Only two months ago, you could ask a single question and receive two predictable, yet vastly different, answers from my daughters. The question was simple enough: What would you like to do?
95% of the time, Grace (my three-year-old) would respond with gusto that she wanted to go outside. And 99.9% of the time, Marie (my five-year-old) wanted to watch a movie (usually something with princesses). An argument between the kids would ensue immediately until there was a lull, during which Marie would finally hear me reminding her that sitting in front of the television was rarely an option.
My husband and I still can’t figure out where Marie gets her extroverted, ultra-social tendencies, or her love of watching things on the screen. We joke that she could sit in front of the television all day if we let her, only getting up to use the bathroom.
After Marie started kindergarten last fall, I still needed to work for a couple of hours after she got home, and she was BORED. Her sister was in daycare and I refused to let Marie watch movies all afternoon, so she had to find ways to amuse herself. We started sending her on after-school playdates at friends’ houses, but it turned out that while she was over at some of those friends’ houses, they just sat and watched television. So, while my husband and I thought that starting kindergarten and broadening her social circle would somehow help her love of the screen to wane, the opposite happened—it was solidified.
A new norm comes to town
Schools were closed in our area as a result of COVID-19 in mid-March, and my husband and I very suddenly found ourselves both needing to work from home—with both kids here. It’s been two months now, and I can’t say it’s really gotten any easier. But things certainly have changed in that time.
With schools closed, no daycare available, and all public areas—including playgrounds—barring entry, we had to get creative. Like most kids their age, our girls are positively exploding with energy, and there’s only so much we can do inside the house to get that out. So, despite protests from Marie, we started a new routine whereby I take the kids outside after breakfast on some sort of an “adventure.”
What kinds of adventures? Long walks, bike rides, jogs, climbing practice on the boulders under footbridges, searching for turtles and fish at the community mini-lake, and more. In the afternoons, when the kids are with their dad, they usually spend some amount of time exploring the woods and creek behind our house, looking for all manner of wildlife, practicing walking across fallen logs, and learning to navigate.
At some point during our adventures (unless we’re out exploring in the rain), I point upwards and say, “Kids, look! Just look at that. See how blue the sky is? It’s incredible, isn’t it? It’s so blue!” And yes, I wanted the kids to feel excited and engaged, but I also meant it. The sky has been an unparalleled blue over the last several weeks. The kind of blue I don’t remember seeing with this kind of frequency since I was a pre-teen living in a much more rural area of the state.
You may think it’s just that I haven’t noticed the sky, and I thought about that, too. It’s true that I spend a lot more time outside now than I did pre-COVID-19 shutdown because all the hours I now spend exploring with my kids were normally spent in my home office sitting behind a computer screen. However, I take a long walk almost every morning as part of my mental health routine, something I started doing long before the shelter-in-place order…and there’s definitely a difference in the vibrancy of the sky’s color.
I have noticed new things, too, that are born of spending additional leisurely time outside with my kids. I’ve been watching the daily progress of the emergence of flowers from the ground, the budding of flowers and leaves on the tree branches, and the transformation of the woods behind our house from shades of brown and gray to a vibrant green dotted with tiny purple and white flowers carpeting the ground. The way the blooms on a redbud and white dogwood overlap and seem to glow against the blue sky in this one particular spot of the path through the woods that I absolutely adore.
I’ve seen the tiny, camouflaged frogs that are abundant in my garden, the baby turtles near the footbridge, and the tadpoles in muddy puddles. I’ve watched the two geese that are partial to the runoff pond, the families of deer exploring for food behind our house, and the woodpecker and owl that live not far from us. I’ve heard the songs of the variety of insects in both my garden and the woods behind our house.
My husband and I have shared all of it with our daughters, pointing out every tiny thing we notice, allowing them to interact as long as it was safe to do so.
The beauty in living things
Marie has a weekly video call with her kindergarten teacher and classmates. Every week has a themed show-and-tell that follows the teacher reading a book. The theme each week varies; family photo, favorite book, fun exercise, that sort of thing. During those first calls, Marie—my girly-girl—predictably wanted to share mostly princess-themed items; aside from her Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls book, she shared several princess dress-up costumes, a princess dance, and princess dolls.
One of Marie’s classmates recently got a kit with caterpillars, food, and instructions so you can watch the caterpillars go through all the phases of metamorphosis until they become butterflies. After the structured part of each call, right before everyone is unmuted to say good-bye, he shows the class the jar and talks about what stage they’re in. Of course, all the kids get excited and the teacher takes a few questions before the call ends.
During one of her most recent calls, Marie’s hand shot up in front of the camera, wiggling with eagerness, as she waited to be called on. Her face was glowing and she was grinning; what was she going to ask? I didn’t think it related to show and tell (which had been exercises that day), but she did nothing to give me a clue. About a minute later, the teacher unmuted Marie’s connection and asked if she had a question.
“Um, can I show you something?!” Marie shouted.
“Sure, sweetie. What do you want to show the class?” her teacher responded.
“I have tadpoles! Come on, I’ll show you!” she shouted, handing me the computer to carry.
In retrospect, I should have guessed that’s what was going to happen. After all, once she’d discovered the tadpoles a little over a week before in a muddy puddle well over a mile from home, she had begged every few minutes to go back with a bag so she could collect some of them to bring home until we eventually returned a few days later. She’d discovered the tadpoles on one of our walks with the whole family, and something about that experience ignited a spark in her; she was suddenly and intensely interested in everything around us. Marie has been assuring us every day since then that she is going to be a biologist, that she knows it will be hard but that she will persist (her word). She’s asking to go outside to the woods to explore more often than she asks for a movie, and she checks on her tadpoles at least every hour.
Now, when we go for walks, Grace points up at the sky and says, “Look, mama, the sky is beautiful and blue today! Look!”
And instead of tuning her out, Marie looks up, too, and says, “She’s right, mama, look. And look at that cloud over there—it looks just like a frog! And that one looks like a horse!”
Life is hard right now. For everyone. There are so many things we have no control over, so many what-ifs and open-ended questions about the near and long-term future, about what the new normal will look like and when it will arrive.
But my daughters’ newfound appreciation for nature and the living things around us—both plant and animal—might not have happened otherwise. In this new way of life, we’ve removed so many distractions we’d once deemed necessary, opening our days to wondrous opportunities.
Underlying the challenges we face is an incredible opportunity if we are willing to accept it; an opportunity to re-examine what we place importance on, what we choose to spend our energy on. An opportunity to find and look to those things we can control and notice things we maybe never have. An opportunity to appreciate the beauty and wonder of the world that surrounds that, the world that makes life possible for all of us: the great outdoors.
Katherine Turner is the author of Finding Annie, a contemporary romantic women’s fiction novel that explores the power of love and human resilience in the wake of trauma and abuse. She blogs about mental health, trauma, and ways we can be more compassionate as a society. Sign up for her newsletter to stay up to date and get the first five chapters of her novel Finding Annie free!