments like those that affirm for me why we have made the plans that we’ve made. Moments like those will be our rewards for the hard work that we’ll put in to making our dreams reality. Moments like those are why we do it.

It is a beautiful thing to feel little in the face of nature.

Little Bear makes his way across the tidal flats and back to the boat before the storm.

Little Bear makes his way across the tidal flats and back to the boat before the storm.

How To Wander the Woods With Very Young Children

Junior wanders the woods with a set of walking sticks.

Junior wanders the woods with a set of walking sticks.

When I first sat down to write about hiking with the kids, I drew an absolute blank. I felt totally unqualified and unprepared to dole out any advice about the topic and, dare I say, I actually felt completely uninspired by it. I know, I know – I felt uninspired by the idea of hiking outside with my kids??! Who am I and why so glum, chum?

But then I flipped my thinking. I realized that whenever I ask my kids if they want to go for a hike (or inform them that in fact we WILL be going for a hike, whether they like it or not), there is immediate pushback. They never want to go. In their minds, hiking is an arduous task. It’s work to get from one place to another. It is strenuous activity for relatively little in return. Yet when I ask them if they’d like to go for a walk (or inform them that in fact we WILL be going for a walk, whether they like it or not), they are always game. They help me choose where we’re going. They want to pack snacks and water bottles. They want to know if the dog can come, or if we can bring friends. They are excited. They are clamoring at the door while I finish getting our things together. And that’s exactly the flip my thinking needed.

Hiking, with my very young children, is in fact not pleasurable. If we leave the house with the sole objective to start on foot in one place and end on foot in another place, I am most definitely starting off on the WRONG foot. I am setting myself up for failure.

Junior was so proud of himself when he reached this little summit on our hike in Baja.

Junior was so proud of himself when he reached this little summit on our hike in Baja.

But when we go for a walk, or even better yet, a wander in the woods, we are infinitely more happy. When the kids set the pace and the agenda, we all have more fun. That’s not to say we never make it anywhere. It’s just to say I can’t ever count on us making it somewhere specific and if we do, it’s never within a predetermined timeframe.

Later this year, the Captain is hoping to take Junior on a backpacking trip. Just to remind you, Junior is still four years old. And though he isn’t a super-enthusiastic hiker (YET), we think he will actually love being out there, making his own progress and carrying his own gear, if we frame the experience correctly. First, we are going to try to coordinate with some friends so that he has some positive peer pressure to help him along. Next, we are framing it as a privilege. Backpacking is something that can only be done when you prove you’re ready for it. You have to be able to walk a couple miles with a pack on your back. You have to put in some work to reap your rewards. You have to be physically and emotionally strong enough to keep up. In short, you have to be a big kid.

Obviously, having just turned three, Little Bear isn’t there yet. He’s still at the meandering-through-the-woods phase. Which is just fine. Sometimes we have to meet our kids right where they are. And so, for Little Bear and little people like him, here are my top 3 tips for hiking wandering the woods with very young children.

  1. Enjoying a wet snack in the soggy woods.

    Enjoying a wet snack in the soggy woods.

    Bring plentiful snacks. This is pretty much my top tip for anything with kids. Skiing? Bring snacks. Sailing? Bring snacks. Hitting the beach? Taking a road trip? Sticking your head out the window to check if it’s raining? Always bring snacks. There will come a time when you will be running out the door for a very quick errand or simple stroll to get the mail and you will fool yourself into thinking it’s okay to not bring snacks, but you will be wrong. Very, very wrong.

  2. You may set a target destination or a target timeframe, but never set both. If you’re trying to get somewhere specific, allow all the time your kids want to take. And believe me, that will be ages. Epochs even. Or, if you know you don’t have several days to wander the woods, set a timeframe and confine your explorations to areas that are easily accessible. That is to say, don’t wander off deeply into the woods only to find your time expired and your car two miles away. Murphy’s Law says that this will happen every time, and that your child will then either take four times as long to return to the car, or will need to poop immediately.

    When they want to stop, discover and observe, go ahead and stop, discover and observe right alongside them!

    When they want to stop, discover and observe, let them!

  3. Don’t push it. Go in with low expectations, and let your kids set the pace. Instead of walking ahead of them, follow along behind. When they stop to look at something, stop to look at it with them. If they are tired or uncomfortable or hungry, listen. If they are fussy, ask yourself if they could be tired or uncomfortable or hungry. It is usually one of the three, and all can be fixed. Stay one step ahead of them in preparations, but one step behind in pace. Your patience will be rewarded.

Have you wandered the woods with the very young people in your life lately?

Wandering the woods with friends on an incredible fall day.

Wandering the woods with friends on an incredible fall day.

 

How to Camp With Kids: 5 Secrets to a Successful Adventure

Camping in Tasmania, the night after we got engaged.

Camping in Tasmania, the night after we got engaged.

