We are each “formed to be a spectator of the created world – and given eyes that [we] might be led to its Author by so beautiful a representation.” –John Calvin
It was a sunny fall Friday back in the days when I still had a jogging stroller because I still had toddler twins. I loaded said stroller and all four of my children into the sofa-mobile, and we headed to a nearby hundred-acre park for an in-city nature walk.
We parked at the trailhead behind a strip mall and walked along the dirt-and-gravel path that followed Piper’s Creek through Piper’s Canyon. (“Canyon” sounds impressive, like something the Rio Grande carved out of the Arizona desert. This canyon is modest, its forty-foot high slopes covered with vine maples and cedars, Douglas firs and red alder.) Leaves lay scattered on the trail and glowed gold and red, orange and yellow on the trees. Lovely fall flowers dotted the borders of the trail. Birds trilled in the trees. The creek burbled just out of sight in the vine maples and mahonia.
My eight-year-old son found a fallen log that traversed the creek. He scrambled onto it and walked across. His five-year-old sister sat on the log and waited for him.
About midway between the trailhead and the beach, we came upon a sunny slope planted with apple trees, an abandoned orchard that had been lovingly restored over the past decade. We tasted the windfall apples that littered the side of the trail and decided they were better for cider or sauce than eating raw.
On one of the bridges that crossed the creek, my older kids played Pooh-sticks, the game invented by Winnie-the-Pooh when he was sitting on a bridge one sunny day much like this one. Jack and Jane each chose a stick and on the count of three dropped their sticks off the bridge into the creek. Then they ran to the other side of the bridge to see whose stick would come out first. Believe it or not, it is possible for children to play this game for an hour. Longer, if their twin baby brothers don’t start wailing and demanding to go home for a nap. Unfortunately for our fair hero and heroine, said baby brothers did commence crying and their game of Pooh-sticks was sadly and prematurely ended.
But the sun still shone, and the creek still burbled, and the trees still danced in the breeze, so all was not lost. Jack and Jane skipped back the way they’d come, and even discovered a new friend on the way—a marvelous European cross spider in a web as perfect as the Very Busy Spider’s.
Ten years ago, I first read Charlotte Mason, a late 19th and early 20th century British educator, who advocated what she called “out-of-door life for the children” 100 years before anyone ever heard of nature deficit disorder. Her recommendation for young children (up through age nine) was three hours a day outdoors in dismal weather and at least six in good weather! I’ve never even come close. The reality is that it’s a lot of work to get my kids bundled up and out of the house when it’s rainy or cold or both, and my desire to be present to the beauties of the natural world is, I’m afraid, trumped by my desire to be warm and dry.
But I still set the goal. I believe in setting high bars so that even failure is success. When the weather is nice, we usually manage several hours outside in the afternoon. When we’re not doing lessons (and sometimes when we are!), we spend whole days at the park or the beach or, now that they’re older, on a hike.
Even when my children were small, we spent as much time outdoors as possible. Part of this was survival—four kids in a tiny house meant we were all stir-crazy after a few days indoors. A larger part of it, though, was my vision for my kids’ childhood, a vision I gleaned from Charlotte Mason and several other writers—a vision of happy, rompy hours outdoors digging in the dirt and climbing trees, making friends with the flowers and insects and critters that crowd every square foot of good honest dirt, developing a love of fresh air and sunshine and the freedom that comes from being out in the natural world, even if “natural” in our case meant a postage stamp backyard or a city park. I wanted them to love nature and see in it the fingerprints of God, His immense creativity and attention to detail. I wanted them to marvel at the created world so that they might marvel even more at the God Who created it.
I haven’t ever lived up to my vision of the out-of-door life for my children, but that almost doesn’t matter. It was there in my mind’s eye, like a beacon, guiding the decisions I made, and continue to make, as I raise my kids. That vision helps me make the harder choice to send them (or take them!) outside instead of turning on a movie or handing them my phone. It helps me hold firm when they whine about the cold weather. It helps me stop in the midst of my swirling thoughts, my many tasks and look at a leaf or a caterpillar or a spider or whatever other wonder my kids point out to me—and marvel with them at its intricacy and beauty. And it’s given our family a shared love of the natural world, and shared memories of long walks among vine maples and windfall apples, of creek crossings, and of the simple pleasures of Pooh Sticks.
Here are a few books that have helped inspire my vision of the out-of-door life for our family:
Roxaboxen by Alice McLerran, illus. Barbara Cooney
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Swallows and Amazons (and lots of sequels!) by Arthur Ransome
Keeping a Nature Journal by Clare Walker Leslie and Charles E. Roth
Home Education by Charlotte Mason, see especially Part II “Out-of-Door Life for the Children”
Sketching Outdoors in Spring (there’s a book for summer, fall, and winter, too) by Jim Arnosky
K.C. Ireton is the author of these two lovely books:
Living the seasons of the church year provides a way out of bondage to the frenzied pace of our culture and into the freedom of Christ’s unforced rhythms of grace.
Beginning with the reflective preparation of Advent and Lent, the seasons circle through the joyful celebrations of Christmas and Epiphany, Easter and Pentecost, and end in the often lulling dailiness of Ordinary Time. The seasons point us to Christ. They lure our gaze back to God. They remind us that God is lovingly with us moment by moment, season by season, year after year, always.
In The Circle of Seasons, Kimberlee Conway Ireton introduces you to these seasons–and shows how you can live in them–and in the freedom for which Christ has set you free.
Kimberlee doesn’t. She already has two kids, her first book just hit bookstore shelves, and the only baby she wants to birth now is the young adult novel she’s worked on for six years. But after nine months of trying—and failing—to land an agent for her novel, Kimberlee finds out she’s pregnant. With twins.
By turns hilarious and heart-breaking, this debut memoir takes you on a roller coaster ride of hormonal disequilibrium, professional disappointment, hellacious sleep-deprivation, and the black pit of postpartum depression only to bring you laughing back to the light.
If you’ve ever wondered where God is in the mess of your upended life, come along with Kimberlee as she learns a a whole lot about clinging to God (mostly by her fingernails) and finding grace and goodness in the darkest of life’s corners.
K.C. Ireton is the author of The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year and Cracking Up: A Postpartum Faith Crisis. She’s currently the writer-in-residence for Velvet Ashes an online community for women serving overseas, and also writes for The Cultivating Project and Grace Table. She lives near Seattle with her husband and four children.