Step one: Slather on the sunscreen. Step two: Get outside! Nature provides a soothing backdrop that helps kids relax and open up, says pastor and author Zeke Pipher in Man on the Run: Helping Hyper-Hobbied Men Recognize the Best Things in Life.
One of the best ways a dad can teach and demonstrate his affection is by taking his kids into the most sensational classroom in the world, the great outdoors. Few things expand and deepen a child’s heart and view of the world more quickly than experiencing nature with a thoughtful, instructive parent.
When I was young, time outside with my mother or father put life in perspective. All of the petty, miserable politics of the grade-school playground or the junior-high lunch room disappeared for me when I was outdoors. One of my most vivid memories is from third grade. A group of fifth-graders made it their goal to see how long a sentence they could stream together with words that rhymed with Zeke. There are a lot of words that rhyme with Zeke. I still have the final product locked in my memory: “Zeke the freak is a geek who took a leak in the creek for a week.”
Looking back, I can appreciate these fifth-graders’ ingenuity. But in that moment at recess, when that final sentence was thrown at me with prideful precision, it placed a wet blanket over my entire existence. You might say Zeke felt bleak. I walked home, hating my name and doubting whether my future held any hope or potential for positive experiences.
When I got home, I went fishing with my mom for three hours beneath the mill outside town. The sound of the water rushing over the blades of the turbine, the smell of fresh air, and the feeling that we were all alone under the big blue sky took me home with a sense that everything was right and good in the world. We talked about why some people put other people down. We talked about how to respond to people who aren’t kind. We talked about how to choose friends carefully. We talked about how important family is in protecting us from the difficulties of the world. That time outdoors helped me calm down and feel more hopeful about my future.
The outdoors is already helping me build relationships with my kids. When I take my three monkeys fishing or on a hike in the mountains, nature gives us serene, undistracted moments to ask questions and talk through answers. Two weeks ago, my daughter Kate needed a turkey feather in order to make a quill pen for a school project. So, on my day off, I drove Kate to the woods, and we tromped around outside for two hours, looking for shed antlers, identifying tracks, and searching for turkey feathers. She talked nonstop. She asked questions about why God created creatures as weird as turkeys, how her mother and I met and fell in love, and why I chose to become a pastor.
“Hold on, boy, you’re gonna need this memory.”
Aidan can’t quite talk as much or as fast as Kate. But a few months ago, I took him into the timber near our house to help me hang tree stands, and he talked my ears off. When I attached a stand in a cottonwood by the river, Aidan threw rocks into the water and told me about the dozen things he wants to be when he grows up. Later, as we rode the four-wheeler through the forest, he sat between my legs and told me who his best friends are and what he likes about them. A while later, when we stopped on a trail to identify deer tracks, he listed all the reasons he’s thankful that I’m his dad. When we returned home, he raced on ahead of me, burst through the door, and yelled in the deepest voice he could summon, “Mom, I did a bunch of cool stuff with Dad today!”
Psychological research shows that there are three primary things adults remember fondly when they grow up: family meals, family vacations, and time spent outdoors.
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