When the Captain and I got engaged, we were camping in Tasmania. We had flown there without a shred of camping equipment, stayed in a hotel for New Year’s Eve, and then hit an outdoors store on New Years Day, both feeling a bit hazy and under the weather from the festivities the night before. Though we were completely unprepared in terms of gear (or reservations) we didn’t have a worry in the world because camping was no big deal to us. The idea of hitting a down-under version of Dick’s Sporting Goods and then heading into the wilderness for a week didn’t phase either of us in the least. And when it hailed all night our first night out there, we obviously decided that this boded well for our future and promised to spend our the rest of lives together. We were at camping level: expert.

Wild and free kids in their natural habitat.

Wild and free kids in their natural habitat.

But camping with kids is a different story. I’m all for letting my children embrace their inner jungle creature during normal waking hours, but in the round-the-clock eternal lavender glow of the summer solstice wherein free range kids are up until midnight and wake with first light at 4AM? No thanks. We are still admitted novices at family camping. We have only brought the kids a few times. And each time, it takes days of planning, packing, and forethought before I can comfortably wrap my head around our plans. But we’re getting better at it and each time is a little easier than the last. In fact, I’m developing a system to simplify the process. Someday, we are going to be able to decide that it’s a great weekend for camping on Friday afternoon, chuck our camping bins in the car, and hit the road. Here are my top tips for family camping so far.

The dish team puts the buckets and bins system to double-use.

The dish team puts the buckets and bins system to double-use.

  1. Pack in bins. Duffel bags are for air travel and sporting events. Backpacks are for backpacking. Plastic lawn bins and beverage tubs? Totally for car and boat camping. They are sturdy enough to get knocked around, they hold tons of gear and they can double as wind, water and animal-resistant storage at the campsite. Think about it: bags would need to be packed into the tent each night to keep them dry and safe. Bins and buckets can stay outside. They also stack easily and can double as kitchen area worktops when they have lids on. Large beverage buckets are similarly great for hauling things like sleeping bags, pads, tents, etc and then can double as dish buckets at the campsite.

    Boat packed with bins and buckets for camping.

    Dedicated camping gear means grabbing an already-packed bin from the basement and putting it straight in the boat.

  2. Have dedicated camping gear. Though it originally seemed silly to me that we would have one set of cooking ware and cutlery at home, one set on our boat and yet another set packed away and only used for camping, it really does make it so much easier. When you have a dedicated set of plates, bowls, cutlery, cookware and serving utensils, you can keep your camping kitchen bin packed and ready to go. Include your camp stove, a dish towel, sponge and dish soap. By keeping as much of your gear as possible packed and ready, your pre-camping prep gets trimmed significantly.
  3. Make a packing checklist and SAVE IT. Type your list up and each time you go camping, edit it down to delete things you didn’t need and add things you wish you’d brought. I know it seems anal and borderline obsessive, but a list takes so much of the stress and forethought out of the equation. Need a cheat sheet to get started? Check out my packing list here: 365Outside Camping List: A Work in Progress

    Just a glimpse of some of our gear - there is a lot to remember!

    Just a glimpse of some of our gear – there is a lot to remember!

  4. Prep food ahead of time. There is something about camping that makes a hot meal seem beyond luxurious. But prepping it, cooking it and cleaning it up outside makes the whole thing ten times more complicated than at home. I simplify the process by doing as much prep ahead of time as possible. I pre-cook as much as I can and freeze it before it goes in the cooler. I try to make things that can be reheated over the campfire to conserve space on the stove. Bonus points if it can be cooked in foil for no-clean-up. On our latest trip I cooked chili, breakfast casseroles and quinoa salad ahead of time. Friends brought meatloaf-stuffed peppers and onions along with foil-wrapped sweet potatoes and a ready-to-eat chicken salad. Coordinate with camping buddies and host a potluck. And include a few super easy meals like hotdogs or precooked sausages and some instant oatmeal so that you have some simple options to fall back on in a crunch.

    Little Bear, dirty-faced and enjoying a s'mores

    Little Bear, dirty-faced and enjoying a s’mores

  5. Indulge the little ones. We run a pretty tight ship around here, but camping is another story. Kids are happiest when they feel like they are experiencing something special and being given extra freedoms. When we camp, they stay up late, they run wild, they get dirt and food caked into their sunscreen and bug spray plastered cheeks. And we don’t care. They snack all day long. They stuff their cheeks with s’mores and they enjoy steady peace offerings of glow sticks and bubbles. Some may say we spoil them, which may certainly be the case, but vacation is a chance for everyone to indulge and any adult who doesn’t eat, drink and indulge more often on vacation clearly isn’t doing it right. Why not give kids the same experience we create for ourselves?
Our tent and hammock set up overlooking the beach.

Our tent and hammock set up overlooking the beach.

Our camping trip last weekend was the stuff of summer dreams. We were surrounded by good friends in a full-on multi-family camping slumber party. There was plenty of good food, indulgent drinks and relaxation. But at the same time, we were surrounded by natural beauty and removed from the chaos of daily life. The kids romped across the tidal flats, catching crabs and snails. We watched the sun set slowly and the nearly full moon rise. We sat around the camp fire late into the night with sleepy kids who eventually, thankfully, asked to go to sleep. We woke early and sipped our steaming coffee while watching the gentle water lap along the shore. We spent long hours exploring the sound in our boat. And when the last day arrived, we packed up slowly, regrettably, glancing back over our shoulders as we left the island behind until next time. It’s still a bit of a ordeal to create these moments, but it’s getting easier and it’s always worth the hassle.

