The Last Child In The Woods

I was an outdoor kid. During my early childhood, I was good friends with the girls who lived on my cul-de-sac, and in the classic suburban way my friends and I would roam our neighborhood in the afternoons until we were called home for dinner.

A few years later, my family had an extra-large backyard, and I remember summers spent digging in the dirt, climbing pine trees covered in sap, and exploring the kudzu ditches in my neighborhood alone and with friends. I would often go outside and not come back for hours, or not until it got dark.

It strikes me that my memories of summers spent largely outdoors are perhaps typical of suburban/rural children of my age and older, but are becoming increasingly rare for the children that I teach and for children my son’s age. Both the free-range parenting nature of my childhood experiences and the screen-free way my friends and I entertained ourselves would probably be considered rare today.

Last Child In The Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder is a book about children’s increasing lack of exposure to nature that was published 11 years ago. Here is a summary:

 In this groundbreaking new work, child advocacy expert Richard Louv directly links the lack of nature in the lives of today’s wired generation—he calls it nature deficit—to some of the most disturbing childhood trends, such as rises in obesity, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), and depression.

Nature-deficit disorder is not a medical condition; it is a description of the human costs of alienation from nature. This alienation damages children and shapes adults, families, and communities. There are solutions, though, and they’re right in our own backyards. Last Child In The Woods is the first book to bring together cutting-edge research showing that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development—physical, emotional, and spiritual. What’s more, nature is a potent therapy for depression, obesity, and ADD. Environment-based education dramatically improves standardized test scores and grade point averages and develops skills in problem solving, critical thinking, and decision making. Even creativity is stimulated by childhood experiences in nature.

I would be the first to tell you that a lot of the rhetoric about what’s wrong with”kids these days” (participation trophies, helicopter parenting, special snowflakes, etc. ) is dumb and overblown. But modern children’s lack of exposure to the outdoors is real. I see it frequently in the children that I teach, and I see its effects. (And don’t get me started on the issue of the lack of recess in too many schools.)  It’s depressing to think that since this book was published before smartphones and iPads were prevalent, many children’s “nature-deficit disorder” is surely worse now – because lots of their time is spent staring at a screen.

As for me, I hit puberty and stopped going outdoors as much. My idea of fun changed – outside was too hot, or cold, or boring. I really didn’t rediscover my love of nature until we had Jonah. Like many babies, any time he was fussy taking him outside immediately helped. We’d take long walks with the stroller and he would settle, and then fall asleep. Later I would put his bouncer on the deck and he would be happy as can be. “Outside!” was one of his first requests.

These days Jonah is in full-on explorer mode in nature. He is my lover of small things: acorns and pebbles and spiders and leaves. Daily, I see the benefits that Louv, the author of Last Child In The Woods, promises: problem-solving (how can I stack these three rocks on top of each other?), creativity (“a baby pinecone, Mommy!”), curiosity (“what’s that?”), and mood stabilization, to name a few.

I recently told an as-yet childless friend that nature is an essential part of my parenting. Being outside is mood-stabilizing for me, too, and it helps us keep Jonah’s screen time to a minimum.

It also helps me let Jonah take appropriate risks. Sure, you can walk on that (small) retaining wall in the backyard! Yes, that’s a bumblebee and if you don’t bother it, it probably won’t bother you. We can go sit on the dock by the lake but stay close to Mommy! I notice the difference between Jonathan and myself on this. Though I wasn’t there, it sounds like Jonathan was pretty much an indoor kid, and he is definitely an indoor adult. When he is outside with us he typically has several cautions: Be careful of bees! Bugs! Slipping and falling! Sunburn! Which is fine, and could even be a good counterpoint to my approach. But I can see that time spent outside is helping Jonah grow up fearless, confident and self-reliant.

Right now I’m planning what Jonah and I will do during our upcoming summer together. It’s going to involve lots of parks, swimming and hiking. I can’t wait.

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10 Things I’ve Told Myself This Week

My mind is almost always going a mile a minute – pondering, reflecting, planning. Is this okay? or What will happen if _____? or What do I think about ____? Here are a few things I’ve been saying to myself this week. See if you notice a theme.

