My family loves spending time in the outdoors. After busy days at work, school, and moving through the daily hustle and bustle of life, there’s an urge to escape and get back to nature. A call to the wild, you could say.
Trekking through the forest, discovering a new trail, or watching the kids run wild and free, there is no doubt that nature is healing.
Over the past couple of years, we’ve set a family goal to visit as many national parks as we can. Our kids take part in the junior ranger programs and have the privilege of meeting the park rangers that work tirelessly to protect our landscapes and wildlife.
The kids have learned about animals, plants, trees, and how to preserve our natural treasures. So far they’ve each earned five badges, one for each park we’ve visited.
The reason I share this is that recently, I came across this picture book titled: OLIVER THE SECOND-LARGEST LIVING THING ON EARTH by Josh Crute and illustrated by John Taesoo Kim. Not only is it beautifully illustrated, but it’s a story inspired by nature.
Age Range: 4-8
Publisher: Page Street Kids
Synopsis: A tree named Oliver is tired of being the second-largest tree. He stretches his limbs in winter, lifts logs in spring, soaks up the sun in summer, and munches on mulch in autumn, trying to grow big enough to be noticed. Until he discovers that he’s been a part of something much larger, the Sequoia National Forest.
It’s a humorous story with a lot of heart, and there’s an excellent note at the end about the Sequoia National Forest and other second largest things in the world.
It’s a great reminder for children that you don’t always have to come in first. In fact, being second is important, too.
“Mom, what are those big white things?” my daughter asks while peering out the window as we drive through the grassy plains of the Midwest.
“Those are wind turbines. The wind helps make energy which gets turned into power. Like the power that turns on the lamp in your room or the lights in the house.”
Immediately following my explanation came the rounds of questions that spilled out of a curious five-year-old’s mouth after being told that a giant monster-like structure uses wind to create power. It is pretty amazing when you think about it.
Our conversation ignited a critical discussion that my husband and I felt we needed to start sharing with our kids about caring for our environment. How can we instill in them an appreciation and respect for the natural living life around them? After wrestling with this big idea, we finally realized the answer is a lot simpler than we thought: It’s about giving our kids opportunities to interact with nature starting at a young age.
What better way to explore this idea than by visiting and discovering the national parks across the United States and exploring the incredible landscapes of our country? With a map of the U.S. displayed in our family room and pins to mark our destinations, we were ready to explore the history, nature, and learn all about the preservation of our land and animals as a family.
With over fifty national parks spread across the U.S. and nearly 300 million visitors each year, these natural wonders can be a cornerstone in the way we address environmental topics with our offspring. The big question is, where do we begin?
My family and I found ourselves beginning our journey by trekking through the rough and jagged trails of the Badlands in South Dakota, witnessing the damaging yet, renewing effects of a natural forest fire that had happened near Jewel Cave National Monument. The charred, black trees were the only remains of what once existed in a dense forest. Through the chaos of fallen branches and rotting trunks, sprung new life. Peering through the now open land, flowers and grass were slowly taking the place of what was once alive. This moment sparked an organic conversation about the dangers and causes of forest fires, but also how they can stimulate new growth.
My husband and I realized the value of teaching our kids about the magnitude of our actions on the ecosystems around us. While hiking on the paths in Yellowstone National Park, our children would discover a leaf or interesting rock along the way. To a young intrigued mind, this made the perfect souvenir to bring home and show friends. However, this proved to be another teachable moment as we explained the importance of leaving nature where you found it.
Kiersten Einsweiler, blogger and fellow adventure seeker from Hiking In My Flipflops, shares how she and her husband have helped their children to develop a deeper understanding of nature’s inhabitants: “We had a recent run-in with a snake on a trail, and my daughter was absolutely terrified – screaming and crying for a good part of the hike back. On the drive home, she thought maybe the snake was actually a ‘kid just like her’ and was just as scared as she was.”
With her children making this connection, Kiersten goes on to say that she believes her children see the “parallels” between how we respect human beings and living creatures and how nature is the “…home and space of a plant or animal.”
Our kids’ favorite experience on our life-long grand adventure was taking part in the National Park’s Junior Ranger program. Over the years, this program has evolved and now includes national monuments, with many being managed by the park service.
