By Robin Mayes, Farm Educator
As kids, my older sister and I spent almost every waking hour outside. It took some pretty inclement weather or an illness to keep us in. We were very fortunate; we lived miles from the nearest town and our neighbors were all farm families that we knew well. And most significantly, we lived in a different time … On a summer day, we might head out after breakfast, taking white bread and butter sandwiches and a glass peanut-butter jar filled with cold milk for lunch. If we were having a particularly enjoyable game of make-believe or were on an imagined adventure, Mom might not see us again until starvation drove us in at dinner time.
We sometimes spent the day on our horses pretending we were roaming the Wild West or outrunning a cyclone. We might take off on our bikes and circuit our one-mile square “neighborhood” which consisted of the seven or 8 closest farms. We spent countless springtime hours scouring the plowed fields searching for Indian stone tools and points, of which we found many! Often, we just set out hiking along the Scioto River or the creek that meandered through the farm and got lost in the excitement of watching crawdads (crayfish) and turtles or a great blue heron fishing.
Even the work on the farm sometimes felt like play. My sister was old enough to drive the tractor for simple field work. How I envied her that privilege! One of my favorite tasks was riding on the back of the grain drill while Dad planted soybeans. My “job” was to jump off the machine as it moved slowly around the field, picking up any large rocks and putting them in the big wooden box attached to the back of the planter. (Not as dangerous as it sounds!) Later, those rocks would be deposited on the dam that held back the water of our pond.
Sadly, today, kids don’t have the freedom that we had then. Very few children have the opportunity to grow up on a farm. And besides, rural areas are no longer as isolated from crime as they once were. Nowadays, if a child would leave the house in the morning and be gone until evening a full-scale search might be launched for them! It is just not as safe for them to roam freely. In this era, much more effort is required on the part of parents or caregivers to get youngsters outside. But many have happily risen to the challenge and the kids in their care greatly benefit from it! Many families are active and they are taking their little ones to enjoy hiking, camping, kayaking and a host of other outdoor pursuits. But an outside excursion need not be planned months in advance and consist of days spent out in a wilderness. Any ordinary afternoon can turn into a memorable experience. Something as simple as a walk to the local city park to let the kids burn off energy on a play-toy can do it. A hike on a gravel trail in one of your county parks may offer even more adventure! The sights and sounds offer opportunities for teaching about the natural world that young ones do not even recognize as educational … just fun and unforgettable.
Recently, I had the chance to take two of my grandkids with me while stalking salamanders in the vernal pools of Gallant Woods. We were helping Naturalist Liz check the traps she had left in the water the night before. When conditions are right in the spring, the salamanders “run” – headed to breeding pools to leave eggs behind. By setting basket-like traps in areas where they are likely to be, we can get a glimpse into the variety of salamander species in the area. The trapped critters are noted and released unharmed. Seven-year-old Ellie was determined to get right in there and inspect the amphibians. She loved the scientific aspect of the survey and sensed the importance of such activities. Landon, 4, was all about traipsing through the water in his tall boots. I am sure in his little head he was on the trail of much larger, prehistoric creatures … he is very into dinosaurs right now.
Not only did our excursion into the woods yield a glimpse into the life of mole salamanders but we also were treated to a cacophony of spring peepers and chorus frogs. Numerous birds were singing from the treetops. Finding a couple of tiny brown snakes in the leaf litter on our way to the large vernal pool was an added bonus!
Maybe you don’t have a whole week or even an entire weekend to spend in the great outdoors with the youngsters in your life, but take advantage of every opportunity to get out … even if it is only into your own backyard! You’ll find plenty of nature there, too.