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One of my earliest memories, perhaps the earliest, involves two sisters, some sort of containers, a patch of dirt and water. My children would probably claim that some of my later attempts at whole wheat crust and silken tofu based fillings had their genesis in the mud pies I made back then. Or perhaps my years feeding my family a strictly vegan diet were inspired by the “stews” my sisters and I made from flower blossoms and inedible berries that grew on bushes in our backyard.

When it was suggested that “nature” was a good way to build a child’s emotional IQ, I don’t think mud pies were meant. However, maybe they were. Nature has inspired many people.

Last summer I filled in with our neighborhood wolf den in cub scouts for two weeks. The second week we took a short hike up a local canyon. A couple of boys had brought cameras and couldn’t refrain from taking pictures every ten feet. They were enthralled with every beetle, tree branch and twist of the creek the path followed.

After the boys began collecting snails (tiny white shelled variety) from the path, I began to worry about what mothers would encounter when they emptied their pockets before laundering them. I suggested the poor snails had labored so long to get to the middle of the path where there was sunshine that it seemed a shame to remove them. I said, “Instead of picking them up, just bless them.” So for five minutes the boys would say to the small white shelled creatures they stepped around, “Bless you snail,” and give it a small salute.

Robbed of that collection, a couple of boys began collecting leaves. I attempted to teach them a few basic varieties: oak, maple, aspen, but they were more interested in the individuality of each specimen than what it was called. Wonder and discovery trumped an educational exercise. I noticed that other aspects were coming out triumphant: kindness, sharing, concern for each other, friendly competition where they helped each other succeed, and a total loss of societal barriers.

There were no material possessions to differentiate which boys lived in a large house or which in a small apartment. Nature is a great equalizer. It also calms and invigorates at the same time. Anger and frustration are rare, but energy and a desire to see what is around the next bend (and the next) dominates. These boys loved being among the trees, breathing fresh air and watching the blue sky betewen the canyon walls for soaring birds.

The moment that really awakened me to how green these 8 year olds were (when it came to getting out in nature), came at the end of the trail when I said we needed to get back so their moms wouldn’t worry. At that moment first one boy, and soon all of them decided they needed to go to the bathroom. I pointed to a large tree with a wide trunk up a hill side and suggested they go behind that.

You’d think I’d just suggested they jump off a cliff. Finally one boy bravely ventured. His judgement when he reemerged was, “cool.” Soon all the boys were lined up at the bottom of the slope, like waiting to use a public restroom at a ball game. I was near tears with suppressed laughter.

“You really ought to have your folks take you hiking once in awhile,” I suggested as we headed back down the trail.

Sure there are advantages emotionally from getting out in nature. Sure, children become confident with newly learned skills or increase in compassion while sharing new discoveries. But mostly, they just relax and have a good time.

Take a hike.

But take your children with you.