The Captain wades out for a calm morning swim while the boys play onshore.

The Captain wades out for a calm morning swim while the boys play onshore.

 

Little Bear

Little Bear

 

A friend's son ponders his dad's strategic lounging.

A friend’s son ponders his dad’s strategic lounging.

 

Father's Day gifts: Woohoos. They're as fun as they look!

Father’s Day gifts: Woohoos. They’re as fun as they look!

 

Junior shows off a crab he's caught

Junior shows off a crab he’s caught

The moon rises over the bay.

The moon rises over the bay.

Junior snuggles into the hammock at sunset on our first night.

Junior snuggles into the hammock at sunset on our first night.

Getting Our Sea Legs

Saying goodbye to Little Wing until next weekend

Saying goodbye to Little Wing until next weekend

Last weekend I found myself standing balanced on the bow of our inflatable dinghy, rain clouds building overhead and two little boys perched on a wooden bench below me, shivering against the cool morning breeze.

“Let’s GO, mama,” Junior urged, impatiently sloshing his feet in the bilge. Little Bear tottered unsteadily, dipping his fingers into the harbor and rolling his head back. We had woken early and happily had breakfast on the boat in the comfort of our cozy cabin, but now we were anxious to beat the weather and get going. The temperature had plunged and storm clouds were rolling in quickly.

Little Bear goes to work on the dinghy line.

Little Bear goes to work on the dinghy line.

Unfortunately, I had to deal with another mess courtesy of the boys before we could leave.

The dinghy line was wrapped in a huge knot around our deck cleat. It was tucked and looped and over-under-ed in such an elaborate tangle that I had no choice but to start at the end and undo each and every turn that little hands had worked so hard to secure. This was just another reminder of what we’ll do differently next time.

In a previous life, The Captain and I ran youth sailing programs. I taught sailing in Australia, the US and the British Virgin Islands. I ran programs for sailing students ranging in age from 8 to adult. I spent a season captaining boats for a popular Caribbean charter fleet, living aboard with families for a week at a time as I sailed them from one destination to the next. I was frequently assigned to families with young kids because I was the best at kid-on-boat control. I was sold as a novelty – a young, female captain who also wrangles children! Not to brag, but this is kind of my specialty.

The kiddos swab the deck - at least we got that part right!

The kiddos swab the deck – at least we got that part right!

So it will come as a surprise to learn that when it was time to bring our own children for their first sail and overnight on our boat, we were totally unprepared. I mean, the VERY first thing you learn when you’re getting ready to bring people out on a boat is that you always start with a safety briefing. Introduce potential risks, teach people how to move safely, show them how to react to emergencies – that sort of thing. We put our kids on the boat without so much as a word. Our kids love boats. They spend a lot of time on our skiff and have been on big sailing boats before. We took it for granted that they are generally pretty boat savvy when we should have treated them like any other sailing student.

Junior gets a lesson in helmsmanship from the Captain.

Junior gets a lesson in helmsmanship from the Captain.

Because we started so unprepared, we spent the weekend chasing the boys around barking orders that they couldn’t understand. SIT IN THE COCKPIT! DO NOT TOUCH THE WINDLASS! STOP PLAYING WITH THAT WINCH! Everyone who knows kids knows that it’s easiest to start with strict rules and then slowly relax them. Instead, we’re now in the uncomfortable position of backpedaling to enforce more restrictive rules. It won’t be easy but it has to be done since we are planning to spend most weekends on the boat for the rest of the summer, along with a longer cruise in August.

We are looking forward to trying again and getting better and better at having them aboard with every trip. In the meantime, here are some pictures from our adventures thus far.

Our first sunset onboard

Our first sunset onboard

Little Bear and Junior wait for a ride ashore to get ice cream.

Little Bear and Junior wait for a ride ashore to get ice cream.

S/V Little Wing

S/V Little Wing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Simplicity: How To Return To The Roots of Summer

Mama Bear, soaking up the summer of ’87.

When I was little, I was lucky enough to live on a dead end street that backed up to the old town cemetery. Since this was our daily norm, it never seemed creepy to me and we used it as an extended yard perfect for hide and go seek, flashlight tag, cutting across to neighbor’s houses and climbing in trees. I’m sure there are some who might consider this disrespectful, but I tend to think that if we could all choose, we’d actually prefer our final resting places be full of joy and playfulness rather than solemnity and grief. Besides, the cemetery hadn’t been used in centuries so at least it was getting some visitors this way.

In any case, we would head out in the morning, sometimes with a backpack full of supplies and other times with only the clothes on our back, and we’d return when we got hungry. We had an imaginary treehouse in the cemetery where we lived in our own magical world. We’d pretend we were living in colonial times or that we were runaways living off the land. We blazed a trail beyond one end of the stonewall that came out at a pond where we hung a rope swing and spent hours throwing rocks into the water. We walked to the gas station to buy candy, sold lemonade along the bike path, and read books on a towel in the backyard. I don’t remember anything extravagant and I don’t remember tons of activities. Sure there were a few sessions of swim lessons and a week of soccer camp scattered here and there, but most of the summer was completely wide open.

