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Growing Up Wild

Connecting kids to nature

The following was written by Alyssa Nyberg, Native Plant Nursery Manager at Kankakee Sands in Newton County.

My son splashes, whacks, thunks, crashes into the natural world outside our house. My daughter looks, listens, holds, cuddles, and gently caresses the natural world that she encounters. They play the same timeless games that we played as kids: hide-and-seek, last-one-up-the-hill-is-a-rotten-egg, and climb-on-fallen-tree-pirate-ships. When they play inside, they often need toys and games as props. But when they play outside, nature provides them all that they need: sticks, feathers, leaves, hills and trees.

We have the luxury of living across the street from Kankakee Sands, a 7,800-acre prairie restoration in rural northwest Indiana. We have lived here since 1999 when I began working for the Conservancy as the Native Plant Nursery Manager. Our daughter Savanna is nine and our son Forest is six. This life on the edge of the prairie is all my children have ever known. They understand the strength of wind, the dangers of wildfire, the sound of migrating birds. The natural world is something that they experience daily; it is a part of their lives; it is a part of them.

Savanna has Down syndrome. When she was born, we worried that this country life might be too rough and unsafe for her, that perhaps we should move to the city where we’d be closer to more doctors and therapists. What we have learned is that nature has been her greatest ally. She is so motivated by the desire to spend time outdoors. It is a place where she can use all of her senses to learn and understand. She can feel something with her hands or her whole body and it becomes real. Walking on the uneven earth has strengthened her legs and challenged her balance. The soft earth catches her fall. Now she races her father on the trails with long strides and confidence. The speed of the natural world is one in which she seems more comfortable. When the fast movement of cars, television images, and loud noises overwhelm her, she retreats to the rhythm and speed of the natural world. She notices the light in the trees, she notices the subtle variations of the feathers of our chickens, she hears music in the wind. These things delight her, make sense to her and more importantly, make her smile.

Nature has given Savanna a certain sophistication. When she colors the grass or the sky, she uses not just one shade or green or blue, but a wide variety of greens and blues, greys and even silver. She will even show movement of wind in the leaves and water. She also has a profound compassion for animals, especially those that were hit on the road. She wonders if they had a family and how much they will be missed. When Savanna finds something beautiful in nature, she does not want to keep it for herself, she always wants to show it to me so that we can share the beauty together.

Forest, too, has been touched by his experiences outdoors. He delights in using his body to climb, jump, run, dive. His little body is muscle and madness all wrapped up together. He uses his mind to create elaborate spider webs using old ropes, and then he climbs those spider webs. He has challenged and defeated many an imaginary villain in the outdoors, giving himself an inner pride. The natural world shows through in the way that he describes objects. He uses lots and lots of adjectives. Trees aren’t just brown and green, they are rough and scratchy, sometimes smooth and shiny, each with a particular smell and some have more places to climb while others have more woodpecker holes. He has learned this by playing outside.

My kids don’t mind being rained on. They think insects are cool. I have to remind myself that being rained on isn’t that bad, and neither are insects. That’s the great thing about children--they have the amazing ability to be in the moment. And if I don’t talk, but sit or walk quietly with them, there is no telling what they might observe and bring to my attention. Sometimes we run, we walk, we skip, we sing, we definitely touch.

My husband and I try to get the kids outside every day, even if only for a few moments. Sometimes there is a slight push to get my son outside. Oh, it is so hard to put on a coat and zip it up! But once outside, there are shouts and laughter and you can see his spirit come alive. There is no noise monitor in our backyard. Singing, laughing, even screaming are absolutely fair game.

There is no doubt that when my children come inside from playing, they are grubby and gritty. But they are also happy. They have that fantastic smell of the outdoors on their skin and in their hair. When I bend down to kiss them, I can’t help but draw a long breath in and smile. I didn’t teach my children that it was fun to play outside. Nature did.

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