Wednesday, November 20, 2013


Just recently I finished listening to the audiobook of Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods. I’m a big proponent of getting children out in nature. My school emphasizes natural elements, we encourage investigation, inquiry, and exploration, and our Little Red School Bus program gets children out in nature (or at least, culture) every single day…There’s lots to discover – about the world and about yourself – when you immerse yourself in nature.

But I find that it’s more of a challenge being a parent. My children, like so many, love the iPad and could spend hours a day on it if we let them. We’re probably not as permissive with the technology as many parents, but there’s an adequate amount of guilt associated with it (relief as well), and it’s something that requires limits, boundaries, and often impatience and tears.

Last Child galvanized me into action. While in the middle of the book, I had a wild hair one weekend to take Oliver up to Skyline and go on a hike in the woods. I imagined sunlight streaming through the Redwoods, dodging banana slugs underfoot, tromping up trails to mountainous outlooks, vistas of the Pacific Ocean…a real bonding moment for me and my son in nature. But the reality was that it was a gloomy, foggy, cold day. I tempered my expectations, but kept my hopes up. We saw a banana slug before we got to the trailhead, which was pretty exciting. But that was the highlight of the trip.

                                Foggy forest
We started down a path, and Oliver immediately became tenuous. When I cautioned him about Poison Oak, pointing out the red tips on the leaves, it only caused him to shrink away from anything green, fearing everything was Poison Oak. He asked to go home. ‘Food might help,’ I thought, but there was no stump or log, no grassy spot to sit. So we stood there and ate energy bars together. I looked down the path we were walking on. It was shrouded in fog, chilly, overcast. There was an ominous bend in the path up ahead, in the direction we were going. I wondered whether Ringwraiths would come galloping around the bend anytime soon, and if I could protect Oliver when they did. Oli had a fair dose of nature-fear for the day. So we bailed and went home.

Later that week, as I was driving to work, Louv’s words struck a chord, “A trip to REI to get just the right camping equipment for a two-week vacation in Yosemite is not a prerequisite or, for that matter, any substitute for more languid natural pastimes that can be had in the backyard. The dugout in the weeds or leaves beneath a backyard willow, the rivulet of a seasonal creek, even the ditch between a front yard and the road – all of these places are entire universes to a young child. Expeditions to the mountains or national parks often pale, in a child’s eyes, in comparison with the mysteries of the ravine at the end of the cul de sac.” How true. We didn’t need big hikes up on Skyline. We had our own neighborhood. And lucky us – we have a creek behind our house!

There’s only water in the creek during rainy season, and minimal at that (but we still have to pay for flood insurance – ha!). Its primary purpose isn’t for human exploration, but it’s possible. I’d avoided the creek for the most part, due to overgrown blackberry bushes and a generally prohibitive nature. There’s also huge spiders back there, and god knows what kind of fauna using the ivy creepers and pointy brambles as a highway. It’s our property so it’s our responsibility as homeowners to trim back overgrowth to help reduce erosion. The creeks in San Carlos used to be a lot deeper and carry more water, but they’ve filled in over the years. After our last trim, I found that the ravine down to the creekbed actually forms a nice, natural set of steps. And when a ball goes over our fence, into the creek, you have to go and retrieve it.

That’s how it happened – Oli whacked a ball over the fence and I went down into the creekbed to retrieve it. Oli looked on nearby, and I decided that this creekbed wasn’t too bad after all. I threw our ball to him, as well as a whiffle ball probably belonging to our neighbors. I then invited Oliver to join me down there. He was barefoot, so he ran to get his shoes, returning a minute later wearing his flip-flops. Had this not been a spontaneous moment, I’d have suggested he change, but what the hell, I thought. I helped him keep his balance on the ravine and found steps for him, bearing a fair amount of his weight on the way down. When he got to the bottom, we started our walk.

