When travelling with friends who have children, I play the reluctant 'babysitter-aunt' to the T. You won't find me holding tiny hands to cross streams, or metamorphosing into a creative storyteller on demand. Neither do I have the chops to straighten out a teenage window seat battles. On a recent weekend trip, which included four kids ranging from 3 to 10 years, I warmed up to the idea only because I desperately needed to get off the treadmill of city life and make some time for the outdoors. With a battalion of three sets of parents and their brood, we hit the lower reaches of Himalayas. It was going to be a camping trip in Viraatkhai in Uttarakhand. Little did I know that there was a pertinent lesson in waiting. The weekend getaway turned out to be a process of unschooling myself on how the young travel and why it's absolutely essential that they should start young.
Here are my top observations of why engaging with the outdoors in more enriching for children than you ever imagined.
1. Kids bloom in the outdoors instantly:
Our days were spent mostly in the outdoors, setting up and dismantling tents, gathering wood for the evening bonfire and an easy hike to a waterfall nearby. The idea was to give the kids (and adults) an outdoor playground to sharpen their senses that life in the city is inevitably dull. Their response to this relatively uncomfortable environment was heartening. The sense of excitement heightened with every new task that was assigned to them, whether it was opening up the handy folding tents, gathering dry sticks for the bonfire or cleaning up the campsite once we finished. It also seemed like the perfect place to whet their skills for household tasks. The outdoors seemed to be a great way to introduce the idea of responsibility.
2. Teamwork - a lesson for life:
With the high adventure quotient in the activities, the teamwork was one to emulate. The oldest kid immediately took charge, dividing the group in twos (a combination of an older kid with a younger one) and assigning tasks with ease. Much to my amazement, the rest of the group took instructions well and started the task of collecting dry sticks and logs with gusto. They realized that they could comb larger areas if they split up effectively. Needless to say, the bonfire in the evening was a crackling success.
3. The outdoors helps channelize compassion:
The next morning stacks of mountains in blues and greys, and a foreground of green towering trees made a postcard perfect vista. The day was ideal for a hike to the Tiger Falls, only 5km from where we were camped. Our troop took to the flower-carpeted path. The undulating hilly path to the falls ensured that we had to channelize the old hiking prowess. While the elders feigned gumption amidst huffing, the four children displayed a natural connection with the outdoors. Another connection brewed prominently amongst them; that of compassion and offering a helping hand. They locked their arms together, picked pines and stones as Himalayan souvenirs and got over the fear of crossing streams and gravelly paths together. Nervous smiles were exchanges and triumphs high-fived. This small adventure had launched them into a tenacious friendship, despite not having met before.
4. Creativity flourishes in the outdoors:
After two hours of slow but legging over a hill, we heard the gush of the waterfall. Swung over a high rockscape, it looked like a crispy clean white sheet. While the elders hesitated, not one of the kids recoiled at the thought of jumping into the muddy pool. Creativity took over from adrenalin after forty minutes had been spent splashing about. The oldest kid in the group assembled his army and soon frugality looked more glamorous than ever before. The group amassed plastic bottles left by prior tourists and got busy filling them up with the muddy water to give tadpoles a temporary afternoon spin in them. It was a sight to see such ingenious games being forged.
5. Recalibrating the idea of fun:
Most parents are concerned about the screen time that the kids spend. While a lot of it might be inevitable since many learning tools are based on online platforms, but a divorce from the outdoors is reiterated with every extra minute in front of an iPad, TV or laptop. The scene in front of me was a relieving antidote to PlayStation consoles and iPad screens being swished with fingers. A love for the outdoors was definitely inculcated in the kids and they seemed to take to this new idea of fun with alacrity.
The weekend of unlearning and learning about travelling with kids wrapped up with the image of tadpole hunters displaying such ease in nature that I had to recalibrate my views on being the 'half-hearted babysitting aunt'. The game looked so inviting that I requested to join the group and go after a clutch of slippery tadpoles myself.