By LEONG SIOK HUI
Before he could even talk, Zuriel Cohen Gunalan was already toddling on jungle trails ... thanks to his gung ho parents who are outdoor lovers.
“It is who we are and what we love,” says Yasmin Paranjothy, 36, of Petaling Jaya, Selangor. “It was important for us to get our little man loving the outdoors, too.”
As soon as their firstborn turned one, he was tagging along on camping and hiking trips to jungles in Pahang’s Janda Baik, Cameron Highlands and Fraser’s Hill. He takes to the outdoors like a duck to water.
Most families are content with weekend camping trips or backpacking holidays, but adventurous parents Alison Sandra Murugesu and her late husband, Ghani Ishak, took it to the next level. They packed their then three-year-old son, Adrian, on a two-year, overland journey across 43 countries.
Their 4WD truck doubled up as a mobile home. At each destination, they camped in the bush, near a river or water source, and at times in designated campsites with shower facilities.
|Adrian having his dinner against a spectacular backdrop of the desert.
In Africa, they parked their “home” behind sand dunes in the desert or got permission from tribal villages to set up camp. Hot showers were a luxury and toilets were the bushes.
“Having a young child doesn’t mean the end of adventure holidays. We were determined not to be confined to paddle pool and play area holidays,” says Klang Valley-based Alison, 41. “It was our long-time dream and we had to do it whilst Ghani and I were still fit and able to cope.”
The family arrived back in Malaysia just in time to celebrate Adrian’s fifth birthday. Today, he is eight and still goes for regular outdoor hikes and road trips.
Folks like Yasmin and Alison are not alone. More and more parents are getting clued in on the perks of introducing their kids to the outdoors. In the last decade, studies have increasingly found the link between nature play and a child’s cognitive, physical and emotional development.
Spending time outdoors– especially unstructured time in natural settings – can reduce children’s stress, increase their curiosity and creativity, improve their physical coordination and reduce symptoms associated with attention deficit disorder, according to research papers published in the Children & Nature Network (childrenandnature.org).
The US-based organisation helps families, communities and grassroots organisations to reconnect children with nature.
Richard Louv, the C&NN cofounder and author of bestselling book, Last Child in the Woods famously coined the term “nature deficit disorder.” Louv maintains that indoor kids are more prone to childhood problems like obesity, depression and attention disorders. He argues that they miss out on the spiritual, emotional and psychological benefits of exposure to the wonders of nature, including creativity and cooperative play.
For parents like Jessy Phuah, camping and hiking are far healthier options than outings to the malls or playing computers games.
“Spending time outdoors with my family strengthens our bond and makes us appreciate nature a lot more,” says Phuah, who has six children aged three to 17. Her family has been going on regular hikes since 2010 and started camping last year. They did 13 camping trips in 2011 alone.
|Phuah and her husband and kids, aged three to 12, on a camping trip. (Their two older kids, aged 14 and 17, are not in the photo.)
Although there is no specific research linking outdoor experience and the quality of parent-child attachment, the natural world seems to invite and facilitate parent-child connection and sensitive interactions, according to a published paper (Together In Nature: Pathways to a Stronger, Closer Family, Sara S. Antoine, January 2012, C&NN).
Unplugging from daily distractions – household chores, TV, mobile phones and computers – and taking a child into a park or natural area makes it easier for parents to be emotionally available to the child. It’s one of the most important factors in building attachment, Antoine wrote.
“It’s a great way to spend quality time with my kids and create memories together,” says Phuah, 44, of Kuala Lumpur. They usually go on camping trips with other families, using 4WD. They have also introduced caving and snorkelling to their kids.
“In Malaysia, we are so blessed with beautiful rivers and waterfalls.”
Trials and errors
Shannon Ng takes her kids camping simply because “the kids love it!” Though Ng and her husband weren’t seasoned outdoorsmen, they were not fazed.
“The girls love splashing in the stream, playing with sand, picking dry leaves …” says the mother of two children, aged five and eight. Her family goes camping and hiking at least once a month in Selangor’s forest reserves like Sg Congkak, Ulu Yam and Commonwealth Park. As Malaysian Nature Society members, they also tag along on MNS trips.
When Ng’s younger daughter, Hui, was two, they went on their first camping trip on a resort ground in Batu Gajah, Perak. It poured cats and dogs and they had to move their tent into a hall.
“Every time I tried to put Hui down to sleep in the tent, she wailed. Even after she fell asleep, when I tried to lie down, she would wake up and cry,” recalls Ng, 40. Finally she cradled Hui in her arms all night and didn’t catch a wink.
A few months later, on their second outing, she explained to Hui what camping entailed prior to the trip and asked if she would be able to sleep in a tent.
“She said ‘I am ready!’ and there were no ‘ifs’ and ‘buts.’ She slept through the night,” says Ng.
On another eventful outing in Janda Baik, the family rented a tent from the resort.
“It was raining all night and we had to zip up the tent. Hui couldn’t sleep because it was hot and stuffy,” recalls Ng. “Water started dripping through the tent and my pyjamas got wet. We had to use all the sleeping bags to line the tent floor.”
But instead of dwelling on their camping disaster, Ng looked on the bright side. “We enjoyed the cool, fresh air, listened to the calming sounds of the river, and finally fell into a deep slumber,” she adds. “After that trip, we bought a good quality tent!”
