My children have been walking this path for hours now. The talking and singing has quieted down. All I hear is the wind in the trees, our footsteps on the rocky path and every now and then a woodpecker or a black squirrel hurrying up a tree in front of us. I am tired.
We have had quite a few sleepless nights lately and this morning, when the kids woke me up before the sun came out, I honestly did not feel like driving into the mountains. But now I am glad I did. I am so glad. Because of the joyful silence, because of the silly chatter that has passed and because of what I know will happen next.
My girl reacts first. She stops dead in her tracks. „WATER“, she says. Her brother stands right beside her, his head tilted to the side as usual, looking out of the corner of his eyes. His arms go up, hands outstretched. His muscles tighten, shoulders draw in. And then he starts flapping. And with the flapping comes the smile. A big one.
He stands there, next to his sister, listening to the sound of the water. There are giggles in the air now, floating around us like bubbles. So much joy, simply because of the sound of water rushing down a mountain. The kids will run along the path soon, I know it. They will stop once they finally see the water. Then it will be time to find the perfect sticks to draw secret messages into the mud. It will be time to toss rocks, to make up stories about water spirits and silly fish or to try to build a dam like beavers do.
Sometimes, when I tell people about our hikes, I get a weird look. Why spend so much time walking? Why not focus on more important things. Things he needs to learn.
Shouldn't you focus on teaching your son how to hold a pen just right? Shouldn't you focus on getting him to sit still and work on math problems? And shouldn't he be doing math problems on paper?
The consensus seems to be that academic work should be my main focus and that it can't be done out in the wilderness.
Social skills are a big one too. (Not that I don't agree. I simply don't always agree on how they need to be taught. I even struggle with the word „taught“ when it comes to social skills. I would prefer the word "discovered".)
Teach him to make eye contact.
(Another big one)
And also, my son is a boy who struggles with balance and coordination. He often falls. He can't seem to figure out how to stand up without being held while pulling a shirt over his head for example. (And yes, I asked my son if it was okay for me to include this information.) In the shower, I need to lean in, into the stream of water, to stabilize him and to keep him away from the handles that control the water temperature. He doesn't seem to be aware of the danger hot water can represent. Or maybe it's just that the the whole sensation of taking a shower overstimulates him so much that he can't quite control his body and his actions.
So why bring him out here into the mountains, where the paths are tricky, covered in pebbles and rocks and where there are often fallen trees in the way?
Because it makes him happy. All of us really.
That is the answer I want to give whenever I am questioned about the hiking and our time spent in nature exploring. It's that simple. And yet it is so much more.
See, when we first started hiking, it was simply a way for my son to relax, to get away from the serious self-harming and the hurtful overstimulation that came with living in Army housing. It was also a way for myself to calm down in order to be patient and present for him. (Nature has a knack for doing just that.)
Later, when I heard Rupert Isaacson speak for the first time, he mentioned how being in nature calmed his son and how he had become more recceptive after spending time running wild. And I felt so happy that I wasn't the only one experiencing this.
During our hikes my son would try foods he would have never touched at home. He would become very receptive and attentive. After a very challenging hike he even asked me a question. He had never asked questions before. In fact, he had hardly spoken at all. So I knew I was on the right track. His speech improved during and after a hike. The more challenging the hikes, the more he seemed to open up. I could tell that he felt safe in his own skin during and after a hike. Now he even tells me so.
Recently, a friend gave me an article about the benefits of hiking: Lowered stress levels, lowered blood pressure, a stronger immunity system. Just to look at trees can apparently help wounded bodies to heal faster.
Whatever it is that is happening on our hikes, it helps my son to feel good about who he is. (The most important thing in my opinion. He's great exactly as he is and I want him to know and feel that!) And when he feels safe and happy, he is also more interested in the world around him and in exploring it.
