On Raising a "Wild Child": Lessons from My Mother

We have such a brief opportunity to pass on to our children our love for this Earth, and to tell our stories. These are the moments when the world is made whole. In my children’s memories, the adventures we’ve had together in nature will always exist.
— Richard Louv, from "Last Child in the Woods"

Growing up in suburban Denver with a man-made reservoir just beyond the backyard fence and enough adjacent open space to build cattail and willow dens, climb trees and get lost in daydreams, I had some sense that I was lucky. I knew our little patch of nature between developments was special, even if it did stink sometimes when dead fish washed up on the lake's sandy shore in slimy nets of green algae. My brother and I made the most of that semi-tamed space, playing outside in the trees and reeds until mom called out the back door to bring us home again. 

The land around our suburban greenbelt house became a kind of binding for the sensory scrapbook of my childhood experience. And the pages filled up year after year with memories of the places my outdoors-loving mother helped us discover.

Mom came to Colorado as a young English teacher in love with the mountains. She couldn't stand being cooped up inside for any longer than it took to grade a stack of papers or read a good book. When my brother and I were little, she carried us up mountain trails on her back. My early memories glimmer with the soft greens and golds of pine forests and smell of campfire smoke.

We spent weekends catching tadpoles and hiding in old tree stumps around our property near the town of Fairplay, or chasing each other up switchback trails past purple columbines and ropes of wild strawberries. We skied in the winter and spent many summers in rural Oklahoma, where mom's parents lived, swimming, fishing, catching fireflies, and tramping through deciduous woods filled with fragrant hickory and flowering trees. We took epic road trips through every national park. We hiked the Grand Canyon and stood sore and stunned by the views before us. My mother cultivated in me an adventurous Colorado spirit and modeled awe: the breathless appreciation of all things wild and beautiful.

My mom, Sara Varney, in rural Oklahoma with the tipi her father built, circa 1980. This was one of her favorite places in the world.

My mom, Sara Varney, in rural Oklahoma with the tipi her father built, circa 1980. This was one of her favorite places in the world.

When I heard Scott Sampson, the author of How to Raise a Wild Child, interviewed on Colorado Public Radio recently, I reflected on the gifts my mother gave me by simply expecting me to go outside. She had a horror of "vidiot" kids glued to the TV; she detested the sight of us "wallowing" around on a nice day. We didn't have video games at home. I spent much more than the 7 minutes a day outdoors Sampson says kids are getting on average now.

Mom on our Grand Canyon rim-to-rim hiking trip, 1987.

Mom on our Grand Canyon rim-to-rim hiking trip, 1987.

As suburbanites, my brother and I weren't as "wild" as I hope my own son grows up to be. My family and I live near mountain open space parks, and I can imagine my son walking the trails on his own as he grows up, climbing the rocky outcroppings, sitting and thinking near meadows filled with wildflowers. He might even see a black bear while hiking around home, and will surely stop to admire bucks and does nosing around in the underbrush.

He may have more raw material for his imagination close at hand than I did in my childhood reservoir-and-reed environment, but any kind of wilderness is great for a growing mind. On our local hikes over his first two and a half years of life, we have listened to the crunch of our footsteps in the forest, gawked at graceful raptors in the sky, tossed rocks into rivulets, and met hundreds of friendly dogs walking with their owners. 

My son at 18 months collecting rocks on a trail near home.

My son at 18 months collecting rocks on a trail near home.

Of course, families don't need to take big trips or live near mountains to cultivate a love of nature in their children. As Wild Child author Sampson said in the CPR interview, "One of the most powerful ways to [encourage outdoor time is to create] family nature clubs. It can be as few as two families and trust me, if you start this, you may have 50 families come join you (because that's happened before). It's just a way to get families out into nature on a regular basis together. The parents love it because they get to just hang out together and talk grownup stuff. The kids love it because they're playing with all these other kids." 

Along with building family nature clubs through the Children and Nature Network, parents can join organized walks with Hike It Baby in more than 90 cities in the United States. Here in Colorado, we have a very active Hike It Baby network, with walks and hikes happening throughout the state daily. Little O and I joined friends on a HIB hike in Eldorado Canyon last week and loved it. Check out listings of local hikes here: hikeitbaby.com/find-a-hike/.

I'm trying to raise a "wild child" by accompanying my son outside every day, not just on hikes, but also to do things pictured in the collage below: to play around the lake in our local park, "pet" slugs in the rain, wander through the hay-bale maze at Sunflower Farm, throw rocks into Boulder Creek, and just lounge around enjoying the view wherever we happen to be.

Some of the many activities we do outdoors.

Some of the many activities we do outdoors.

My mother was a remarkable person whose passion for the outdoors and connection to beautiful places from deserts to rainforests and everywhere in between forged in me a deep commitment to sharing that love and learning how it shapes who we are in the world. It all started when she took me along on her own adventures, it grew as she encouraged me to discover places for myself, and now it continues as I cultivate the same kind of fondness for all things outdoors with my own child.

My mom, Sara Varney, passed away five years ago this September. I miss her this Mother's Day as ever, but it's important to me to celebrate her legacy and pass it down to others.

In June 2010, mom wrote a letter to her friends at Denver Health, where she had volunteered in the emergency department for 20 years, expressing her genuine hope that they would all do her the great favor of getting out into nature when she couldn't any longer. She wrote,"enjoy the gorgeous days of summer, lie on a blanket under a tree, look up at the leaves, sun, sky, clouds, and thank God every day for life."

Hiking with my son in Rocky Mountain National Park, 2013.

Hiking with my son in Rocky Mountain National Park, 2013.

Let's all get outside and do that however we can. I am so grateful to my mother for showing me what a wonderful world we have all around us.

Where are your favorite places to get outside and enjoy the fresh air? What do you need to support your children's love of nature and the outdoors? Leave a comment and join me in a conversation about raising happily "wild" children. Happy hiking!