As a child in California
Some of my favorite childhood memories are doing school outside. Not formal school, more like pretend school or just drawing.
When we had swim lessons in town they were in the morning. Then we’d go to the library next to the pool, stock up on books, and carry them up the grassy hill to our picnic spot. We’d eat our picnic lunch waiting for open swim hours to start. I’d swim with my siblings but I enjoyed sitting on the beach towels on the grassy hill in the shade of a giant oak tree even more. I’d read my stack of books, draw on paper using a book for a clipboard, and make an acorn collection.
My siblings and I often slept outside on our deck and in the morning we did “summer school” on our sleeping bags. We’d get little notebooks and pencils and write math problems for each other. We bought and traded rocks and bark. We did word searches from the newspaper my mom would bring out to keep us outside longer. And we wrote letters to my grandma.
One summer my siblings and I made houses out of the patio furniture. We moved them to the shade and would take a backpack full of things to do into our houses. Sitting in our houses, we often drew Mario games as Nintendo was a new thing. We would draw out a whole level and work on it for days, then go to a new level. I don’t remember ever playing our paper Nintendo games, but we had a lot of fun drawing them. We also wrote letters, ate lunch in our houses, sent messages to each other, read stacks of books, and played dolls in our houses.
As a first time mom in Texas
When I became a mom at age 21 I was living in the big city of Dallas, Texas. While my husband was in medical school classes I would take our baby for a walk or sit under a giant oak tree and lay her on the grass. This was pre-cell phone days, so I read and wrote letters and daydreamed of having my own house and yard.
The day our oldest turned 6 months old we moved into our very first house (outside of Dallas.) It was only 761 square feet and we ended up having 4 kids there with one on the way when we moved out, but it had a perfect little yard. It was in a dead end neighborhood so it was pretty quiet. The back yard was fenced in and bordered a train track, meaning it was fairly private. The front yard had a huge pecan tree I loved to read to the kids under. We often took Play Doh outside to the little picnic table, scratch paper to draw on, books to read, and sour cream containers to play in the sandbox with. My little ones played outside a good portion of the day. We were all happiest being carefree outside even in our tiny yard.
As a mom of many in North Carolina
We next moved to Eastern North Carolina where we got 3 bedroom house on 1/3 of an acre. We were doing more formal schooling at this point and often did our math workbooks on the trampoline or under a tree. My best outdoor school memories are of taking the kids to state parks. They are free in NC and we had several within an hours drive. We would go in the off season when nobody was there. Then we could hike as slow as we wanted, float sticks down the creek, and watch ants carry our sandwich crumbs. We had the little museum to ourselves and the kids would make up games and run from display to display.
When my husband graduated from residency in North Carolina we decided to stay there and buy a 20 acre farm. I was ecstatic to get my dream of a country house where the kids could run and play outside freely without worrying about streets or neighbors calling CPS on us. We had trouble selling our house because new houses were being built nearby. But then my husband quit his job so we withdrew our contract on the farm.
In Salt Lake City, Utah
We ended up moving to Utah a couple years later. We rented a house on a dead end street but it was still not enough privacy or nature for me. State parks cost a fee so we didn’t have those to go to but I frequently took the kids into the canyon. We’d bring backpacks full of sketchbooks, colored pencils, a writing tablet for writing stories, books to read, and of course a big picnic lunch. We’d park ourselves by a waterfall for the day and climb rocks, run around, float sticks, play train on the boulders, sketch, read and eat.
Yes, it’s a lot of work and doesn’t turn out as idyllic as it sounds when you have a large family. There was the time the 2 year old pooped in her underwear, and the time the 3 year old fell in the river and I didn’t bring any extra clothes for him. The baby needs to nurse and there’s no good rock to lean against. The little kids want constant help with their drawings or for me to read to them. So while I don’t get to sit and read like I dreamed of or go off hiking alone for a few minutes, when it’s all said and done I treasure these memories of just me and my kids out in nature.
Nature camps for friends
In the summer of 2020 church camps were closed for COVID so I made my own for our church friends. One day I’d take 3 year olds to a secluded nature preserve where we could play for hours in the creek. Another day I’d take the 4-6 year olds. And another day I’d take the 7-10 year olds on a really hard hike. I repeated this several times and had a great time each time.
I’ve tried starting a nature school or nature camps here but haven’t gotten much interest. But at least we have our own 36 acres now to romp, explore, and play in. We often take school outside on the picnic table especially history, science or read aloud (our group subjects.) The other day my middle girls were rushing through school and kept asking if we were done. I asked, “What’s the hurry?” They said, “We want to play school outside.” They gathered up books, notebooks, pencils, and dolls and played school outside the whole afternoon. They frequently do this. I guess reading and drawing outside from tender ages has instilled in them a love for doing it.
Last spring my oldest 4 at home spent every afternoon reading outloud on the trampoline. Madalyn read to the others all of the Harry Potter series before she left on her mission. While reading they’d also sit and talk about the books and eat snacks together. What special memories they now have to treasure. It’s fun for me to see them carry on my love of reading, sketching, picnicking and simply being outside.
What can you start doing today that will start a tradition and lifelong love of being outside?