I went hiking alone today while Phoebe had her first day of Kindergarten. Usually when I go to Wilder Ranch, I stay on the trail and hold her hand to keep her safe but since I was there by myself, I was able to hang out at the cliff edges and marvel at the power of the waves against the dramatic landscape.
Living in Santa Cruz is incredible and beautiful but these are the mountains I miss, rich with sagebrush and chaparral in the Los Padres National Forest. Some people say if you grow up near mountains, you’ll always feel a need to be close to them. Perhaps for you it’s the wide open sky above grasslands, an ocean, a river, or the desert.
If I want to go to the beach, it’s only a 15 minute drive away but if the fog doesn’t lift or the breeze is too chilly, I hang out in the warm, sunny valley I call home: Ojai. Such was the case this afternoon when I brought Phoebe to the Ventura River Preserve for a day of exploration.
If I were to allow Phoebe to watch cartoons all day, she’d happily acquiesce but if given the opportunity to have fun in a natural environment, her imagination readily ignites. Interestingly, Phoebe found a tiara sitting atop a boulder formation she was climbing. She put it on and then grabbed some large sticks that were three times her height, pretending to be a warrior.
Phoebe chased after lizards and examined countless rocks, stuffing a few in her bag to add to her collection when we got home. There is a great children’s book called “Everybody Needs a Rock” that describes the connection of a child to their favorite rock and gives ten charming instructions to children on how to slow down, learn to be observant and find their own rock.
One of my favorite college courses was called “Math and Science for the Young Child” which heavily emphasized the power of outdoor play. Our required reading included a book called “Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv, who goes into rich detail on the benefits of allowing a child time to explore a natural environment with minimal interference from adults, lest his or her thought process be interrupted. The essence of the book is that children benefit from time in nature due to the soothing yet stimulating effect it has on the mind.
This claim is supported by a recent experiment with a portable (!) EEG machine that measured the activity of people who walked through various environments. The results indicated that people are markedly relaxed in natural settings. While this is not surprising, the reason is intriguing: a natural environment induces an experience that is termed “soft fascination” wherein the brain is attentive yet relaxed, taking in information but allowing for reflection and quiet contemplation, as described in an article in the New York Times titled “Easing Brain Fatigue With a Walk in the Park.” Giving ourselves and our children the opportunity to learn, explore and relax at the same time is invaluable.