The taste of summer!

The taste of summer!

My kids are still too young to spend hours free ranging through our neighborhood but someday they will be old enough and that’s exactly how I see them spending their summers. They will swim off the bridge at the town landing. They’ll go fishing in the river. There will be penny candy and bikes and skinned knees and an impatient wait in line at the hotdog stand. It’s a long way off still but that doesn’t mean that it’s not time to lay the groundwork.

There’s a lot of chatter lately about simplifying our lives, simplifying childhood, purging excess and returning to our roots. But how do we do it? How do we make it happen when everything else continues to move so quickly? By instilling the values of simplicity and patience now, I am hoping to raise boys who return to simplicity as they get older.

Here’s what I’m doing this summer to simplify our lives.

Much better than anything on TV

Much better than anything on TV

First, we’re limiting screen time. This isn’t really specific to summer but it is easier to do when the weather is kind and the sun is up late. We are not a screen-free home (but power to you if you are; I am in awe of you!) but I limit screen-time strategically. Our kids usually get to watch 20 minutes after dinner while I’m putting away laundry and cleaning up. (Just for context here, remember that The Captain is more often than not away on the tugboat so it is just me and the kiddlywinks). Sometimes Little Bear will get to watch 20 minutes in the morning while Junior is at school and I exercise, but honestly he doesn’t have much patience for it and I try to actively encourage his disinterest when he wanders in halfway through his show and announces he’s all done. I find most of my success in limiting screen-time comes from setting concrete limits in advance, explaining them to the kids so that they know what to expect and then sticking to the limits come hell or high water.

Go for it, buddy. Let me know what you find.

Go for it, buddy. Let me know what you find.

Another way I’m simplifying is by becoming a more distant observer. Like I said, my kids are too young to totally free range, but I’m preparing them for it by keeping my distance. I try to let them explore our neighborhood on their own. When they play in our backyard, I supervise from the kitchen and only step in if someone is crying or hurt. When they are exploring further afield, I hang back and let them lead the way. I keep an eye out for safety risks but mostly I let them do their thing without feeling like I’m breathing down their necks. It’s simpler for them and it’s easier for me. It takes a lot of work to be a helicopter mom! Some might call it the Lazy Mom approach to parenting but we didn’t come across it by way of sheer laziness. There’s some forethought involved, I promise.

We will plant ourselves on this beach and move when the sun begins to set.

We will plant ourselves on this beach and move when the sun begins to set.

Summer is also the time to go outside for extended periods, sometimes all day long. I plan to take advantage of the long days and warm weather while we’ve got them. Remember my tips for getting out the door for a beach day in 20 minutes or less? I go the same route with our daypack. I keep it stocked with a quick-drying change of clothes for each kid, a few ready-to-eat snacks, sunscreen, bug spray, and a basic first aid kit. I also keep one of my larger sarongs in there to use as a picnic blanket or to string in trees for shade. We can be ready for a day out of the house as quickly as it takes me to fill our water bottles and throw some sandwiches together. It’s easy to become very rooted to the house and your neighborhood, but don’t be afraid to head out for the entire day. Go to the woods or the lake or the river or the beach. If your clan gets bored of one, head to another. Make it special with a stop at the ice cream store or the burger shack. Heck, my kids think it’s special just to run into a gas station to buy a ten-cent lollipop.

There will be ice cream and it will be messy!

There will be ice cream and it will be messy!

Which brings me to my next goal: simplify our eating. I am generally very engaged in healthy eating and I spend a lot of time in our kitchen cooking three meals a day. But come summer? I’m out. All it takes is some marinated chicken to have a quick, healthy dinner on the table in under half an hour. Grill it up, serve with some corn on the cob, add a salad and you’re done. My kids are usually great eaters, but they do love their carbs. The other night I was having an internal debate over what to serve alongside their chicken and corn. Noodles? Rice? Rice pilaf? Roasted potatoes? Ugh, all would require dishes and time and cooking. And then I had my epiphany moment, why all the stress about what carbs my kids are going to eat tonight? They love toast with butter, so why would I go through the motions of making a box of rice pilaf when that’s really not much different than toast with butter in the first place and there’s a loaf of bread sitting right there on the counter? Simple meals are the name of our game this summer. Yogurt and granola for breakfast? Check. Sandwiches or bagels with cream cheese on the go at lunchtime? Got it. Something quick on the grill with some fresh veggies alongside? All done. Less time cooking means more time for playing and getting outside.

A relaxed schedule means more memories like this one: last year's town bonfire after dark with friends.

A relaxed schedule means more memories like this one: last year’s town bonfire after dark with friends.

And finally, this summer we are reaching a milestone. I’m letting go of our schedule. Ok, not totally. Phew. But for the first time in four years, neither kid requires a nap. Sure, they may be more pleasant after a nice long rest, but this summer I’m relaxing our schedule and going with the flow more. We can skip naps. We can stay up late or go to bed early. We can make a schedule that works for us and when it stops working, we’ll make a new one. Last summer I clung to our schedule by necessity. Without afternoon naps, the boys would crumble. Up past his bedtime, Little Bear would dissolve into tears. But more recently, the boys have been more adaptable. We have more freedom and this summer, we’re going to take advantage of it.

