This piece comes to us from Cindy Ross, the author of seven books with the newest, The World is Our Classroom- How One Family Used Nature and Travel to Shape an Extraordinary Education, Skyhorse Publishing, NYC.
Free Ranging it on the Continental Divide
We crept around the edge of a gigantic snowfield that smothered Lester Pass, in Wyoming’s Wind River Range. Our trail directed us over a dangerous cornice, forcing us to find a safer route. Our four- and six-year-old children, Bryce and Sierra, asked if they could hop off their llamas and lead them.
The country was open, with no trail. We had to look ahead to see if the land would drop off and give way to a rocky cliff or safely lead us onto dry ground. If we found ourselves at a dangerous precipice, we’d have to evaluate a new direction. It was like a chess game, planning two or three moves ahead. We had to hold the topography in our heads, for if our route dropped into a low point, we lost our expansive vision. My husband, Todd and I followed the children closely. We were amazed when their direction of travel was exactly the path we would have chosen.
Wilderness travel was nothing new to our family. This hike was the third leg of a 3,100-mile journey across the Rockies along the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). Sierra and Bryce spent five summers -- their formative year -- on a grand llama-packing adventure. Families have been going on llama hikes for decades in the American West, and young children have been accompanying them, although usually not for this length of time.
Todd and I did not literally "teach" them wilderness skills. Our children were influenced by what they were experiencing, and what they saw by paying keen attention. Some of the most important education does not occur within the confides of four walls. Traditionally, children learned by watching their older siblings, parents and other adults perform tasks on the homestead, rather than by direct instruction from a teacher or textbook. Then they'd model what they saw. When we returned home we began to teach via experiential education.
Now of course, a child does not need to know how to negotiate a mountain pass in order to get through life. But this experience, like so many when we give our kids some freedom and responsibility, taught them creative problem solving, better equipping them to navigate a rapidly changing world.
Sierra and Bryce observed and followed us as we forded deep rivers, dodged lightning storms, hiked through driving rain, and passed wild animals, for thousands of miles. They witnessed our behavior as we confronted challenges, assessed risk, and demonstrated (usually!) wise decision making. They came to trust their parents as well as their own ability to make decisions.
Learning trust at a young age sets the tone for the rest of one’s life. It can give a person the strength to live the life they were meant to live, to not see limits, and have a strong belief in themselves. A parent need not lead their children across the Continental Divide for the kids to learn these values and virtues. These can be learned many other ways. But for our family, the trail became our personal path and our favorite classroom.
Personally, I'm not a gal who's keen on mountain climbing, or even sharing my summer with wild animals (chipmunks excepted). But Cindy is right: Kids learn what they are exposed to, including bravery, common sense and trust.
And, sometimes, even how to care for llamas. - L