by Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Consultant
“[As a child,] I literally played outside until dark. You knew when it got dark you had to be close enough to hear them calling you in,” recalled Sandy West, Assistant Director of the Children’s Tree House, a Certified Nature Explore Classroom located within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services’ National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.
Sandy enjoyed spending quality time outdoors as a child, still does to this day, and she was determined to share her love of the outdoors with her two grandsons, ages 3 and 5.
Her grandsons have a very small yard at home and the boys prefer to spend time indoors. Sandy shares that the youngest has a facial deformity that affects his speech; so his parents have been protective regarding time in public places, where potentially negative attention could be drawn to him.
After a year of interacting with, and observing children thrive in the Children’s Tree House’s outdoor classroom Sandy considered using some of the design principles in her own yard. She was deeply inspired by a Nature Explore workshop and thought the half acre she lived on was perfect for designated outdoor play areas. She realized her grandsons would not have warm memories of nature unless she acted. “I wanted to cry [after the workshop],” says Sandy. “I realized that it was my job to step up and do something.”
So Sandy and her husband, Roger, got to work. “We literally dug up half of our backyard. We put down stones; we put down tree cookies; a six-foot sand box. We have a huge stump from when a storm came through and knocked our tree down. We did this in our backyard for our grandkids.” When a tree fell in a neighbor’s yard, Roger asked for it. It’s now in pieces in their backyard.
All the work the work paid off said Sandy, “Before, you couldn’t get them outside. Now, they love being outside,” she says of her grandsons. “They love being dirty; they dig; they are constantly wanting to be outside.”
They now have “No Electronics Fridays” where they roast marshmallows at their fire pit, and catch-and-release lightning bugs. Recently, after a heavy rain, rather than staying inside the children went to play in a big puddle made in the sand box cover. The 5-year-old wants to “go camping” overnight in the yard, and hiking.
Their nature experience goes beyond Sandy’s backyard. Sandy took the older boy to a river, to get stones for tic-tac-toe. There she taught him about the river. “Everything becomes more layered,” she says about learning in nature.
Prompted by an experience in a Nature Explore workshop, Sandy worried her grandsons would not have childhood experiences in nature, and not develop the kind of fond memories she has. Both she and her husband continue new projects to extend their grandson’s learning in nature. The children’s parents are very supportive of this new world that has opened for the family. With help from nature, a grandmother’s love has truly transformed her family.
How does nature strengthen the bond you have with your grandchildren?