His balance also seems to improve when we are out in rough terrain. Yes, his movements don't look as smooth as his sisters, but he is steady and surprisingly fast.(Definitely more at ease with his own body than he ever is underneath a ceiling.) He is training his proprioceptive sense, which has been something we have been working on in OT. Nothing has brought the same results as simply „getting out there“.
When I first tried to teach my son to write, I struggled to find a pen he could hold. It was not just that his grip was not strong enough and the pens would constanly slip out of his fingers. He also gagged whenever he had to touch a pen. Sometimes simply holding a pen for too long would make him vomit. But sticks, well, sticks he loved. The bigger the better of course. And mud. Mud was fun. So we started using those big old sticks to draw in the mud. Then we started writing letters, words, sentences. Leaving secret messages behind. Once he was comfortable with the big sticks, we used smaller ones. And smaller ones. Until he was able to use sticks about the same size and weight as pencils. Now there's no more gagging. His grip is stronger. He is still struggeling with holding a pen just right, but he does not mind practicing anymore.
When it came to learning the letter sounds, success came when we started stomping around on soft ground, leaving footprints to form giant letters. Walking and running around the letters helped. It seems that the more movement is involved, the easier it is for my son to learn. Plus, let's face it, it's just more fun that way too. (And a great workout for moms who never make it to the gym.)
Nature can be a great classroom. Counting rocks and pinecones, adding and substracting using those „fun-to-use“ objects.
But he has to learn to be able to do this at a table too.
I often hear that. I can't agree really, but I admit that I was relieved when I noticed that our time in nature also helped with being able to be indoors. Sensory issues and overstimulation are bigger issues indoors for my son, but having been outside and physically challenged helps him to cope indoors as well. We now have craft sessions at the table. We read together after breakfast and dinner. The kids took a blacksmith class and we haven even started attending STEM classes at the library.
Social Skills. He needs to learn to handle being around other people. Being out there in nature where you don't meet another soul all day won't help him.
It actually does. We make up stories to discover social skills and social cues. During our hikes, my son will actually take these stories in. And it's not just that. Since his sensory issues seem to decrease – or maybe just his ability to handle them with more ease increases – after a good hike, he is also more willing to deal with other people. He's making an effort. He even approaches others sometimes. And when he is met with acceptance, you might just be rewarded with smiles. And trust me, those smiles are worth it. )
And the eye contact? Well, he still doesn't care about that. Neither do I. He prefers what we call sideway glances. „It's safer, Mama“. That is what he says. I have no problem believing or accepting it.
Hiking hasn't been a miracle. I don't look for one. We have had a few meltdowns outside even. Far less than indoors. Those meltdowns didn't trip us up. Hiking has brought my son – and my daughter and myself – joy. It's our thing.
Maria Montessori urged educators to „follow the child“. I followed my child (or I should say I followed my children, since both of them love being in mother nature's arms) into the woods, the mountains and the desert.
Rupert Isaacson has followed his son into the sattle. For him of course being on a horse was like coming back home, while hiking for me was something new. In the end however, it has been a homecoming as well.
You might follow your child to hot air balloons (Rico, who also contributes his experiences here might be able to tell you more about that.) You might follow your child to a sewing machine, a surfboard, to model airplanes, to pots and pans and spatulas. It might not make much sense at first. You might not have any idea how to get creative and how to use the chosen interest to create learning experiences. (In my experience it is great to simply harness the joy that usually comes with following your child's interests at first.)
You might hear a lot of criticism from others and that can be hard to take. Sometimes you might feel scared that you are somehow not doing enough. (I do. Quite often actually, especially when I haven't had time to refill my own energy tanks or if I have had to listen to harsh criticism or somewhat dark prophecies about the future. So be kind to yourself as well.)
And what if I am not interested in the same things my child is interested in?
I heard someone asking Rupert this question during a presentation on kinetic learning.
You better get fucking interested.
Rupert is a lot bolder and braver than I am. I would have never dared to say that. And yet, here I am, in total agreement.