Growing up, I was an indoor kid. I wanted to read books from the corner of the couch, drive my Barbie camper through the living room, and hide away on the top bunk to write in my diary.
This confused my mother, who grew up with four brothers and a sister as part of a generation that roamed the neighborhood in gangs of siblings from dawn until dusk. For years, she urged me to go in search of bigger and better things outdoors.
But I only had one younger brother, and we didn’t live in a neighborhood full of kids. I was also definitively not the "tomboy" my mother expected to descend from her rough-and-tumble genes. (She lovingly – and only somewhat exasperatedly – recalls the time she plopped me in a sandbox as a toddler and I complained that it was “too dirty.”) My time outdoors usually happened under duress or obligation, and was spent counting down the minutes until I could retreat back inside.
Despite growing older, my preference hasn't changed much. Maybe because I like to be in control and nature is nothing, if not unpredictable. Maybe because I seek comfort and cleanliness a little too often, and it always seems too hot or cold, too wet or muddy or buggy, to be outside. Given the choice, I still favor the safety and familiarity of my house.
But now I have kids – three boys, specifically. Suddenly, being inside isn’t so optional anymore. My kids would spend their entire lives outside if they could. They are happiest running up and down hills, smashing rocks together, hauling logs back and forth to the fire pit, and moving dirt from one lopsided pile to another. My oldest son attends a weekly nature program where he spends one whole weekday – nearly six hours – out in the elements. To my repeated surprise, the first thing he wants to do when we get home from school pick-up is play outside.
None of my three boys ever tires of driving trucks through mud or digging for worms or collecting sticks and leaves and acorns to stuff in their pockets (and for me to find later while doing laundry). For most kids, and certainly for mine, being outside is thrilling. It's a seemingly limitless world full of things to discover.
I was obviously born without that particular bit of DNA. But now, as a mother, I’m starting to see what all the fuss is about.
I first started taking the kids outside to play more often as a way to pass time, especially after my third son was born. Most mothers know that time actually moves more slowly when kids are cooped up inside the house together for long periods (it’s science, probably).
So if the weather was nice, we headed out to the backyard before lunch or after nap-time or while we waited for my husband to come home from work. The older kids played and I walked the baby around, fighting a familiar sense of boredom that was always lurking. Being in the backyard was less boring than staring at each other in the living room, but still, I was restless and antsy, checking the clock frequently until I could make up an excuse for going back inside.
So then I decided to take our outdoor play elsewhere, to more interesting locations like hiking trails and beaches, apple orchards and state parks. We started climbing mountains to historic castles, eating our morning snack beside scenic views of the Connecticut River. Trampling over wooden footbridges, watching water rush beneath our feet. Counting hermit crabs in the marshland along a shoreline walkway. Searching for the biggest rocks or the smoothest shells or the tallest trees.
My kids loved adventuring, and I loved how quickly the time passed when we were outside. It felt good to reclaim a little bit of my former shape, before my body carried, birthed, and fed three babies in five years. I liked feeling stronger and healthier, more capable. I liked thinking my kids might be looking at me as someone spontaneous and confident. (Outdoors Mom is, admittedly, more relaxed than Indoors Mom.)
But more importantly, I stopped hating being outdoors. I couldn’t deny that it was soothing to feel my youngest son fall asleep on my back in the baby carrier as I hiked to the top of a mountain. There was a strong sense of accomplishment, for myself and for my sons, when we discovered an interesting new trail or squeezed in a one-mile hike before 10 a.m. No one fought or squabbled on our expeditions. The boys were happy and content, trudging along as best they could, picking up treasures and pointing out birds or bugs along the way.
Before we started spending more time outside, I'd never really given more than a passing acknowledgement to things like animal tracks stamped in mud and cool spring sun-showers and fresh snow hanging from an evergreen branch. Now, I have no choice but to admire them. Every one of these things is amazing to my kids. They look at the world with an intensely raw sense of astonishment. A bug crawling on the ground sparks the same kind of awe as a late summer thunderstorm crashing through our backyard. They slow down to admire all of it and force me to slow down a little bit, too. In a chaotic, ever-moving world, that is beautiful thing.
Today my sons are six, three, and nearly two. We go exploring outside in most elements, putting on sunscreen or winter hats or rain boots as the weather demands. We’ve watched our favorite mountain hiking trail cycle through the seasons several times, looking out for poison ivy in the summer and ice formations on rocks in the winter. We talk about where all the birds in the forest go during the colder months, and why there are so many dragonflies hovering like helicopters over the marsh in the spring. We get really, really dirty. (Outdoors Mom lets her kids tromp through mud puddles and tries hard to pretend she doesn’t care.)
Since we first made outdoor play part of our regular routine, the world has grown and changed around us. But we've grown and changed, too. Where I once carried my youngest son securely on my back, I now watch him set off on rocky, narrow paths through the woods, trying to keep up with his brothers. He falls, brushes off his hands, and picks himself back up again. He tries to carry rocks bigger than his head. He is fascinated by everything from flat, gray pebbles to sap-encrusted pinecones. He grows attached to one crooked, skinny stick and holds it firmly all the way home.
I’m not saying I’m completely reformed: You won’t find me pitching a tent on a weekend camping trip or scaling the rocky side of a mountain anytime soon. I still feel the most comfortable indoors. But my sons have helped me see that there actually is a bigger and better world out there, just like my mother used to tell me.
Because of them, I can honestly say that venturing outside is just as worthwhile as staying inside – and sometimes, it’s even better. For a self-proclaimed indoor kid, that’s no small feat.
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