Eight years ago now, I found my way toward writing for children while researching the book, The Camping Trip that Changed America. Despite the book’s subject matter, I am no outdoorswoman. Soft beds, indoor plumbing and restaurants seem like essentials to me. My suburban-self struggles to reduce my carbon footprint or some days, just stop using disposable cups. But the connection with nature expressed in my first book runs far back to about first grade.
At that time, whenever there were struggles to solve or thoughts to think, I tramped across a few acres of farmland to a hidden creek. After pushing through a wild raspberry thicket, I’d hear the sound of “my” waterfall. Seated on a mossy log, watching water rush past a dam of broken branches, I daydreamed and worked out my childhood problems. Observing tadpoles, leeches and catfish, I learned that all living things have their purpose and their struggles, not just first graders. Like a hug from Mother Earth, an hour or two by the creek made the world fall back into place.
As a biographer, I know that many of history’s most important thinkers and dreamers were healed and influenced by time outdoors—Theodore Roosevelt on horseback in the Dakotas, John Muir hiking over glaciers, Ben Franklin swimming the Charles River, Thomas Jefferson surveying Virginia’s hills, Vincent van Gogh tromping through meadows. Is this a coincidence? I don’t think so. Of course, the past’s lack of technology required a life so close to nature that it’s difficult for us to imagine; but many of the world’s most famous scientists, artists and writers spent a significant amount of time outside doing nothing more than thinking and wandering.
Just as the future of the natural world depends on our children’s help, our children need nature. The idea that most of today’s children don’t spend enough time outdoors worries me about the future. Can we expect them to care about clean water, soil and air if they haven’t seen, touched or smelled it? Can wandering be taught in school? Probably not, but I hope we soon grow brave enough to allow children to find their own natural ways through the gift of unstructured time—time to wander down a trail, tramp around a field, discover a waterfall and be pulled into the enveloping hug of Mother Earth.
Barb Rosenstock has written several award-winning children’s books, including The Camping Trip That Changed America, which illuminates the history of the American National Park system. In 2015, her picture book The Noisy Paintbox about abstract artist Vasya Kandinsky earned a Caldecott Honor. Barb is also a multi-year participant in Authors for Earth Day doing special school visits. Learn more about Barb and her wonderful books at www.barbrosenstock.com.