The following article has been adapted from a talk I presented at the Natural State Charlotte Mason Retreat in April 2021.
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Here’s a little literary puzzle for you: What do the following books have in common?
- Pilgrim’s Progress
- The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings
- The Odyssey
- True Grit by Charles Portis
- CS Lewis’ The Silver Chair
Literary nerds would say most of these are examples of “The Hero’s Journey”, but my husband says they’re all just backpacking stories.
Getting Outside to Live the Adventure
This spring my family reached the halfway point of the 223-mile Ouachita Trail.
We’ve been section-hiking the OT ever since I read True Grit back in 2018 and wanted to walk down where the story takes place.
Backpacking has provided our family with many transcendent connections—literary and otherwise. When we set out to cover some ground on foot, we’re getting in touch with a very ancient human practice. When we do something challenging, we have a chance to grow in character. When we face a grueling, rocky climb, our books can inspire us: “It’s the steps of Mordor! Onward to Mount Doom!”
Backpacking isn’t for everyone, but I firmly believe that reading living books and spending time outside are the one-two punch when it comes to helping our kids experience and enjoy what Charlotte Mason calls the science of relations. Some of our best family discussions and most interesting ah-ha moments happen on the trail. And it’s beautiful. But the magic doesn’t happen if we don’t step outside.
Do you know the context for the familiar Charlotte Mason quote “…mothers work wonders once they are convinced that wonders are demanded of them?” It’s from Volume One, in the section on “Out-of-Door Life for the Children.” Miss Mason recognizes that getting our kids outside might require us to work wonders. It’s a high calling. And it may feel at times that we have to climb mountains to make it happen. But the payoff is worth it. The connections made, the character built, and the awe at our Creator’s handiwork are all worth the effort.
I want to address two attitude obstacles, drawing from my family’s journey into backpacking. Even if you don’t choose to get into backpacking, I hope these concepts will help you recognize your own obstacles to getting outdoors and think of how you might work wonders to overcome them.
Attitude Obstacle #1: The Anxious Mama
We have not always been a backpacking family. I’ve enjoyed hiking since my teens, but sleeping outside is another story.
Several years ago, my husband looked into hammocking as a more comfortable alternative to sleeping on the ground. One evening, he set up a brand-new hammock kit in our yard, complete with a narrow “mummy” sleeping bag, bug net, and rain tarp. He tried it out and thought it was great. I tried it out and literally started hyperventilating. I’d never slept in a mummy bag before, and it turns out, I’m mildly claustrophobic. I couldn’t see the sky, I couldn’t move my arms or legs. It was too much all at once.
My husband realized that we needed to start by just getting me comfortable being outside. So, he’d set up the hammock on a pretty day and suggest I go out to take a nap or read a book. That, I could do.
Over time, as I got more comfortable, we tried sleeping outside on mild nights with no need for rain tarp or bug net. But I would still sometimes go inside midway through the night. This was not my thing, but it was growing on me.
Fast forward to today: I find my hammock quite inviting after a long day of hiking. And I’ve even gotten to the point where I can sleep on the ground on an ultralight air mattress.
Your husband may not be the one leading the charge into the great outdoors for your family, and that’s ok. You may not be interested in backpacking, and that’s ok—I wouldn’t be doing it if it weren’t for my husband. But I hope you can see some of the takeaways from this story.
First off, we need to be patient—with ourselves and with our people. We are all–moms, dads, and children–born persons. So, consider your people and their quirks.
Secondly, we also need to recognize that if there is a strong reaction to something, it may mean we’re doing too much too soon. Start small, with things you can enjoy, and build up gradually from there.
Thirdly, our fears and anxiety may also mean we need more exposure—not less—to the things that scare us.
Let’s say you’re terrified that a snake is hiding behind every rock, just waiting for you to walk by so it can strike. You go over the facts: “Snakes are as eager to avoid me as I am to avoid them.” But often the facts by themselves don’t govern our emotional response until we’ve had the experience of safely walking past 100 or maybe even 1,000 suspicious rocks, with no snake incidents.
Facing our fears and dealing with our hangups is part of practicing masterly inactivity. It’s well worth reading chapter three of Volume Three to get better acquainted with what that means. But Miss Mason does give us a short list of what masterly inactivity involves: authority, good humor, self-confidence, confidence in the children, and a sound mind in a sound body.
Miss Mason adds, “If the sound body is unattainable, anyway, get the sound mind.” 😉
Our anxiety can trip us up, but it can also trip up our kids if we allow it. If we don’t face our fears and cast our cares upon the Lord, we may fail to communicate “confidence in the children,” we may be more inclined to say no when we should say yes, and we may deny our kids opportunities to test their capabilities and to grow in grit and resourcefulness.
Instead of modeling anxiety, we want to model curiosity and wonder at the things God has made. Instead of allowing our fears to keep us inside, we want to show our children by example how to step out beyond our comfort zone and grow.
Attitude Obstacle #2: The Reluctant Child
We know we’ve got to deal with ourselves first, but we may find that our kids are just as hesitant as we are–or perhaps even more so. What’s a mama to do?
Here are some considerations that may help.