Our stripped down summer.

Our stripped down summer.

By simplifying our summer, we strip it down to its roots. How do I want to remember our summer? How do I want the kids to remember it? To us, summer is about freedom, adventure and yes, the occasional indulgence. We’ll spend long days at the beach and on the boat. We’ll eat sweets and watch the stars come out. We’ll hunt lightning bugs. We’ll build an obstacle course in the backyard. We’ll let the saltwater dry in our hair.

How do you want to remember your summer?

 

Considering an Adventure Abroad with Young Children? Don’t Think, Just Go!

The 365Outside Family on a hike in Todos Santos, Mexico

The 365Outside Family on a hike in Todos Santos, Mexico

You know those robo-calls that gleefully announce that you’ve won a free cruise? Or those drawings at the Trader Joe’s checkout to win a gift card if you bring your own bag? How about a virtual drawing to win a family vacation to Mexico? Sigh . . . . ever wonder if anyone actually wins those things?

Well, the most amazing thing happened to us. Through Outdoor Families Magazine, we entered a drawing for a weeklong family vacation to Baja offered by Thomson Family Adventures. And we won! Can you even believe it?

Of course we couldn’t and we kept waiting for the catch. We figured there would be some hidden costs or extremely limited dates or absurd amount of red tape to claim such an unbelievable prize. In fact this was perhaps the most perfect, serendipitous prize for our family to win. Though we love adventure and travel, we haven’t had the chance to travel abroad since the boys were born. And our most recent adventures tend to involve sleeping in tents or winter cabin camping. A luxurious but adventurous trip to a new country was basically our dream come true. And there was no catch.

Of course because the trip was potentially so awesome, I immediately began to sweat the logistics. The advertised itinerary recommended that participating kids be age 6 or older. Junior comes kind of close at 4.5 but Little Bear is still not even 3. And Baja is not only located in another country, but the opposite coast of another country, so it would require a full day of traveling to get there. And then of course there were the usual mom concerns about traveling to less developed regions with small kids who still run amuck, lick windows and stick their fingers in unidentified holes in the ground. The whole thing could have been a disaster.

A glimpse of the packing.

A glimpse of the packing.

But it turns out I had nothing to worry about. The awesome people at Thomson Family Adventures collaborated with us to create a slightly modified itinerary to accommodate the boys, we packed lots of entertainment for the long travel days and planned to arrive the night before the official start of the trip, and I packed an entire medicine cabinet along with a “just-in-case” prescription for children’s Z-pack to ease my fears. Before we knew it, we were off.

Though I’d love to write a day-by-day exhaustive description of each and every moment, I fear it would run over into novel length rather than blog post so here below, I list eight wonderful experiences that made this crazy trip so unforgettably worth it.

Junior practices snorkeling in the casita pool.

Junior practices snorkeling in the casita pool.

Junior spots a sea lion while snorkeling through a cave with the Captain

Junior spots a sea lion while snorkeling through a cave with the Captain

  1. Watching Junior go snorkeling for the first time. Junior loves the water and is infatuated by sea life. He can name more varieties of whales and sharks than I can. One morning he woke up and asked me, “Mom, what are those things in the Mariana Trench?” and when I stared at him blankly and said, “huh?” he just added, “You know, hydrothermal vents!” Seriously. So when we told him he’d have the opportunity to snorkel in the ocean with sea lions he was pretty excited. We bought him a tiny little mask and snorkel and sent them with him to swimming lessons before we left. He even insisted on “practicing” in the tub. When he got in the ocean and finally put his face in (after many dramatics about the cooooooooooold water which was actually a balmy 74 degrees,) he was totally wowed. I could hear him squealing through his snorkel. Later, back home, he was proud to report that he’d seen a parrotfish, an angel fish and a sergeant major, correctly pointing to each on our fish ID card. And he did see a sea lion too – click here for the full experience!

    Little Bear sneaks in a nap on the boat ride after snorkeling and lunch on the beach.

    Little Bear sneaks in a nap on the boat ride after snorkeling and lunch on the beach.

  2. The kids being troopers on the long and bumpy boat ride. It took about two hours to get out to the sea lions, partly due to lumpy seas and partly because we took the scenic route to get the full experience. We swung by crystal clear bays, a frigate bird colony and visited with some dolphins. We were sharing the boat with another dad and his ten-year-old daughter, and I was pretty proud when he remarked on how well-adjusted the boys are on a boat. We spend a lot of time on boats and had brought their own lifejackets (thank goodness for Puddle Jumpers!) to make sure they were comfortable. Since we plan to spend a year living on our boat, I was really relieved to see how easily the boys adapted to the long ride. They even both took naps on the way back!
  3. Junior and Little Bear pose with some of the kids at the Palapa Society in Todos Santos. They all looked much happier before we asked them to pose for a picture, I promise!

    Junior and Little Bear pose with some of the kids at the Palapa Society in Todos Santos. They all looked much happier before we asked them to pose for a picture, I promise!

