We’ve been working on getting our almost 14-month old walking longer and longer distances. Like many of you know, walking with kids is similar to herding cats. They don’t bee-line it as much as stagger in circles until they are tired and ready to go home. My kid isn’t any different than the aforementioned felines.
Yesterday, however, he wanted off the paved path that runs near our home and catted down to a dirt trail slightly below. It was late (we started out at 8:30PM because we've got sunlight until almost ten-o-clock at night right now), but as I’ve suggested before, you have to give kids “their own walk” if they’re going to learn how to be upright and moving forward on their own legs. Off-roading is where he wanted to go.
The next hour was pure magic. This kid, now directed by nature’s walls, was focused on the narrow walk way ahead and proceeded to run/walk for over a mile, stopping only to fall, inspect some grass, poke a slug, and smell the flowers.
I don’t spend a lot of time writing about stuff I don’t know -- mostly because writing about what I do know is challenging enough, and why be masochistic about blogging -- but something occurred to me on this walk.
Walking long distances is a very natural skill we should all have. What makes it so hard, then, to teach it to children? Let’s assume that the parent is walking and modeling good behavior. Why do kids not catch the wave and walk in a way that would help out the theoretical group? I’ve read about the psychological phenomenon of offering a child too many options, as in “what do you want to eat” or “what do you want to wear” as the child surveys every item in their closet or the product-lined aisles at the grocery store. Having too many options is not a “natural” phenomenon in itself and renders a child unable to decide. Much better, say the experts, to offer them a choice, as in “Would you like eggs or cereal?” or “the red tights or green shorts?”
Could it be that large spaces, mowed down for roads and cars and bikes just overwhelm them and make it difficult for them to take the necessary (ahem) steps? Scientists are now understanding that in order to reap the benefits of natural movement, one cannot eliminate the variables that would be in place, naturally. Natural noises, plants, uneven terrain, wind speeds, temperature, sunlight...these are the obvious variables, but there are, of course, probably a hundred other items we cannot see or think of to quantify -- perhaps distance between nature and our face.
I was thinking about ants and how they walk along a trail, dropping food or nest pheromones along the ground to help others find their way. Have we, humans, been so out of touch with walking for the purpose of living, that we have erased all the necessary trails left by our forefathers? Wanting to know more about ant trails, I did a quick journal article search and came up with this:
Behavioral patterns at the level of the society emerge spontaneously from the interactions between the individual ants. This process is comparable to the self-organization described in physico-chemical systems, in which both non-linear mechanisms and stochastic events play an essential role, and is illustrated by the way in which Tetramorium caespitum foragers are able to select one source from two offered in experimental conditions. The recruits spontaneously move towards the most efficient distribution between the two sources, within the limits of mass recruitment. The observed asymmetrical exploitation of two identical sources is described as a bifurcation phenomenon, and could not be explained by a traditional reductionist analysis of communication. It is predicted and explained, however, by a mathematical model which quantifies trail recruitment. In this model, error during trail following allows the discovery of a second source, and the increase in trail following accuracy as the recruitment proceeds is fundamental to the self-organization process, in this case the selection of one food source.
Which makes me think, hey researcher guy, do you want people to learn from all of your hard efforts or what?
So, anyhow, I don’t know anything about ants and trails and stuff. And possibly less, after reading this abstract. But I do know that, when given a wide-open, asphalted space my son was less apt to move forward steadily because, well, he doesn’t have to. He has a multitude of directions to choose from in this scenario. When given a smaller, more specific trail, he not only moved forward steadily (relatively speaking) but with screaming joy. Or was that me?
Most of us live in an urban jungle, I totally get it. And, please do not think that your walks are non-beneficial in every shape and form. I once heard a personal-trainer friend of mine tell her client that she was going to get fat from “eating that banana.” I was all, “Dude, didn’t she used to eat candy bars? Isn’t a banana a whole lot better of a choice, in many areas in addition to sugar content?” Which seems kind of like a non-sequitur, but I have a point, really. If you are just now walking, you are totally nailing it. I don’t want to discourage you from what you are already doing on a regular basis. I just want to add some homework. Can you find a rural area in nature, or more “in nature” than your regular walking space. Make it a once a week or once a month thing, but make it...every now and then. Send out a Facebook request to friends in an area for their suggestions of short walks in wilderness. You might be surprised to learn about a field or a campus that has an area you weren’t aware of before.
And now, what you’ve all been waiting for...le video. Ten minutes of just a little walking man, squeals of delight, sounds of nature..and snot - the snot's mine, sorry. It’s OK if my parents are the only ones who watch. Although it’s reallllllllly cute, and I think kinda zen. That’s all I’m saying.
If you are new to the kids and walking thing, read more here: Caution, Kids Not Walking and here: Walking, with kids.