Their motto, “Explore, Learn, and Protect,” quoted by the many children sworn in each year, couldn’t be more true. With the typical participant age being between 5 and 13, our daughter could take part. Our son, who is three, was able to participate in the Pee Wee Ranger program offered at Jewel Cave National Monument located in South Dakota’s Black Hills. We have found that regardless of age, all children are encouraged to take part in their programs. Making our way to Glacier National Park in Montana, our kids were equipped with various tasks in their Ranger booklets and prepared to earn their badges. Marveling at the giant “monsters of ice” as our son called it, we talked about the correlation between human activity and rising temperatures leading to shrinking glaciers. Next up? Yellowstone, the world’s first national park located in Wyoming. It is known for its geysers, mountain beauty, and hundreds of animal species. With nearly 4 million people visiting the park, there’s bound to be garbage left behind. After picking up bits of trash found tumbling along the backcountry trails, my husband and I showed our kids what the saying, “Whatever comes in, must come out” quote truly means. Along with Yellowstone, the national park service has made a concerted effort to become more sustainable based on the changing climate, and the impact visitors have made in the parks. Putting this into perspective, Isle Royale, a remote island in Michigan only accessible by plane or boat, spends $15,000 a year removing guests’ trash. This issue is one my husband and I feel we need to bring to the forefront of our children’s minds. Being respectful of the land, which means cleaning up after ourselves so other’s can enjoy it’s beauty too.
Providing tangible dialogue relevant to our future existence, there is a wealth of information to be shared with our little ones. For example, restoration of the Redwood forest, the impact tourists have on soil erosion in Zion National Park, or how trails protect naturally growing plants. And let’s not forget the increased water and air pollution in the Great Smoky Mountains. How about the encounter of non-native species causing detrimental damage in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park? These are the real-life experiences exposing the significance as to why we must protect these precious resources.
Looking back, we’ll never forget the moment they raised their right hand and promised to preserve and protect these places so future generations can enjoy them. From exploring the third largest underground cave to hiking, observing, and identifying animal hides, our children were sworn in and declared lifelong Junior Rangers. The quest to accomplish this noble deed and earning a badge to commemorate this momentous time will forever live in our hearts.
In the words of songwriter Woody Guthrie, “From the Redwood Forest to the gulf stream waters. This land was made for you and me.” As we move into the 21st century, our world continues to change along with its environmental issues. Taking the time to search out destinations that satisfy our lust for adventure and thirst for knowledge, let’s continue to bring awareness to our children who will pass it on to future generations.
I always find it interesting seeing what kind of books my children pick out from the library. But sometimes, I like to encourage them to find something connected to what we’re learning about as a family. For example, our goal of exploring all the national parks (we’ve visited 7 so far!) and as part of this journey, talking about the environment and animal conservation.
My kids like to mix it up. A little non-fiction and fiction. Believe it or not, even with fiction stories there are lots of ways to apply them to real-life conversations.
The light flicked on again. I stop and stare at the shining coming through the bottom of the door.
“How can he still be awake?” I ask my husband.
“He’s going to be exhausted tomorrow,” he says.
I take a deep breath.
“My turn to check this time.” I set my laptop on the couch.
Padding across the floor, I gently push open our son’s door. I see the lamp is on. There are toys strewn across the floor. That’s when I notice him.
He’s sitting on his bed wearing a hard hat, boots, and a superhero cape tied around his neck, meticulously lining up dinosaurs on a pillow.
“I thought you were supposed to be sleeping?” I ask.
“I wanted to build first.”
I sit down next to him. “It’s time for bed. You have to get up for school tomorrow.” I carefully slip the hard hat from his head and tug each boot from his little feet.
“I don’t want to sleep,” he whimpers.
“How come?” I ask gathering each brontosaurus and tossing them in a bucket.
“I’m scared. There are monsters in my room. It’s too dark.” Yawning, he crawls into my lap.
After checking under the bed, in the closet, and in his drawers, I confirmed the expected. There are no monsters in his room. Calling dad for backup reassurance, he does a quick sweep of the room and agrees there are no one-eyed furry creatures lurking in the dark.
With another kiss and hug, we flick the light.
“Time to sleep.” I close the door behind me.
Getting back to my cozy spot on the couch, I park my tired body. What’s on Netflix? Flipping through the channels for a new binge series, I hear a car horn. Ignoring it, I keep searching.
A police siren? I glance back at my son’s door. Sure enough, he’s awake again.
I peek in his room.
“We just checked for monsters, and there is nothing in here. Lights out.”
He looks at me. A slight smirk is forming on his face. For some reason, I’m starting to think I’m being tricked.
“I have to go to the bathroom.” He’s squirming around in his bed. I send him the Mama Bear stare.
“Hurry up and go.” Picking up his little body and walking to the bathroom he starts sharing a friendship problem at school.
“I’m sorry those boys were running away from you on the playground. Remember, you want to play with friends that make you feel good. If they hurt your feelings, how about finding a new friend to play with?”