    Visiting the Palapa Society. The Palapa Society in Todos Santos is a volunteer-run English language program that aims to open opportunities for the children of Todos Santos by teaching them to speak English. This was supposed to be a volunteer opportunity for us, but because we tend to have our hands full with the boys everywhere we go, I’m afraid we weren’t as much help as many travelers may be. Instead what it ended up being for us primarily was a cultural experience for the kids. The class we sat in on was with Mexican children mostly around age 7. The English skills they were learning were the same things that Junior is currently learning in preschool so it was a great experience for him to participate right alongside them. He sang the alphabet with them, named his colors and shapes, and did a coloring worksheet. Though he was pretty shy, it was still an eye opening experience I think. And donating books and a soccer ball to them at the end of the lesson was a great way to expose him to the importance of generosity and giving.

    My daily breakfast of huevos rancheros thanks to Chef Iker!

    My daily breakfast of huevos rancheros thanks to Chef Iker!

    Junior chows down on some raw octopus ceviche. He loved it!

    Junior chows down on some raw octopus ceviche. He loved it!

    Watching our tortillas being made at lunch.

    Watching our tortillas being made at lunch.

  4. Amazing meals that defied expectations. We knew we’d be eating a lot of Mexican food. I mean, it’s Mexico. We even made sure before we left that the boys each had a preferred staple of Mexican cuisine to fall back on when needed (Little Bear: cheese quesadillas, Junior: fish tacos). What we didn’t expect was the huge range of delicious options we actually found in Todos Santos. Okay fine, we didn’t find anything on our own; it was all thanks to our guide Mauricio, but the point is, the food was amazing. Our first night even included a tasting menu served in a private room by the chef himself at Santo Vino in the iconic Hotel California. There was sashimi, ribs, flank steak and salad. Stuffed peppers, dessert platters and wine pairings. The list goes on. Of course we also really enjoyed our fill of local cuisine and I think my favorite meals were really at the hole-in-the-wall places that Mauricio chose for lunch. One day it was a tiny outdoor courtyard serving all varieties of ceviches (and the only other person eating there was the chef from our dinner the first night, so you know it must be good!) Another day it was the most delicious taco place where we watched our tortillas being made before we ate them. Top everything off with some gourmet popsicles and all was right in the world.
    The boys on the last summit of our hike.

    The boys on the last summit of our hike.

    Junior in the midst of our hiking standoff.

    Junior in the midst of our hiking standoff.

    Our hero Mauricio gets Junior engaged with animal tracking and the hike begins again.

    Our hero Mauricio gets Junior engaged with animal tracking and the hike begins again.

  5. Conquering a big kid hike with Junior. We knew before we left that there would be a morning of hiking in the desert. And because I am such a control freak, I began mentally preparing Junior for this several weeks in advance. We talked a lot about hiking, and how sometimes we get tired and it’s okay to rest and then get going again. We talked about how sometimes, when our muscles are working hard, they might start to ache a little and that’s okay because it’s just how they grow stronger. We talked about how Little Bear would likely ride in the carrier (oh how I love our Ergo) but that big kids can do big hikes. Of course it was only about five minutes into the hike that Junior announced how tired he was and said he didn’t “feel like” hiking anymore. A standoff ensued and finally Mauricio stepped in (have I mentioned how wonderful our guide was?) and engaged Junior with looking at tracks in the sand. Off we all went again, happy as could be. We even had to chase Junior up the final rocky slope to the last scenic lookout.
    Little Bear rides with Mama!

    Little Bear rides with Mama!

    Junior rides his pony along the beach

    Junior rides his pony along the beach

    Junior feeds Chappo after a long ride on the beach

    Junior feeds Chappo after a long ride on the beach

  6. Horseback riding for both boys. When Sam from Thomson Family Adventures emailed me several days before our trip to confirm a few details about the itinerary, she asked if we wanted to try horseback riding or if we’d prefer something else since the boys are so young. I was really uncertain what to do. Obviously if horseback riding was a bust, we’d prefer something else, but the boys absolutely love horses and selfishly, I was really looking forward to horseback riding on the beach. I even considered telling her that I would go riding while the boys stayed behind with the Captain. But instead we left things kind of loose and said we’d give it a shot. Even when we arrived at the ranch, I wasn’t sure we’d do anything besides feed the horses a few carrots and lead the boys around the paddock a few times. Instead, Junior got comfortable on his pony Chappo right away, and one of the great riders at the ranch led his pony from her horse for the entire ride. Little Bear also fit right in, nestled on my western saddle, wedged with an extra saddle pad. We set off and I could hardly believe it when the boys lasted for an entire two-hour ride. The closest thing I even heard to a single complaint was, “Mama, I wish I was a horse so I could eat some of those leaves. I’m hungry.”
  7. The 365Outside Family enjoys a beautiful beach and time to reconnect.

    The 365Outside Family enjoys a beautiful beach and time to reconnect.

    Late afternoon quiet time in the hot tub with the kids.

    Late afternoon quiet time in the hot tub with the kids.