We quickly learned our first bit of creekwalk wisdom – watch out for broken glass and poop. Words to the wise. We scrambled over stones and old metal sidings. We found balls, cans, bottles, even an abandoned swivel chair. We reached a point we thought we could not pass – a point where a spider lurked in the middle of a giant web, with clumps of dog poop clustered on the ground just beyond the web. We managed to squeeze by the web and avoid the poop, but that was about enough adventure for Oli for the day. We turned around and headed home.
Before our second creekwalk, a few days before Halloween, Oliver suggested we wear gloves. Brilliant. I suggested we wear better hiking shoes. So this time, he put on his topsiders. ‘Better than flip-flops,’ I thought. Down in the creekbed, we spied a family of ants devouring a peach pit. The giant spider web was gone, but the dog poop was still there. We ventured beyond where we’d turned around the first time. We were both repulsed by and in awe of what looked to be a mummified squirrel carcass missing its head. Oliver found a pinecone Christmas decoration with an eyebolt and a length of wire. We noticed that many of our neighbors’ back yards are much more accessible creekside than ours. Some don’t even have fences. At the endpoint of our hike, Oliver climbed under a neighbor’s stairway and glanced down into what we called the jungle. It was too thick, so we turned around.

At one of the more inviting creeksides on our way back, we stopped to chat with a neighbor who was out tending her yard. Her name was Beppy and she had just moved in three months ago. She was very friendly and asked Oliver about his Halloween costume and how kindergarten was going. Oli was polite but not overly talkative. She invited us to stop by and trick-or-treat, “The green house with the red door!”

Just then Oliver let out a bloodcurling scream. He’d slipped and fallen and had scraped his leg on some broken concrete slabs (no, he was not wearing the topsiders – I’d insisted he change into more suitable hiking shoes). It was a hard fall, and I did my best to maintain my balance squatting in that uneven creekbed, comforting him as he wailed in my arms. At that moment, I feared he wouldn’t want to go exploring anymore, that his nature-fear would return for good and that our creekwalks had reached an end. But that wasn’t the case. Kids are resilient. I let him cry, then we said our byes to Beppy and Oli managed to walk the length back to our home.

His enthusiasm for creekwalks not diminished, Oliver jumped at the idea to go back down into the creek a few weekends later. This time we brought our flashlights, and instead of venturing west, we turned east– through what was once a prohibitive ivy snarl, all the way to the edge of Elm Street. Sometimes we look into the creek from Elm Street. Now we were in the creek, looking out, a pretty cool perspective switch. A tunnel in the creekbed runs underneath the street, but it’s a pretty long way to go, with very little headroom, suitable only for crawling. Franco had followed us, and walked on ahead down the tunnel, where he laid down and wiggled around in the dirt. We could do it, if we didn’t mind crawling on our bellies and getting really dirty. But we’d also need a fair amount of courage and our flashlight batteries weren’t that strong. So we turned back and headed west, down our familiar path.

We made a point of venturing past the rocks he’d slipped on previously. I pointed them out and we recalled the incident. We couldn’t find the mummified squirrel, but kept walking until we came to the jungle. Again, it looked impenetrable, but we decided that it’d be a pretty cool thing to try to always go a bit further than we did on our previous creekwalk. So instead of venturing through the jungle, we scaled the side and clambered through some ivy along a dirt path that took the high ground around the perimeter of the jungle. At the end of the road, we dropped back into the creekbed, the jungle behind us, and ventured forth.

We came to a point in which a house was built about halfway over the creek, held up by 2x4s and rusty old metal siding. It was safe, so we ventured underneath, and I was reminded of my own childhood adventures under our cabin in Breckenridge. We heard children playing, and Oliver resisted the urge to clamber up the ravine and make contact with them. We didn’t go very far past the house, but we didn’t have to. We’d already explored new ground.

Though we both know that the creek extends to Cedar Street, far to the west, we don’t have a goal of getting there. And that’s the trick I need to remember – don’t have an agenda. Let Oliver’s curiosity guide us. Point out the details. Just explore nature.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Oli's Know List

This weekend, I drove Oliver and Claire to the city. We had lunch with Uncle Brian in Glen Park, then went to Dolores Park to meet up with Caryn and Lexi. Bri couldn’t bring Mister and Pippi, Noelle’s dogs he was babysitting, into the playground area, so he hovered outside the perimeter while I watched Claire and lost sight of Oli.

