What does “rewilding” look like to a child raised in the Czech Republic?
Thirteen-year-old Anna laughed when she read aloud the cover of my September Outside Magazine, “Rewilding the American Child.” “What’s this about, Mom,” she said, “How do you ‘rewild’ a kid? Can I read it?”
I found the magazine, a Christmas gift from my brother and sister-in-law, in our mailbox upon our return to Prague in mid-August. It had taken three months for the first issue to arrive (Czech post has never been known for its speed), but ever since, I looked forward to reading about (and experiencing vicariously) the life-changing situations that faced nature-loving adventurers around the world.
Outside Magazine encompasses three of my passions: sports, the outdoors, and adventure travel. Not to mention crisp, engaged journalism that both intimidates and inspires my own writing endeavors. Plus, photos that make me want to drop everything and take the next flight to somewhere far away.
But, the September issue hit home in a way that other issues hadn’t. It was one thing to read about photographer Chris Burkard’s surfing adventures in Iceland, Ian Frazier’s #vanlife comedies, or the 60-hours of soul-breaking conditions that comprise the Barkleys ultramarathon series in rural Tennessee.
“Rewilding the American Child,” was something I could relate to. The subhead described America’s children as “overscheduled” and “addicted to screens,” and gave parents a challenge: “It’s time to set our kids free.”
The cover shot was of an androgynous adolescent (Anna spent several minutes puzzling whether the child was a boy or a girl), lying in a bed of green and brown grasses. The child’s piercing eyes and a mournful expression gave readers (or at least Anna and me) the impression that here was someone who needed saving.
Inside the magazine, contributing authors (parents of active children and advocates for healthy, outdoor lives) described techniques they’ve adopted for getting children to maximize time in nature and push their physical and mental boundaries to explore the world around them.
In, “Turn Them Loose,” Ben Hewitt described his “unschooling” philosophy which maintained that neither of his boys would ever darken the doors of a schoolroom. “The Life Aquatic,” detailed Somira Sao’s nomadic life with her husband and four children aboard their family’s racing boat. Outside columnist and ultrarunner Katie Arnold wrote about giving children active, outdoor experiences without being a “Tiger Mom of the trail” in a story titled, “Child’s Play.”
I read the stories in one sitting. For the most part, they seemed like common sense (albeit in an extreme nature kind of way). It was clear to me that everyone, children and adults alike, should have unstructured time to explore the natural world around them – time to sweat, time to contemplate— complete with sharp rocks to tumble on and tough trails to master.
Whether that meant homeschooling or world-schooling (like Hewitt and Sao) or finding a community that valued the outdoors (like Santa Fe, New Mexico, where Arnold lives), each parent invested time in creating the kind of world that he or she believed would be the best environment to raise his or her children.
But, what did these “rewilding” articles mean for me, Anna, or her brothers?
To many of my American friends, our lives in the Czech Republic seem enviable – we travel both in and beyond the Czech Republic, spend our weekends outdoors – hiking, biking, camping, or skiing (depending on the season), and interact socially in a community where multiple languages are spoken fluently.
Among Czech families; however, we are not that unique. As I’ve written before, Czechs have long-standing appreciation for time spent outdoors and the natural world. The woods near our house are hopping with walkers, runners, and bikers. Children learn to identity edible mushrooms, medicinal herbs, and other native foliage and wildlife species as early as preschool. And, many a Czech babička (grandmother) has skated past me on cross-country skis.
Because of the Czech Republic’s small size and proximity to other European countries, living here means we can expose our children to different cultures, languages, and modes of travel – plane, train, automobile, and bus – without great expense. Within the Czech Republic, Anna and her brothers ride public transportation on their own and roam the neighborhood unattended.
Do my children recognize how lucky they are to be growing up in a country where children and students’ healthcare is free, higher education comes at a minimal cost, and bullet-proof school backpacks are non-existent?
I don’t know. Most discussions about our current lives wind back around to their wish to live in America full-time.
So, what was the downside, in my children’s eyes, to living lives that seemed pretty “wild,” (at least by Outside Magazine standards)?
I asked my kids. Did they think they were “overscheduled” or “addicted to screens”? What about their freedom? Did they think they had enough time and space to explore the world on their own terms?
As I expected, none of the three children thought they had too much screen time. There were a few grumbles about how little time they had on their devices (mobile phones or tablets), but for the most part, they thought our family policy – i.e. no television during the week, movies on the weekends and 30 minutes of screen time a day (with the exception of research for school projects) seemed fair enough.
Overscheduling was a thornier topic. “What does it mean to be ‘overscheduled’? Isn’t it a good thing to have a lot of things to do?” Anna asked. I understood her confusion and explained that overscheduled means when you are constantly going from one scheduled event to another, with no downtime to relax, be bored, or explore on your own.
“I think we were a little overscheduled with this summer, right? We weren’t at home at all,” she said.