1. It’s okay to stay home from the gym this week; you’re sick!

2. It’s okay to leave work to go to the doctor. They can survive without you for one     afternoon.

3. Yes, you and Jonathan are doing a good job managing Jonah’s screen time.

4. You’re not a bad mom for having a babysitter two Saturday nights in a row.

5. You’re not a bad mom for taking a few minutes for yourself between getting home from work and picking up Jonah from Nonni’s.

6. It’s okay that you haven’t written a blog post in a while.

7. You will have a job next year. (More to come about this, perhaps.)

8. You and Jonathan and doing a good job with the dogs. They are loved, happy and healthy.

9. It’s time to find some friends here. But the thought of that is pretty exhausting!

10. You can’t do much about the fact that the world seems to be going to hell right now. Do what you can and focus on the positive.

 

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What has your self-talk sounded like this week?

How I Achieve A Balanced Life

When I was younger, I had a very distinct vision of what my life would be like by the time I was 30. In this mental picture, I saw myself being a woman who juggled multiple challenging demands with ease: successful, fulfilling career, loving marriage, a couple of wonderful children, free time to pursue personal interests, etc. And me, easily navigating it all. Kicking butt and taking names, basically; having achieved that most elusive of things: work-life balance.

I am now 29. And while I wouldn’t say that I am kicking butt and taking names or some type of #bossbabe, for the first in my life I feel like I am getting close to having and successfully balancing all of the great things in my life that I described above.

Now, I know that the concepts of “having it all” and “work-life balance” are gendered in ways that are problematic. Men don’t frequently get asked how they balance work and family, or if it’s hard to find time to work and parent and spend time with their spouse and maintain a home. Only women get asked those questions, and judged on the basis of them. But the fact remains that work-life balance is an issue that many women do struggle with, so I wanted to explore how it’s working for me these days while acknowledging the problems that exist with it.

A few important things have changed since we moved to Atlanta that help make my work-life balance more possible: 1) support from my family that has resulted in a little breathing room financially and logistically, 2) a much happier work situation,  3) the fact that my school district actually pays teachers a living wage and 4) that I’ve been really trying to nurture my personal passions.

Living two doors down from my family has been amazing. Our normal weekday routine now involves my mom taking care of Jonah, as I’ve mentioned. And more than that, just the fact that there is always at least one backup person to help in case of an emergency feels very reassuring, especially to me, who tends to prepare for the worst-case scenario in all situations. I can breathe easier now.

As to work, I read a quote posted by some random person on Facebook the other day which said “It’s a lucky man or woman who gets up in the morning, puts both feet on the floor, knows what they’re about to do, and thinks it still matters.” (I just looked this up and it turns out it’s a Joe Biden quote.) This is where I am about teaching. I know that what I do matters, and I’m happy to go to my school every day. It’s what I want to spend my days doing.

On the practical side, I feel better-treated than I ever have as a teacher. There are several responsibilities that our current school system helps its teachers with, such as lesson planning, so that makes life a little easier and less stressful than previous teaching jobs.

More importantly, for the first time I feel like my colleagues and I are being paid close to what we are worth. To illustrate: I am making $10,000 more than I would were I to be teaching now in North Carolina, with the same years of experience, same degrees, etc. I am making $20,000 more than I did last year at my non-school system job. THOUSAND. Not hundred.

All educators deserve to make this, and more. Making enough money allows a person to do a few things for themselves. My family can now afford a gym membership and some housecleaning help without feeling like we won’t make it to the end of the month, which is where we were in 2015-2016. Money being extremely tight led to me being both less healthy and more stressed, because there was always work that needed to be done at home once I got home from my day job, and because I knew I wasn’t taking care of myself.

It’s hard to practice self-care when you literally can’t afford any non-essentials, and when you can barely afford the essentials. To employers: want your employees to be happy at work and have a good work-life balance? Pay them a freaking decent amount of money.

Because I feel less stress in other areas of my life, I’ve had the freedom and space to devote to people and things that I love. When I am spending time with Jonah and Jonathan, I can be all there, not worrying about when I will have time to clean the house or do those hours of lessons plans or if we can afford to go to a museum.

It’s kind of a snowball effect: just like stress in one area tends to build up and spill over into other areas of your life, peace can be the same. Remove a tremendous stresser in one area, and everything else gets calmer and more peaceful. Serenity spreads.

