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Nature – A Parent’s Best Resource

It’s going to be 60 degrees this coming weekend, and sunny at least part of the time with no rain predicted all weekend. It’s got me thinking about my favorite thing to do with the kids.

When you are divorced, your income likely goes down. Studies show it’s the number one reducer of wealth. Also, your time gets crunched as well. It seems impossible to fit it all in now that you’re doing it alone, especially if you are not splitting the kids 50-50. If you are operating under the old standard visitation (before Arkansas started favoring equal time) if you have them the majority of the time you never stop running, and if you have the shorter time, you’re trying to connect in such a short time. There are some parents who can collaborate seamlessly, but let’s face it that’s the extreme minority (though it should still be your goal).

You want to focus on your kids, and to try not to stick them in front of the TV or run back to work in the now limited hours they are with you. That combination of less funds and the desire for more focus and interaction in your compressed time can be difficult to manage. Even a matinee at the movies these days costs 3 people around $30, and that’s not buying food. Plus you don’t want to just be throwing stuff at them even if you can afford it, no matter how much guilt you may be carrying for the divorce.

When you’re strapped financially, yet still want to interact with them in a different way and a positive way physically and mentally, there’s no better way than getting outside. Arkansas is the Natural State for a reason, and our options are limitless. My favorite place to do that is the Buffalo, and for a couple of reasons beyond the scenery.

First, your cell phone probably won’t work. That’s huge. Not for them right now, as my 8 and 11 year old don’t have phones, but more importantly, MY phone won’t work. I am forced to unplug, which is the most difficult thing. When you got divorced, you probably read all the studies, articles, books, etc. about how to get your kids through divorce, and they all say that your kids don’t care about money and just want time with you. And you want to give that to them, but you’ve got all this new financial pressure, you’re supporting a house all by yourself now, they’ll want a car, you have college expenses looming on the horizon and so on. If you’re self employed like me, you’ve already got the feeling like you always need to be generating income, and that’s really hard to shake even without the mental and emotional strain of the divorce experience. You have to though, because what you read is true, and the very best way to make sure you’re in the moment is to go where your phone doesn’t work.

Second, I think being outside is one of the most empowering things for kids. Unless you put them on one of those toddler tethers, their natural curiosity will take over and they will explore. Beyond the multiple health benefits, I feel like outside has become an almost foreign world for kids, especially this time of year when it’s dark so much and they’re in school or inside at basketball/volleyball/indoor soccer/etc. practice. Of course, there are multiple books on the subject, Last Child in the Woods, for example, and I just read this article about ADHD and nature in Outside this month: ADHD Fuel for Adventure, and I think they are right even on a minor level. My girls’ mom has commented on how comfortable they are traveling, and how brave they are in many situations, and while she is certainly key to that as well, I believe the time we spend outside hiking, floating, riding horses, and so on is a big part of that. (I will admit to bias on her and I’s perceptions of our kids’ greatness).

One thing I need to do as a parent is figure out how to subtly incorporate math and science into our hikes, float trips, etc. The key is subtlety and of course me actually doing some learning. I don’t want to take away the unstructured nature of the time outside, obviously, but I’m always amazed at how attentive to me they are when we are outside. If we are sitting on the couch looking at something on the computer, even about nature, and I tell them a fact it’s rarely remembered. If I spot something on the trail though and tell them about it, they will generally pause, take a look at it, ask questions, and then bring it up later when I’ve long forgotten it. I think the information is tied to the experience in a way that doesn’t remember school. Much like the way I can’t remember certain rules of evidence I use all the time without looking them up, but know the words to literally every song on Appetite for Destruction and have since 1988.

I can say that the time the girls and I have spent outside have been one of the most important parts of keeping my connection with them when I’m not with them every day. Those times are just us, they are unique and challenging mentally and physically, and they’re almost always memorable. Maybe we see the Buffalo elk, maybe Dad slips and chips a tooth (happened), maybe we turned over floating and froze our butts off until we got dry(happened too), but there is always something like those that is a memory that sticks with them. Establishing those moments have all been vital to redefining our relationship now that I don’t live with them full time. And for me, as I struggled mightily with the aftermath of it all and the weight of my choices and their affect on the girls immediately after the divorce, getting outside to me out of my own head and emotions. I think it did the same for them as well at times.

Being a solid single parent doesn’t have to be expensive, but it does take time. I’m still no expert at it, but I know I’m at my best and most focused on them when we’re out in nature. The Buffalo is no more than an hour drive from most of Northwest Arkansas, it’s the nation’s first national river, and you’ve seen all the iconic photographs so you know why to go. There are great trails for even the most out of shape beginner, and more difficult ones for those who want to challenge themselves and their kids.

There is no better resource than Tim Ernst’s book Arkansas Dayhikes for Kids and Families, but if you don’t have time to get to the bookstore, your kids will never be bored on Lost Valley Trail and it’s an easy starter trail for them and you. Right around the corner is the Ponca Elk Education Center, which has always been closed every time I’ve tried to go but I think will be fun for them and is also free. Eden Falls has also been made more family accessible as well. If you’re looking for more challenge in your hiking, there are definitely plenty of options in the Buffalo, and some spectacular waterfalls and views as payoffs.

One last note, I’ve found another great way to get them excited is create a goal. This year is the National Parks Centennial. Arkansas National Parks have created the Iron Ranger Challenge and will give an award to everyone who completes 100 miles walking, rolling, paddling, or biking through Arkansas national parks in 2016. Kids love the idea of an award, no matter how minor. A few years ago we did a tour of about 6 National Parks in the west, and my kids LOVED getting their Junior Ranger badges at each place. They’re already looking forward to getting a start on our 100 miles, although I think they’re planning on a lot of them being in a canoe and not on foot.

And of course, when we go to the Buffalo, we always finish with ice cream in Ponca, which doesn’t hurt enthusiasm levels for going back.

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