About a year and a half ago, I was asked to consider my childhood and to think of a special place I spent as a kid or a prominent positive memory of childhood. For me, I found that a lot of those memories were made outside. They were in completely ordinary places that were made extraordinary by the kids who were involved.
There were forts. There was secrecy. There was magic. That’s what childhood was—magic.
A lot of my memories might be considered risky play today. Climbing trees; spending an entire Saturday getting lost off the trail of the Rails to Trails Conservancy; heading out to Charles Island at low tide searching for Captain Kidd’s buried treasure. These are some of my best-kept memories. Time spent idling is what weaved the fabric of my childhood together.
Still, I have always longed for the childhood of my parent’s generation, when kids were often sent out the backdoor in the morning and told not to return until supper. They called dinner “supper.” There were no camps. No extracurricular or structured activities. Outside of organized sports, kids really drove their own play. Kids were independent. They were resilient. Kids made their own memories building forts, catching bumblebees with an empty peanut butter jar, and skating on frozen ponds for the entire winter.
The current generation of children seems profoundly disconnected from nature. Why do kids spend an estimated seven hours each day in front of a screen and a mere 30 minutes outside? Blame increased pressure to master skills earlier; a decrease in free time and opportunities to explore, experiment, and take risks; an ever-mounting dependence on technology; busy lives; nervous parents, overstimulation…the list goes on and on. For one reason or another, kids just are not getting outside like they used to.
My takeaway? We, as a community, have some work to do.
Enter The Outdoor Project.
A product of Milford’s Parent Leadership Training Institute (PLTI), The Outdoor Project was born of the hope of providing deeply memorable learning moments for kids. By bringing likeminded families together in an outdoor family network, the hope to bring back something that seemed to be lost for this new generation — free, unstructured time outside.
According to Lesley Darling, case manager in the environmental division at the Milford Health Department and coordinator of the Milford PLTI, “The Outdoor Project is a wonderful example of a vision to create a network of families interested in providing their children with quality outdoor activities and learning experiences.”
Tami Washenko, a birth doula and Milford mother of two, says outdoor play is a crucial part of childhood.
“It gives children the opportunity to let go of the constant guidelines and perimeters set for them. And instead, it gifts them the opportunity to be the free, unhindered, wild creatures they are at heart.”
From an outdoor kid’s yoga class at Silver Sands State Park to a guided group letterboxing trail at Eisenhower Park, The Outdoor Project will collaborate with existing agencies to host monthly outdoor activities for families. The hope is that a connection to nature becomes an integral part of city priorities, planning, and policymaking across a range of areas, including community health and wellness, education, out-of-school time programming and land use.
Paige Miglio, executive director of the Milford Arts Council, says art has always been inextricably intertwined with nature. “So much art is inspired by nature—they have always gone hand-in-hand,” she says. Though the motto of the Milford Arts Council is “Be a Part of Art,” Miglio says she would gladly add nature.
“I would urge any and all parents to take the time to explore the beaches, woods, and even their backyards with your kids. Talk about the colors, shapes, and details you see. Find interesting, colorful leaves, shells, and stones. Make patterns and pictures to leave for someone else to find. Bring sketch books and colored pencils to draw what you see. Bring back something beautiful and paint it together,” she says. “Programming like The Outdoor Project brings these two elements together. Its enriching to a child and adults to take the time to notice things. In this busy world where too many of us have our heads down in our phones, our kids are glued to the computer and everyone’s overwhelming schedules, take the time. Make Art. Be inspired by nature.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us that any movement—any culture—will fail if it cannot paint a picture of a world that people will want to go to. That’s why, more than ever, we need a nature movement. One that goes beyond the good practices of traditional environmentalism and sustainability, and paints a compelling, inspiring portrait of a society that is better than the one in which we presently live. Our kids deserve more than just a survivable world; we owe them a nature-rich world in which they can thrive.
Steven Johnson, Milford’s Open Space and Natural Resource agent, says it’s inspiring when children experience a sense of wonder with our natural world. “Their excitement and enthusiasm reminds us of our responsibility to care for our soil, water, air, and all living things with respect. Our future generations will be grateful for all the good choices we make today. Our future well-being depends on it.”
Since parents and other family members are direct decision makers in the lives of children, they must be at the forefront of this movement. So, I invite you to allow your kids to teeter on logs. I entreat you to let them make a holy mess in the mud. To climb trees. To build forts. To let them be little.
It’s time to get back outside.
For more information, visit facebook.com/theoutdoorprojectmilford