Make it Sensitive
My oldest son loves Legos. When we started more serious backpacking the thought of missing out on more than one day of Lego playtime almost brought him to tears. So, for his birthday one year, my husband bought him a minifig backpacker complete with accessories. There’s even a Lego bear, a fish, and some poison ivy. He gets it out when we stop for lunch or after we’ve set up camp, and it’s made our extended time in the woods much more enjoyable for him.
It makes a big difference for a child to know that their interests have been considered. If there’s an activity that they already enjoy, taking it outside may be a good way to gently encourage a new love for the outdoors. Take read-alouds or poetry tea-time or something artsy out on the lawn. If your reluctant child can get more comfortable doing ordinary things outside, it can help the transition into more outdoorsy activities.
Make it Special
We can also make our outdoor time more fun by making it special. There are treats we enjoy only while hiking—things like pre-packaged snacks or GORP (good old raisins and peanuts) or homemade apple leather or dried fruit. And this brings up the idea of special responsibilities. You don’t need to do all of the preparations, mama. It can be more fun for kids if they have some skin in the game and can say, “I made the trail mix!” or “I sliced the apples!” Give them the opportunity and see what happens.
We can also give our children special tools as appropriate. A well-timed gift of a compass, spyglass, or pocketknife can be a big boost to a child. If you have a garden or do landscaping around your home, let your kids use real tools as soon as they are capable of safely wielding them. Our kids are often more capable than we give them credit for. If we tell them “no” all the time when they’re little, we shouldn’t be surprised if they shrink from doing big person things when they’re teens.
In backpacker culture, people use special names that in some way describe who they are. My trail name is Persistent Turtle. 😉 My 9-year-old is ALP, which stands for Apple Leather Power. You don’t have to be a backpacker to enjoy coming up with trail names.
Make it Social
We can also make our outdoor time more fun by making it social. My kids love having friends over to play in the woods or in our creek, and we enjoy hiking with other families. It can be a really great way to learn, too, as we observe and wonder at things with friends whose outdoor knowledge and skills are different than our own.
Make it Seasonal
Make it fun by making it seasonal. Nobody really enjoys tick season. So, we do our backpacking mostly in spring and fall. In summer, we do more short hikes to swimming holes. Bonus points if there’s a waterfall to jump off of.
And in winter, our day hikes might focus more on finding waterfalls—frozen waterfalls look really cool.
Other seasonal elements we consider are fall colors, spring blooms, and berry picking season. For years when my boys were small we would read Blueberries for Sal and then go and pick blueberries.
Make it Smile
Make it fun by smiling. This is simple, but powerful. When your kids make an observation or create something with mud or rattle off more snake facts than you ever thought you wanted to know—or better yet they bring a snake inside the house—acknowledge their discovery or creativity and smile, even if you’re simultaneously leading them and the snake out the back door. Miss Mason says it like this: “…if they see that the things which interest them are indifferent or disgusting to you, their pleasure in them vanishes, and that chapter in the book of Nature is closed to them.” Vol. 1, 58
So, keep that book of nature open by showing interest and smiling. Even if it’s gross.
Make it Screen-Free
Sometimes our screen habits are an obstacle to our outdoor habits. One may need to be cut back significantly to make room for the other—not just as a consideration of time but as a consideration of how our habits are training us. Charlotte Mason emphasizes training our children to really see when they are outside. The more we look at screens, the less practiced our eyes are at seeing depth and detail that isn’t pre-focused for us. Carefully consider screen habits in your home, as they can affect attitude on a general level as well as hinder our ability to really see and appreciate God’s world.
Once you’ve addressed attitude obstacles, the rest is just details.
This post isn’t going to go into all of the potentially relevant details, but I do want to briefly address hiking safety. The three most important things I can tell you about keeping your kids safe on the trail are these:
- Train the habit of obedience—when you have little ones on the top of a cliff, they need to be able to stop when you say stop.
- Train the habit of attention, of really seeing and being aware of their surroundings.
- Get every walking member of your family a whistle. In our family, one blast means “Where are you?” or, in response, “Here I am.” Two blasts means “Come here.” And three blasts is an international distress signal, used for emergencies.
Along with these safety tips, check out the principles of Leave No Trace–these are outdoor ethics which serve as an excellent guide to walking wisely, practicing good stewardship, and loving your neighbor while out on the trail.
Take the Long View
Remember that this goal of getting outside is not a competition. To whatever extent we lead our children out of doors, we’re setting their feet in a wide room, and it doesn’t get much wider than the big world God has made and the living books that we enjoy.
Three years ago my family set out on the first section of the Ouachita Trail. I was so sore and tired by the end of our third day that I suggested to my husband that he might need to hike out to the highway and hitch us a ride back to our car in the morning. But after a good night’s sleep in my comfy hammock I felt much better, and we set out to complete the last eight miles of our 24-mile trip. Toward the end of the day, we climbed to a peak and looked behind us. After diligently studying the map and the horizon, my husband told me to look at the furthest peak in the distance.
I asked, “Is that where we started four days ago?”
“No,” he said with excitement. “That’s where we started this morning.”
Remember that if you and your family just keep taking the next step, before you know it, you will reach a vantage point far on down the trail, look back, and be amazed at the ground that you’ve covered.
Looking for great places to hike and camp or otherwise explore Arkansas? Check out my friend Lindsey’s website: All About Arkansas.