With a nod of his head and smile on his face, I’m feeling confident we’re both going to finally get some rest.
Again, lights out.
Lingering outside his door, I take a deep breath.
Silent. I return to the couch and bury myself in the cushions. It’s late. There’s no time for an episode of anything.
My eyes start to feel heavy. I drift off to sleep.
Suddenly, I sit up and look around. Where’s my husband? Maybe he went to bed. I clumsily make my way to our bedroom fumbling for the lamp.
Only the cat lay curled up on the bed.
I poke my head in our son’s room.
Curled up under his covers are my three-year-old and my husband. Both crammed into the toddler bed. I smile and for the last time, turn off the light.
“You’re doing it! Look at you go!” I shout at our three-year-old son as he pedals his wobbly bike without training wheels down the street.
Three? You may ask yourself. Yes, that’s right. It can be accomplished. Say goodbye to the training wheels, and self-doubt that your child will never learn how to ride a bike on their own. Sayonara to the oversized bike trailers and “hello” independence. Well, let’s not get too carried away, but that’s how it felt when my husband and I had our two children conquer this life skill by the age of three.
Want to know our secret? It’s called a balance bike. It was no secret to the many families that had already relied on this genius two-wheeled pedal-less bike. But when we discovered it? Our confused thoughts on how to teach this task were gloriously put to rest. It’s a secret no more. We wondered why this didn’t come with the instructional manual on “How to Raise Kids.” That’s right, we never received one when the stork dropped off our two bundles of joy at our front door-step. Isn’t that how it works? Let’s move on.
We first heard about this awesome alternative after a fellow dad kindly and willingly shared his brilliant secret with us. We did a little more research, and within no time, a lime green balance bike showed up on our doorstep. Contrary to the prior statement, it was not flown in by bird, just the friendly neighborhood delivery man.
How does it work?
Unlike ordinary bikes, it has no pedals, larger tires, and lower seating for a toddler to rest their feet on the ground. The child uses their legs and feet to push off the ground to gain speed. After some practice getting on the bike and scooting around, the child will gain confidence and naturally begin to lift their feet for longer periods of time. Mostly, they start to coast around. It’s all about balance.
“Bikes with training wheels tilt to the one side, creating a false sense of balance. In order to ride without the training wheels, a child must “unlearn” how to ride unbalanced and learn how to ride balanced,” according to an article on Two Wheeling Tots.
That sounds like a lot of extra work when some of the steps can be cut out. Basically, with the balance bike, the child will feel themselves tipping to one side and will learn to keep their body upright and support themselves.
When do they start using the balance bike?
Two Wheeling Tots says that kids can start as young as 18 months old, all the way up to 5-years-old. They use the bike for about two years before moving onto a traditional bike without training wheels.
How we did it
To get our daughter excited about the process, we let her pick out which color of bike she would like, along with a fitted helmet. Once the balance bike arrived, I was shocked at how lightweight it felt. It was a plain bike frame with two wheels. No chains, no other contraptions for the child to get caught on, just pure simplicity.
We started on the driveway first teaching our 20-month old to tilt the bike to the side and lift her leg over the seat. While grasping the handlebars, she practiced sitting and focused on balancing herself. After the novelty of being able to just sit on her very first bike wore away, our daughter gained more confidence and began to push herself around. It went from a single push, to push, push, glide.
In no time, she was testing out the steering, slightly turning, then making larger circles. My husband and I were amazed at how natural the process was. Within a few months, we noticed she would lift her feet to coast along. By the age of three, we felt she was ready to try a bike with pedals.
Unsure of how the transition would look, we purchased a little bike from the second-hand store. We put our daughter on the traditional bike, held the back of the seat, showed her how to keep her feet on the pedals and walked with her as she rode. Eventually, we let go. She fell off but caught herself. We tried again, and within three attempts, she was riding down the sidewalk. It was incredible!
My son didn’t catch on quite as quickly. We thought he was ready, when he was not, so we gave the traditional bike a rest for a bit. He practiced balancing a little longer until he said he was prepared to try again. Within no time, he was pedaling on his own. He just wasn’t ready when we thought he was. It was up to him. That is a key factor in the whole system. The child knows when they are ready to learn and each child is different.
Would we do it again?
Yes! We feel it took away a lot of the guessing that comes along with trying to figure out how to teach this task.
We have since passed the balance bike on to our niece who’s loving this new experience and boost in confidence. If you’re interested, I encourage you to check out the balance bike and if you feel it’s a good fit for your child, give it a test ride.