I’m also devoting more time to my personal passions. Readers of this blog have probably noticed that I am writing more regularly than I used to, because I actually have time to do it. I am also getting to go to yoga and Pilates at the gym weekly, which I love but couldn’t afford in the past.

I know that I am tremendously lucky, and I am so thankful for how my family has been blessed over the last year. Is everything perfect now? Of course not. But I’m feeling better physically and emotionally than I have in a long time, maybe since Jonah was born and Jonathan and I took on the responsibilities of parenthood. I feel…balanced.

To sum up: in my experience the answer to the work-life balance question is the following: get outside help from family (or friends) if you can, do a job you find fulfilling and find an employer who will pay you what you’re worth, take care of yourself physically, and take time to nurture your inner life and do the things that you find meaningful.

 

How do you achieve work-life balance?

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Amazon basically runs my life, y’all. Jonathan and I order from them, on average, twice a week, sometimes more. Amazon Prime two-day shipping has saved the day for us many times. I’ve decided to become an Amazon Affiliate to monetize this blog a bit. I may occasionally write about certain Amazon products, but I promise to never reference something that I haven’t bought for myself or someone else, and that I personally vouch for.

All of the products I’m going to write about in this post are eligible for Amazon Prime two-day shipping (we pretty much don’t buy something unless it is a Prime item). So while your present may or may not make it in time for Christmas, at least it will be very close!

These are things I’ve gotten for either myself or a family member for Christmas this year.

For Her


  1. The North Face Women’s Apex Bionic Jacket,Kokomo Green
  2. Ted and Jack – Luxe Classic Paisley Reversible Pashmina (Cobalt Blue)
  3. KEEN Women’s Sienna MJ Canvas Mary Jane, Red Dahlia
  4. Life is good Womens Marled Terry Crew Hello Sunshine Sweater, Slate Gray
  5. Life is Good Women’s Crusher Half Full Wine Glass T-Shirt, Simply Ivory
  6. Bed Head Tigi Self Absorbed Shampoo and Conditioner (25.36 Oz Each)

For Him




1. Nintendo Entertainment System: NES Classic Edition
2. Anker Astro E1 5200m Candy bar-Sized Ultra Compact Portable Charger
3. Bose SoundSport in-ear headphones – Apple devices, Power Red
4. VIKINGS BLADE The Chieftain Safety Razor + 5 Swedish Platinum Super Blades + Gift Box
5. Polo Ralph Lauren Men Custom Fit Mesh Polo Shirt (Royal Purple)
6. Mighty Fine Guardians of the Galaxy In Concert T-Shirt

For Little Boys


1. Goodnight Darth Vader
2. Star Wars Figure Playset
3. Learning Carpets City Life Play Carpet
4. Melissa & Doug Pull-Back Construction Vehicles
5. The Snowy Day
6. Corduroy (40th Anniversary Edition)

Why Do My Son’s Books Contain Only White People?

The other day while reading to Jonah, I noticed something that really disturbed me.

We were reading Policeman Small by Lois Lenski, a classic for toddlers and preschoolers.

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See it?

I noticed the same thing in a Curious George book.

Crowds of people, and all of them white.

All of Jonah’s books aren’t like this, but too many of them are. And I’m not ok with that.

Part of the issue is that we have a lot of classic children’s books, written decades ago by white authors. Policeman Small was originally published in 1962, and the Curious George series was published in the 1940s.

There were plenty of black Americans and other people of color living in this country during that time, so that’s not an excuse, of course.

What bothers me the most is when I start thinking about the reasons why an author/illustrator might include only pictures of white people in his book.

Was the illustrator’s ideal of a perfect little town all homogeneously white? Did he just not think to include black characters in even the smallest way? Was this an intentional, racist decision? Did these illustrations reflect the reality the author saw around her?

As a parent I start to feel pretty troubled when I delve down deep into these issues. If as a rule my child’s books contain only white people, what lesson does that teach about what the world is supposed to look like? About what kinds of people should be included in a neighborhood, school, church or city?

Am I participating in systems of oppression by reading my child books that look like this?

