Monday, May 3, 2010

Adventures of an Urban Mom in the Woods

If you are like me, you may cringe at the idea of letting your child dig in dirt or romp through poison ivy. You may have screamed, as I did on a recent Saturday morning, at spotting spiders in the toilet at Boyce-Mayview Park while the other parents waited to use the compost restroom.

If, like me, you're exceptionally squeamish when it comes to the natural world, Venture Outdoors' Tyke Hikes provide a low-maintenance way to get your child involved with nature.

The program's main goal is to introduce children -- including infants -- to nature while utilizing the city's parks and nearby outdoor recreational venues. The nature walks are so popular during the moderate weather that it is normal to have 40-50 people attend a hike.

Organizer Lindsey Rethage inherited the program in 2004 and has rejuvenated it by working to organize neighborhood chapters. Rethage makes it easy for parents by making the trails low impact and full of pit stops where participants look at vegetation and animals -- including insects -- that reside in the parks.

"As long as you introduce your kids to the outdoors, they are happy," says Rethage. Her oldest daughter Avery was 3 weeks old when she started leading hikes. Madison, her second child, was a fussier baby, but being outdoors calmed her down.

Rethage finds a lot of children are really fascinated by nature when they get around other children. Her two girls are often the ring leaders, she said, and naturally connect with the other kids.

Rethage says 60 percent of Tyke Hikers are parents trying out the program for the first time. Many, like Laureen Colusci of Ross, recognize that their children spend more time indoors than they did as children.

"I want him to learn about nature and see things," said Colusci, of her 4-year-old son Liam.

It was an exceptionally cold day at Boyce-Mayview Park, but three families showed for the Saturday hike. Kate Snyder of Mount Lebanon, 18 weeks pregnant, came out with her 18 month-old child, Eliah.

"I tend to like the idea of outdoor activity," said Snyder.

Parents like Julie Azzam of Dormont, who aren't exactly outdoors types, find their children provide incentive to search for more activities in nature.

The University of Maryland reported that the average American child spends 50 percent more time indoors than 20 years ago. The study found kids are spending 55 hours a week with electronic media. The American Journal of Public Health attributed outdoor play to a reduction in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in children as young as 5 years old.

Rethage's interest in nature was inspired by her kids' need to get outdoors, as well as her own childhood in Canada. Her father was an outdoors educator. She found the inspiration again when she left the corporate world to become a mother.

One of the intimidating factors of nature, Rethage said, is that parents worry about their children's safety and health risks. During a recent camping trip she discovered one of her daughters has asthma. But that hasn't stopped her from engaging her daughter with nature.

"It really is like we are a community when we are on a hike," she says. "The stories from kids are great. They can remember the littlest things they discovered in nature."

During a recent Tuesday stroll, a group of six families was introduced to Ebony Scott of East Liberty, who is being trained to guide some of the programs. Her reason for getting involved in Tyke Hikes is also personal.

"I love to be able to teach my kids outdoor activities," she says. "I am also trying to get African Americans out on trips in the parks. There is a lot of obesity in our communities. I don't want my own children to become unhealthy."

Her daughter Heaven is 5, and her 6-month-old son Earth was strapped to her as she helped Rethage dole out complimentary snack for the kids.

Some hikers are grandparents. Nellie Curran of Shaler has been taking her grand kids out on Tyke Hikes for three years.

"I would be bored to death if I had to keep them at home," she said. Now her grandchildren, 1-year-old Seamus and 4-year-old Peter, have found regular playmates in some of the children.

I examined the mud on my daughter's pants and sighed, but I had to agree with everyone. Despite the dirt, she was much happier.

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