People often ask me what advice I have for parents who want to get their kids to spend more time outside. These days my answer is, “drink your coffee outside in the morning”. How will that make your family an outdoor family? Let me explain. My family has always spent a good amount of time outdoors. Since my kids were very young I’ve taken them hiking, camping, canoeing and foraging. They’ve seen me birth fire with bow and hand drill and they shoot bow and arrow when I can get them to, but it doesn’t hold their interest quite yet.
Even with all of this, most mornings it feels like pulling teeth to get the kids out of the house, off the couch and into the back yard. Or at least that was the case before the pandemic. You see, like many of you, I started working from home back in March of 2020 and the kids started distance learning at home about the same time. Without the mad rush of the morning commute we suddenly had time. This allowed the kids and my wife to grab more time for their beauty sleep, but it allowed me something else. I immediately saw an opportunity to bring back a practice that had been difficult to squeeze in pre-Covid, my morning sit spot practice.
Before the wife and kids wake up, I throw on some clothes, go downstairs, make coffee, and go out in the back yard to sit in my beach chair and watch the day begin. Late March and early April are a dynamic time of year, with migratory birds moving through and the transition from winter to spring in full effect. Some mornings, the sunrise glinting off the frost covered grass was like thousands of little diamonds. I cannot tell you how luxurious it felt to have the time to sit, breathe and witness the beauty and wonder of each fresh morning. I’d put birdseed out and watch as Blue Jays, Robins, Chickadees, Red-winged Blackbirds, Cardinals, Crows, Grey and Red Squirrels, and Chipmunks competed for the goods. Every morning I had a front row seat to another world unfolding.
Sit spot is a practice of nature meditation, a doorway to connection. In the practice, we engage what is called “fascination attention”, allowing our awareness to move to whatever may be moving or calling us in any given moment. I’m sure an early variant of sit spot began with hunters and scouts, being on lookout, protecting and hunting for their tribe, remaining still for hours, sensing the life force manifesting through infinite earthly and elemental forms. One cannot help but notice little things in sit spot, tiny ants, subtle movements of air flowing over the grass, insects whirring, a bird of prey soaring overhead. Things we would probably miss moving at our normal rate of speed and being in our normal state of mind.
Sit spot is a state of relaxed and alert, meditative awareness. And its most important outcome, in my opinion, is connection; a feeling of being deeply bonded to life, of intimately knowing one’s land and the “more than human” relatives that live there. Sit spot is a way of overcoming what author Richard Louv calls, “place blindness”, a result of modern indoor living in which domesticated humans don’t see or know their land. Place blindness begs the question, “where will the future earth stewards come from if kids growing up today are never outside and don’t bond with nature?”
So, getting back to my reinvigorated sit spot practice during Covid. What started happening as I started drinking my coffee outside every day, was that eventually my kids got curious and started coming out too. “What’s dad doing out there?”, they wondered. My son Stryder started putting on his winter coat and coming to sit in my lap. We’d cuddle and watch the birds for 20 or 30 minutes, it was pure magic. On weekends, after sit spot, I’d start getting our garden beds ready for spring planting. This meant that after sit spot and breakfast, I was outside again, and for most of the day. And this started to shift the center of gravity for our family from in the house to the back yard. The combination of the sit spot practice and the garden project got me outside, and eventually my family followed. One caveat is that our kids (7 and 9) do not have tablets or phones and we limit screen time to “Little House on the Prairie” reruns and the occasional Star Wars or Muppet movie. Our kids do not have access to tech, so they get bored, and this is part of our philosophy. We believe that out of boredom creativity arises, so we’ve tried to limit the amount of structured time and activities, so the kids can look at the clouds, climb trees and use their imaginations for entertainment.
In our backyard, we have a small stream, and in the spring there are mallards, garter snakes and frogs. I had always wanted the kids to spend more time in the stream, but in previous years it just didn’t capture them. This spring it did. They now spend days and days wading barefoot in the mud and the stream catching frogs. THEY sneak up on baby bunnies to see if they can touch them. Recently my daughter Cora has become obsessed with catching rabbits, chipmunks and squirrels. I showed her how to rig a harmless trap with a cardboard box, a stick, a long string, and some bird seed. We sit together, sometimes for 30 minutes, in total absorption, waiting for “chippy” to take the bird seed bait and scuttle under the box. So far, we have captured two chipmunks and one red squirrel! All catch and release.
As I stand in the kitchen window watching my 7-year-old daughter stalking bunnies and listening for animal alarms in the forest, I can see that she is developing a strong, deep, important bond with this land. She doesn’t need to look in a field guide to distinguish a grey squirrel from a red squirrel, or a Blue Jay from a Robin. Whereas some kids know more poke’mon characters than actual fauna in their yard, our kids have it the other way around. They know what plants are edible and which are not. But more importantly, I see them walking back there, with our mountain before them, listening to the wind move through the black willows and I know they feel it; something mysterious, something powerful, something sacred. The kids are learning that they are not only part of nature, but that nature is a presence they can turn to, beyond my wife and I. They are finding their own place in the family of living things.
This, I think, is vital. It is this knowingness that our species has lost, to the great diminishment of our role as care-takers and stewards. If we are to survive and be part of the ever-evolving earth, we must come back to an embodied, sensual, spiritual state of communion with the life presence that moves out of doors. A daily sit spot practice and a strong cup of coffee can open that door.