I had to admit, she was right. Overscheduling, usually of the adventure-travel kind, seemed to be an area that our family titters on the brink of pushing too far.
When I described our summer of travel, which included a 3-week, 10,000-kilometer road trip to visit 7 national parks in the US as well as trips to Germany and Holland, a week spent at a Czech lake, topped off by sports training camps for the kids, friends in both the US and Czech Republic raised their eyebrows. I received comments like, “You’re really packing it in, aren’t you?” and “That’s a lot to do in one summer.”
At times during our US road trip, the children had complained. It wasn’t fair when we decided to leave Grand Teton National Park before they’d finished their Junior Ranger booklets, or when we spent two back-to-back days of 10-hour-plus car travel to gain an extra day to visit relatives in Shreveport, Louisiana. We might have seen grizzlies, black bears, moose, elk and antelope while hiking, but we never gave them enough time to explore park gift shops to find the perfect souvenir.
Our children had endless energy to run wild through the campgrounds in the evening, meet new friends, and play hide and seek in the rain. Hiking on the trails the next day, however, often required incentives of Fruit Roll Ups and swigs of Arizona iced tea.
Packing up our camping gear each morning and moving to a new location wasn’t as much fun, my children told me, as it would have been to stay longer at each place. Whenever we met a dog along our routes, they complained about the unfairness of life without a pet larger than a hamster.
Nor did they like our habit of eating on-the-go tortillas slapped together with hummus, ham, cheese, and pickles. Sometimes, we stopped at a road side pullout or empty campground to eat. Other times I made the sandwiches while Radek drove. I handed them back on paper plates I kept in the floorboard.
Saying goodbye to my parents at the end of the summer wasn’t fun at all. The sharpness of leaving family behind when we returned to the Czech Republic was their least favorite part of their summer (and of our lives abroad).
Was the thrill of a big family road trip worth the inevitable inconveniences of being on a tight travel schedule and having only limited freedom?
Near the end of our time in the US, a park ranger near my hometown asked eight-year-old Samuel his favorite part of the summer. He replied, “Being at the beach with my Grana and Opa.”
At first, I was shocked. What about waking up early in Yellowstone and side-stepping a grazing buffalo along the path to the river? Spotting the two grizzly cubs with their mama, or watching a tiny antelope break free from the pack? What about the night spent roasting s’mores at our campsite with new friends Finn and Ellis, or the day we waded through the Narrows in Zion?
During our three-week road trip, the national parks had seemed like the children’s favorite destinations. Nights spent camping gave them freedom to explore the woods and chances to meet new friends. We kept a pretty busy pace, but that was part of traveling – wasn’t it?
Then, I thought about it. Our week at the beach was the only time we were in one place for seven nights in a row. At the beach, Sam had his cousins, his grandparents, the ocean, and a pool. He didn’t have to wake up at a certain time or sit in the car for long distances. He had a shovel to dig and a throw net to catch minnows. He even had television.
I guess if I were 8-years-old, the beach would have been my favorite part of summer, too.
A few days after the park ranger incident, Sam and I were in Target buying a picture frame. I told him I wanted to put a picture from Yellowstone in it when we got back to Prague.
“Oh, don’t even say that word, Yellowstone,” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because when you say it, then I miss it too much,” he said.
“Then why did you say that before about the beach being your favorite part?” I asked.
“Well, it was the first thing I thought of, Mom, besides it was my favorite. It was all my favorite. Don’t you see?”
I thought, maybe, I did.
Putting the “rewilding” movement on the cover of Outside Magazine, brings the importance of raising a generation of children who can continue to connect with the natural world to the world’s attention. It also gives parent-readers (like me) a chance to see how “rewilding” can be as simple as declaring an “unplugged” evening and going outside for a walk or as intense as the epic rites of passage of a sweat lodge or 24-hour fast as described in Florence Williams’s “Make it Epic” story.
From all the “rewilding” articles, however, the closing lines of Hewitt’s unschooling story stuck with me best. To sum up his experience with his own children (who despite Hewitt’s declaration have ended up attending an organized school for music education during their teen years), Hewitt wrote, “You can want all the freedom in the world for your children, and you can do your best to provide it. But what they do with it? That, my friend is simply not up to you.”
When I finished the Outside Magazine, I left it in Anna’s room. I didn’t know if she’d read it or not. Maybe she’d skim through the pictures and find an adventure that inspired her. It didn’t matter.
Whether my children grow up to be world travelers, going from one epic adventure to the next, or whether they choose to craft their lives around the rituals and security of daily routines (perhaps finally getting that dog their mother would never let them have), it is their life, not mine, to live.
It’s a tough lesson to learn, but I’m working on it.
In the meantime, anyone up for a biking weekend in Moravia?
NOTE: If you’d like to see more pictures of our summer (and year-round) outdoor adventures, follow me on Instagram @halfnhalfprague or Like the Half ‘n Half Facebook page.