Helping Kids Find God In The Outdoors
In the book of Genesis, there’s a memorable scene in which Jacob, the ancestor to all the people of Israel, falls asleep outside. With a rock as his pillow, he has a dream that a ladder extends from where he is all the way up to heaven, and angels are walking up and down it. From the top of the ladder, he hears the voice of God speaking to him.
The most interesting part of this scene to me, though, is not the dream itself—it’s the realization that Jacob has when he wakes up.
He thinks: “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”
I’m sure many of us have had this same moment of awareness, but we might not describe it in the same way. We can certainly agree, however, that there’s something about being in nature that allows us to sense the grandness of the world. For a second—or sometimes a little longer than that—we know the universe is beautiful, good, and on our side.
Whether it’s simply going on a walk around the neighborhood on a warm, breezy day or standing at the peak of a mountain after a long hike, we tend to have our most profound experiences of the divine when we’re outside. They occur almost in spite of ourselves, and they give us a joyful sense of connection to the world.
It’s absolutely essential, then, for us to get our kids outside as much as we can. We need our kids to have direct experience with the natural world because we already spend too much time indoors, where there’s plenty to distract us and them from the great wildness right outside. The more time they get out there, the more time they get to exercise, feel the sun, and discover colorful new birds, plants, and insects.
As much as possible, we should be out there with them, too. Richard Louv, the author of Last Child in the Woods, explains why: “We have such a brief opportunity to pass on to our children our love for this Earth, and to tell our stories. These are the moments when the world is made whole.” By making the world whole, kids begin to understand the connectedness of all things, which very well may be one of the most important elements of living a spiritual life.
Louv also cautions us to avoid demanding outdoor time of children. We need to be with them, and to have fun exploring with them, in order for the outdoor experiences to be transformational. He says: “If getting our kids out into nature is a search for perfection, or is one more chore, then the belief in perfection and the chore defeats the joy. It's a good thing to learn more about nature in order to share this knowledge with children; it's even better if the adult and child learn about nature together. And it's a lot more fun.”
In this way, the world becomes our church. When we’re outside we have the opportunity to share with our children the holiness of the Earth. One can imagine this is what God intends to convey to Moses when he calls to him from a burning bush:
“Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”
God wants Moses to feel the ground with his feet. To experience it. This way, Moses becomes connected to it. Don’t we all want our children to experience this connectedness? We want them—we need them—to run barefoot in the grass. We need them to jump into waves laced with seaweed. We need them to reach some kind of intuitive understanding that they are a part of nature and nature is a part of them.
Interestingly, when God appears to humans in the Old Testament—before he appears in human form in the New Testament—it’s usually as a manifestation of nature. To Moses, God appears through the flames of the burning bush. To the Israelites escaping from slavery in Egypt, he appears as a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night. Later, he appears as thunder, lightning, earthquakes, and rain.
This isn’t surprising, is it? We experience God in nature, through nature. We can feel that he’s in all things.
I remember a few summers ago when I was staying in a house on a mountain in Vermont, and a thunderstorm woke me up in the middle of the night. I enjoy thunderstorms, actually, but this one was something else. The lightning came through the windows almost like a strobe light. The thunder was so loud that I could feel it shake the house and my body. The rain fell in sheets for what seemed like an eternity. Outside, the intense wind caused a barn door to repeatedly open and slam shut.
Certain natural forces, like this one, can jolt us into a certain kind of fear and awe. They remind us of our smallness and that we never have full control of our lives. These kinds of “wow” experiences can point us to God, too. I think this is what is meant by a fear of God. We’re not to be scared of him, exactly, but we should allow ourselves to experience a deep sense of “wow.”
In her book Grounded: Finding God in the World, author Diana Butler Bass gives us this perspective: “Awe is the gateway to compassion. It is a deep awareness that we are creators, creators who work with the Creator, in an ongoing project of crafting a world. If we do not like the world or are afraid of it, we have had a hand in that. And if we made a mess, we can clean it up and do better. We are what we make.”
The more often we take our kids outdoors and experience a sense of awe with them, the more we empower them to understand who they are in the universe and all they are capable of doing. We teach them to love the world and want to protect it and make it better.
Intuitively, we know all of this is true, and research supports it, too. A few years ago, a study at Michigan State University found that kids who spend more time outside have a more defined sense of spirituality, because nature “offers a diverse display of colors, sights and sounds; uncertainty; multisensory qualities; and above all, aliveness . . . [nature is] usually in a state of flux, which fosters problem-solving opportunities that build self-confidence.”
We spend so much time indoors, where all these things of our own creation—jobs, phones, to-do lists—distract us from the spirituality we find in the outdoors. This spirituality is always calling to us from right outside our windows, and it’s our responsibility to our children, and to ourselves, to get out there and listen.