Claire tottered over towards our neighbor, a middle-aged tattooed woman with a parasol, keeping her cool on a hot day. Claire started playing with the shovel and bucket by her side, toys her son had left when he went off in search of fun. We made small talk, of the playground variety (ages of children, comfort with the communal nature of toys at a playground), and Lexi and Caryn came and visited.

While Caryn was out talking to Bri and Lexi was entertaining Claire, the woman’s son sulked back to her,. He looked a little older than Oli, who was off God knows where. “Mom, I’m bored!” he complained, “I don’t’ have any friends here.” “Oh Anthony,” she replied, “but there’s so much to do here.” “But I don’t know anyone!” “Yes, well you usually come with Gregory or Michael and they’re not here today…” she agreed.

It’s so hard to make friends if a kid doesn’t know how. I’ve coached many on the process, and while there are trends and strategies, it’s just a bummer to see a child upset that he doesn’t have any friends simply because he doesn’t officially know anyone. There were hundreds of kids running around the playground that day. Sometimes, you just need a little nudge in the right direction to turn things around.

Just then, Oli jogged nearby, still in one piece, not bleeding. “Hey Oli!” I called out. He turned our way, “What, Papa!” “This boy doesn’t have any friends. His name is Anthony.” Oli looked at the boy and gravitated toward him. “This is Oliver, Anthony,” I said to the boy, who looked at Oliver with interest. He brightened up, “Do you want to be my friend?” he asked Oli. “Yes!” he replied, delighted, and starting to hop with excitement. “Are you five?” Anthony asked, fully excited now.
There was a definite pause, and though I didn’t see them, I like to think that Oli’s eyes shifted from left to right before he answered, “Yes!” and the two went running off to the sand area. Anthony’s mom, understandably, was happy. I feel like since I’ve worked with kids my whole life, this sort of thing is common sense for me. A kid’s having a hard time? Find another kid and use him to help cheer the first one up. It often works a heck of a lot better than an adult trying to cheer him up. And I feel no guilt over using my son’s outgoing personality for the powers of good.

When I went over to extract Oliver from the swarm of kids he and Anthony had gathered, he protested, and Anthony protested. “He’s just the best friend I’ve ever had,” Anthony claimed. Maybe he’s a five year old who’s prone to hyperbole, but I like to believe that he was really affected by the easy way he and Oliver became friends. He begged me to follow up with a playdate, but I knew it wouldn’t happen. Not when Claire was overtired and crying, and we weren’t going to make it up to Dolores Park on a regular basis for the foreseeable future. It was enough.


A few days later, on our way to Bing, we stopped at Edgewood to wait for the turning cars, near the corner where the same crossing guard stands every day of the school year. When I’m driving by, on my way to work, sometimes I wave to him. He might wave back. Mostly I don’t though. Oliver immediately rolled down his window and shouted to the crossing guard, “Hey! I have a new Lego! It’s Avengers!” As the guy tried to say something exclamatory, Oliver rolled on, “And I have a Lord of the Rings Lego! And it has Gollum!” By this time, we’d started turning. “Well goodbye!” Oliver shouted at the man. The crossing guard never got a word out, or at least one that was louder than Oliver’s voice.

Oli rolled up the window, stuck his thumb in his mouth, and resumed rubbing Nana’s tag. I shook my head. “Oli? How do you do it? I asked facetiously. “How are you so good at making friends?” “I put them on my Know List,” he answered. “Your No List?” I asked. “Yeah, my Know List. If I know them, I put them on my Know List.” “And then you’re friends?” I asked. “Yes.”

I marveled at that for awhile. I like to think of a big list in Oli’s head, filled with thousands of names – all his friends. To add to the list is as easy as making contact with someone else. I’m probably way off mark, because how do you make sense out of a child’s mysterious cognitive process? Is it even fair for me to apply my adult logic to his social system? If so, if I’m close to the mark, it warms my heart to know that Anthony and the crossing guard are the newest names on that list.