    The cheesy falling in love again part. Oh I know, it’s so cliche to say that you went on vacation and fell in love all over again. Of course you did – you had all your meals prepared for you, you had zero responsibilities as far as home and work, and you woke every morning to a beautiful view in a tropical setting. I mean, come on! But, even more so for me and the Captain, being someplace tropical, beautiful and warm, with long days spent moving from one adventure to the next really brought us back to the lives we were living when we first met. We met in the British Virgin Islands where we were both living and working full-time on sailboats. He was leading study abroad programs and I was a live aboard skipper and instructor for a charter company. On our days off together, we’d grab a boat and head out for a sail, anchoring to free dive before lunch or take the dinghy around to a favorite snorkel spot. The days were long and hot and busy but they were so, so beautiful. And the same could be said for Baja. Experiencing that lifestyle again, even briefly, with the boys made it so special and made me even more excited for our year afloat.

  8. The view from our balcony and bed at Casita Colibris

    The view from our balcony and bed at Casita Colibris

    The nightly sunsets at Casita Colibris. When we first checked in to our room at Casita Colibris, I was worried it would feel cramped with all four of us sleeping in such close quarters. I worried we’d be tiptoeing around the boys while they slept, or they’d be waking us with their tossing and turning. I didn’t realize we’d be so tired each night that we’d all go to bed at the same time and sleep soundly through until morning. And I didn’t realize that the nightly bedtime rituals would become my favorite part of each day, despite all the rest of the excitement. Each day, we’d take a late afternoon dip in the pool and hot tub, then shower off and dress for dinner. We’d arrive back to the room just in time for the sun to start its evening show and we had front row seats. After the boys got into their pjs, we’d all snuggle up together and watch the sun sink lower and lower as the sky turned from pink to orange to red. When the last glimmer of sun disappeared below the horizon, we’d steal a page from our friends over at Windtraveler and whisper, “Goodbye sun, thanks for a great day!” Then we’d read our final bedtime stories and sing our final lullabies by the fading lavender glow on the horizon. These special evenings together, with nothing to think about except family and the beauty around us, were my favorite moments on a favorite trip.

Little Bear and the Captain snuggle at sunset.

Little Bear and the Captain snuggle at sunset.

The choice to bring the boys abroad was an easy one for me, but there was plenty of worrying beforehand nonetheless. Of course traveling was easier before they came along. Of course adventures were simpler. I fall under the category of “control freak” when it comes to planning and preparing for adventures with the kids, and this was no different with the exception that on this trip, everything for the week had to fit into two duffel bags under 50 lbs. I packed and repacked, made list after list, and stressed myself out to the point of wondering if maybe we’d have been better off driving to Florida instead. But in the end I can honestly say that this adventure, for us, was even more than we could have hoped for. It refreshed our appetite for travel, affirmed our passion for adventure and introduced the boys to what we hope will be a lifetime of pushing beyond their comfort zone to experience all the wonder the world holds. The experience of travel is one of the greatest gifts we can share with our children and though it may not come easily and will hardly ever come without bumps along the way, doing something that makes you a little nervous in exchange for experiencing a new culture, a new environment and a new adventure is always worth it.

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Junior asked to take his picture with his favorite truck.

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Junior reaches the final summit on our hike!

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Thank you again, Thomson Family Adventures and Outdoor Families Magazine for making this trip possible for us.

 

**Though we won this experience in an online drawing, we were not compensated for this review and the opinions expressed here are solely our own.**

5 Reasons to Rethink Your Playground Playdate

Nature's playground!

Nature’s playground!

Playgrounds are a great thing. They encourage active, outdoor play in a comfortable setting and provide hours upon hours of entertainment to millions of kids. We have had countless fun playdates at tons of playgrounds and have actively sought out new ones through frantic Googling on long road trips. Playgrounds definitely have a place in our outdoor-loving hearts, so it might surprise you a little bit to hear that it’s a place of love-hate conflict.

You see, my kids love playgrounds. But me, I just don’t. I think we can do better.

In fact, when a friend in my mom group suggested that in lieu of our usual summer Sunday playground meet-ups, we explore some new green spaces together, my heart swelled about three sizes. (Solidarity, you-know-who!) I have facilitated a few of these green space meet ups in the past, and I have to say I find them so much more fun than the playground. Why not move your next playdate away from the playground too? 

Here are five reasons to give it a try.

1.  The awkward playground social dynamics. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not entirely antisocial. I’m happy to bring my kids to swimming lessons and the gym and to school and play dates. We have done tons of mommy-and-me type activities, but they usually have some kind of official facilitator or at least pre-agreed-upon rules. The playground tends to be a complete free-for-all of conflicting parenting approaches. There will be a mommy there who will follow my two-year-old with an outstretched hand, nervously spotting him from behind as he agilely scales the rope ladder. She will glance around pointedly, trying to determine who is responsible for this blatantly risky behavior and I will look at the clouds and pretend I don’t know. Don’t worry though, he’s been climbing that ladder since he was 17 months old. That mommy is just so used to helicoptering that her helicoptering cup runneth over and she feels responsible for helicoptering over other children too.

My favorite kind of playground: an empty one. No awkward social dynamics here!

My favorite kind of playground: an empty one. No awkward social dynamics here!