In my mind this also harks back to the election, and the unsettling discovery of just how divided the U.S. electorate is right now. A quote:

“The biggest difference between the two parties is the urban-rural divide…Politically, that translates into race and identity as the main political dividing line. Rural and exurban America is very white, and generally inward-looking. Urban America is very diverse and cosmopolitan.” (Source: NBC )

Many Trump voters live in places that look a lot like these books, and that they want to keep looking a lot like these books. Or perhaps used to look like this and do no longer. We see where, and to whom, that attitude has led us.

And that’s not an image I want to present to my son as an ideal.

I’ve written before about the fact that my childhood did look a lot like these books. I experienced essentially zero racial or cultural diversity until I was about 13 years old, when I switched from private to public school. This is one area where I feel that my parents really fell down on the job. (Love you Mom and Dad.) I am determined to do better.

Jonah’s external environment is already going to be very different because of living in a diverse urban city. But Jonathan and I are committed to exposing him to diverse examples of all the different ways that people can look through the media that he experiences at home.

Jonah is going to be getting The Snowy Day , a masterpiece of children’s literature featuring a black main character, and a few other books by this same author for his birthday. My goal over the next year is going to be to diversify his collection to include more books featuring diverse characters.

Easier said than done, perhaps: Children’s books, particularly fiction books, are overwhelmingly white.

Do you have a suggestion for a diverse children’s book or series that is appropriate for toddlers and preschoolers? I’d love to hear it!

 

Rainy day reflections

I’m sitting here at Barnes and Noble, drinking an iced coffee and eating a pumpkin muffin. Today it’s raining all day, but it feels like fall, and that is something to be celebrated. Jonathan encouraged me to steal a couple of hours away this afternoon (sweet man!). I should be working on guided reading lesson plans, which is purportedly what I came here to do, but instead I want to return to my long-neglected blog.

I haven’t been writing for a couple of reasons: 1) I forgot how much creativity good teaching requires. I also forgot how tired I am by the end of the day. After Jonah is asleep and I have time to myself I haven’t been able to muster the energy or creativity to write anything. 2) I have been deliberating on what to write publicly about my job. More on that below.

We’ve been in Atlanta as a family for a little over a month now. For the most part, the transition has been a dream. For example:

  1. We absolutely love our new home. We are settled in and about 97% of the way unpacked. The house is such a blessing for our family and so much more than we could ever have afforded or expected to have on our own without family support.
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    Our backyard view
  2. Jonah has transitioned amazingly well to my mom watching him during the week. He didn’t seem to really be phased by the change. He absolutely loves his Nonni and looks forward to going to her house. At the same time, he talks often (every day or two) about all of the family we left behind in NC. When Jonathan’s parents visited over Labor Day, Jonah picked back up with them as though we had never been apart. I like to think that his heart is big enough to hold love for the multitude of people who inhabit his world.14262843_1607457612887825_1594653374_n
  3. Jonathan quickly and easily got a job working from home that he will likely be able to continue once he starts school in the spring.
  4. We think we have found a new church home here.
  5. I’m loving my job. If you remember, during my job search I got a very, very strong sense that this job was the one that was right for me, though the others seemed to make more sense practically. I haven’t been disappointed.

As I mentioned above, I’ve made the decision that the wisest course of action is not to talk about my job in detail on the blog. This may seem like CYA (cover your …), but my school system tends to get a fair amount of attention, and I’m just trying to be smart. Here are the important points:

  • I feel more effective than I ever have as an ESL teacher. The time away from the classroom in an administrative role made me a better teacher.
  • I feel respected. I’m not a novice teacher anymore. It’s nice to have people come to me for help instead of it always being the other way around.
  • I like working with almost all older students. Upper elementary, baby!
  • Many days I am home at 3:30. That is something I never would have predicted when we decided to move to Atlanta.

6. I feel a great sense of balance in my life since we moved. Jonathan and I are getting         more date nights out and quality time together than we have since Jonah was born. Being home earlier in the afternoon means more time with Jonah. Even though I’m now commuting 25 minutes to work, I’m actually spending less time in the car than I did this previous year between taking Jonah to and from daycare, going to and from tutoring, my in-laws house, etc.

This will have to be all for now. Thanks to everyone who hung around and waited for a new post from me! I promise it won’t be this long until the next time I write. In the meantime…enjoy fall!