Cover image: From left to right: Mickey, Jaydon, 10, Krystina, 7, Raylan, 3, Wyatt, 1. Photo credit: Krystal Creager.
Editor's note: We met Mickey Sanderson at our Get Rooted event this fall in Estes Park, Colo. She drove more than three hours to help us plant more than 600 trees and impressed us all with her grit, insight, and humor. When we found out she has four children, one of them a toddler who is nonverbal autistic, we were even more in awe that she essentially parents all of them outside. So we asked her to tell us more. Here's what she said.
I grew up swimming in muddy rivers and creeks, running trails of southern Illinois woods, and living like a wild child. No one told me not to climb on stuff because it was dangerous, no one told me if I swam in dirty creek water I would get sick, and no one told me not to wander to far. In fact my grandmother used to lock my siblings and me outside to keep us from running in and out. This made me who I am today.
Now I am a mother of four amazing kids and I’m working hard to give them the childhood I had. It’s not easy. In today’s society we have TV, Vvdeo games, tablets, etc. Our children’s world is consumed by electronics that have bright flashy colors and loud obnoxious noises. Many children have not learned to use their imagination in play the same way I did 20 years ago.
Looking is not seeing. To see, we must stop and take in what is around us. Photo credit: Krystal Creager.
It has been my goal over the past couple years to really introduce my kids to the wild and encourage them to be wild. My oldest son, Jaydon, really loves his electronics and loathes hiking, which is precisely why I make him come with me.
Would he rather sit and play video games? Yep. He whines and complains he can’t find his hiking boots or he can’t find his jacket, but I still drag him out. He’s grumpy the entire drive to the trailhead, but I still take him.
It would be easier to let him stay home, but that’s not going to happen. He whines the sun is in his eyes, I give him my glasses and we still drive on. I do this because I know that all of this griping will slip away once we start on the trail. It happens every single time. His feet hit the dirt and he comes alive.
“Come look at this tree! It's shaped so funny,” he exclaims. This particular tree is angled at 90 degrees toward the sun and has my son’s undivided attention. I think: No video game can stimulate your mind the way nature does. He looks at the bugs in the grass, points out the spider’s web glowing in the sunlight. It is almost as if there is a completely different child in our midst.
Krystina, my sweet little girl (also my only little girl), loves everything about the outdoors (except spiders). You tell her get her pack ready and her hiking shoes are on before you can even finish your sentence. She builds forts, digs in the dirt. And though we argue more often than not, when we are outside we are completely in sync! The outdoors is her safe haven, just like it is my fortress. It’s bringing her inside that is the challenge.
My three-year-old Raylan is nonverbal autistic (doesn’t verbally communicate with extreme developmental delays), has low muscle coordination, and seizures. To be outside is healing for him. Raylan didn’t have the traditional first words and I still have yet to hear him say momma.
Still, the first words I ever "heard" him say were take me outside. Here’s how he said it. He grabbed me by the hand and led me to the door. When I walked away without opening the door, he redoubled his efforts. Again, he grabbed my hand and led me to the door.
This time I understood, and we went outside. His whole face lit up, it was amazing. He ran off and just started to play. Best first words ever. Climbing on rocks, walking on gravel, uphill/downhill treks are critical for him, more impactful than physical therapy inside an office.
Wyatt is my one year old and I actually promised myself to raise him outdoors. He has been on more camping trips and hiking trips in the first year of his life than my older two kiddos combined. He really loves eating dirt too, and I don’t stop him. I’ve changed quite a few muddy diapers.
What do I know now, as a mother of four, that I didn’t know when my older kids were babes? Introduce them to the outside early and often. Back when I was a new, young mom, I was told that taking kids into the Wyoming wind and snow was much too dangerous for their little bodies. Now that I am older, I know much different.
It’s not the outdoors that makes children sick, it is the lack of being exposed to things beyond the front doorstep.
Exposing them to the world beyond electronics is good for their bodies and minds. I also know each kid will respond differently to nature, and that’s OK. Being outside awakens Jaydon and makes Krystina feel safe. It helps Raylan grow and learn, and keeps Wyatt healthy.
So in a way I guess I do lock them out, as my grandmother did me when I was young.