On the other end of the spectrum there will be a child who is a complete jerk and seems to be completely unattended. She will probably push someone’s little brother down the slide just as he’s getting settled at the top. She will shove past another kid on the stairs. She will elbow her way between my son and the monkey bars, his fingers two centimeters from wrapping around the first rung, and announce, “I was just about to use these.” And as my son helplessly looks at me with pleading eyes, I will be scanning for the one other mommy on the bench whose head is craned down towards her phone but who is peaking up from behind her long bangs, eyes squinted at us to see how we’re going to play this.

Then there’s the kid who sits planted at the bottom of the slide. It’s hard to tell whether he’s trying to piss people off or he’s just completely oblivious. There’s an older kid lurking around the bushes with a Spiderman mask on, popping up to startle toddlers and then disappearing again like a demonic jack-in-the-box. The list goes on and on. Sometimes I think that playgrounds are just where parents go to pretend that they don’t know their own kids.

There's no doubt they love the swings, but the playground bliss never lasts very long for these two.

There’s no doubt they love the swings, but the playground bliss never lasts very long for these two.

2. Playgrounds don’t encourage creativity. Yes you can maybe straddle the swing, or twist it up and then whirl in circles, but let’s be honest, there are far fewer ways to play with a swing on a playground than there are to play with a stick in the middle of the forest. Is it too much to ask that our kids use their imaginations today? Do we really have to go to the boat-shaped playground for them to act out their wild pirate games? When I was a kid I had to create the pirate playscape from scratch (you know, after I walked six miles through the snow to school, uphill both ways). I would far rather watch my kids turn a forest clearing into a “home” complete with kitchen, bed and bath, than see them serve up pretend ice cream over the pre-fab plastic counter of the molded playground ice cream stand. And lately, playgrounds seem to have become more and more involved. They used to consist of a climbing structure, a slide and some swings. How did we get from there to here?

We don't need a playground climbing apparatus to test our limits.

We don’t need a playground climbing apparatus to test our limits.

3. They are too safe. Let me go on record for a second here and say, I’m all for safety! I love safety. I’m a safety advocate. Safety, safety, safety! But as I’ve noted before, I want my kids to learn how to manage risks so that they will be safer outdoors long term, and if they play only in environments in which those risks are managed for them, they will never learn to gauge their own safety. Recently I sat on a bench next to a mother who drew sharp, pointed breaths every time our kids reached the top platform at our local playground.

“That open rail at the top of the ladder there just scares me,” she said to me, shaking her head.

I smiled. “Well look on the bright side. If he throws himself off that thing, he won’t make that mistake twice.”

“You’re right, I never thought of it that way!” she laughed.

I would rather they run wild here than inside the playground fence.

I would rather they run wild here than inside the playground fence.

4. The hyper contagion. Maybe it’s the sheer number of little people in a confined space. Maybe it’s their combined knowledge that they are here to have LOTS OF FUN. Maybe it’s a kiddy  conspiracy to make me lose my mind. Whatever the reason, kids go absolutely bonkers at the playground. Mine always seem to get caught right up in the chaos and run around in the middle of the sugar-rabid pack, screaming and bumping into one another. This on its own wouldn’t be so bad but the pack mentality usually results in what I would call VERY POOR CHOICES. The last time we were at the playground, the kiddy pack found a pile of sticks, only they were closer to logs than sticks. Each child grabbed (at least) one and proceeded to run as fast as he could while bashing the log into anything within log’s reach. They were taking full-strength baseball swings at playground equipment sending out an explosion of splinters with each hit. When we put an end to this game, they found one of those long metal gates that goes across a driveway  to keep vehicles out. You know the ones, the long metal boom that extends at exactly kid-height? They began to push it around and around until it gained its own momentum and they had to flee at low levels in real terror before they were knocked unconscious. See the problem here? Playgrounds on their own are too safe. My bored kids in a pack mentality at the playground are too reckless. Can’t a mom catch a break!

Our usual playground exit style.

Our usual playground exit style.

5. We always leave worse off than when we arrived. This follows from the above hyper contagion. No matter the amount of prep I do, talking in advance about how long we’ll stay, offering plenty of warnings before it’s time to go, bribes, threats, etc, I always leave with crying children. Always. Even if no one gets hurt, they always reach their breaking point one way or another. The hyper contagion boils over and they come crashing down.

 

A nature hike with friends this winter was an awesome way to connect while getting fresh air and exploring our environment.

A nature hike with friends this winter was an awesome way to connect while getting fresh air and exploring our environment.

Don’t get me wrong, we will continue to go to playgrounds. We will continue to participate full force in this insanity, but I do so halfheartedly. I sometimes want my kids to get the chance to choose our destinations, and that often means the playground. I sometimes want to meet friends on mutual territory, and that often means the playground. I sometimes want to be able to sit and talk with a friend while our kids run around in a confined space, and that often means the playground. But I also want my kids to explore freely, to experience wilderness, to stretch their imaginations and their physical limits, and I find that there are far better spaces for this than the playground.

Next time you’re planning to meet friends for some outdoor fun, consider a hike, a nature walk or a farm visit instead. You just may start a new tradition.        

 

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