For these like-minded folks, the pros of going outdoors usually outweigh the cons.
“Zuriel, now 19 months old, has become so fascinated with insects and realised they are living things just like his pet dog and cats at home,” says Yasmin who is planning their next camping trip to Sarawak in August and a two-month camping trip in Australia and New Zealand in November.
|Zuriel, 14 months, loves playing amidst nature and has no fear of insects at all.
“Adrian has become a very independent and confident child because of the exposure,” says Alison.
“Spending so much time living outdoors has made us more aware of our surroundings, the beauty of nature and the need to respect the environment.”
“I had a fantastic childhood filled with the best memories of trekking, fishing, and etc, as my dad was an outdoorsman, too,” Yasmin sums up. “I hope we can create the same memories fo r our children.”
Tried-and-tested outdoor trips
When outdoor lover Jennifer Aist wanted to plan a backpacking trip with her first baby, she had loads of questions and couldn’t find the answers in books or on the Internet.
Undaunted, Aist packed her family for backpacking trips, improvising as they went, keeping notes and taking pictures.
Her book, Babes in the Woods: Hiking, Camping, Boating with Babies & Young Children, published in 2010, is an offshoot of her camping trials and errors over the years.
In Babes, the Alaskan Fish and Wildlife outdoor education consultant offers tips on outdoor activities in temperate countries but there is also ample advice and tips relevant to our tropical conditions. There is even a chapter on taking children with special needs into the wilderness.
Here are tips gleaned from Babes and a group of spunky Malaysian mothers:
Planning or the lack of it, will make or break your trip. Some of the questions to ask are:
> What is your level of experience? Can you read a map, or use a compass or GPS (Global Positioning System) device? Are you equipped with First Aid and CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) skills?
> How old is your child? Newborns and infants up to six months are an “easy-to-please crowd” as Aist puts it. They are easy to carry and don’t require heavy food. They also spend most of their time sleeping or just looking around.
Toddlers (15 months to three years) are active, too heavy to carry all day and very sensitive to changes in their routines.
“It usually takes us 45 minutes to cover a 3km trail but with my toddler, Zuriel, it’d take us close to three hours because he wants to stop to look at every fallen leaf, play in the dirt, pick up stones and drop the stones, etc,” says Yasmin Paranjothy.
> What is your contingency plan? What if it rains all day? Do you have a sheltered space for your kids to play?
When you are just starting out, plan short hikes close to home. Then work up to an overnight trip, Aist advised.
Choosing a campsite
Find a campsite that has easy access, offers plenty of activities and with minimal bugs around the site.
“To make the hike more interesting, pick a route that is parallel to a stream or river. Wading over rivers and skipping over rocks are fun activities for kids,” says Klang Valley-based Chadel Soon who runs Learning Adventures, an outdoor education school.
“Apart from the adrenaline kicks, kids can also learn about insects, fish, frogs and butterflies in their surroundings.”
When it comes to shelter, outdoor gear expert Leong Dee Lu advises parents with young kids to go for tents.
“You and your child will get a sense of security from predators, human or otherwise, and peace of mind. Besides, you never know when your child might wake up and start to wander around,” says Leong.
In Babes, Aist compiled a sample of checklists for parents to follow: From clothing, bug and sun protection, to safety, cooking gear and play activities.
“Our checklist is extensive but we believe a little extra preparation and luxury would make our camping experience more enjoyable and comfortable,” says Jessy Phuah who oversees the packing list for her family of eight. Their long list includes extra clothing, camp chairs, stools and tables, cooking utensils, heavy-duty garbage bags, extra ropes and tarps for shelter from the rain and sun, headlamps and a First Aid kit.
“Bring lots and lots of wet wipes! They come in very handy with a toddler,” Yasmin chips in.
For toddlers who are not used to squatting, Phuah suggests digging a hole and placing a potty seat over the hole.
It’s tempting to use cloth diapers when you camp since it’s the greener option. But if it rains a lot, you’re better off with disposables.
Baby carriers are a godsend, but most of them have a weight limit of 15kg or less.
With all the hiking, clambering, exploring and tree climbing, your kids will be ravenous all the time. Prepare larger meal portions and have snacks available throughout the day. Go for complex carbohydrates (whole grain pasta, bread and cereal, brown rice, oats, millet) as they take longer to burn and provide immediate, sustained energy. If weight isn’t an issue, bringing a cooler box will expand your culinary options. You can load it with pre-cooked frozen food, juices, milk and eggs.
When camping, parents may be tempted to rope off hazardous areas and create a “safe” zone for their children.
“You can’t childproof the wilderness. Children learn to safely interact with wild places by interacting with them. Back off a bit and let your kids explore,” advises Aist in her book. It’s not okay for babies to eat rocks but let the toddlers stomp on puddles, play in mud and get dirty. “The sign of a healthy child is one with a lot of bruises on the knees and dirt on the pants. It shows the child is getting a lot of good playtime.”
But stay close to the child and never let him out of your sight, even for a second, Yasmin cautioned.
Tell your kids to stay together as a group, within speaking range on the trail and never wander away from camp or the trail without a grown-up.
Teach your toddlers to signal their location by blowing a whistle or calling out if they’re lost.
Before Alison Sandra Murugesu and her late husband, Ghani Ishak, embarked on their two-year, car camping trip with their then three-year-old, they took additional First Aid courses for toddlers and babies and an intensive expedition medicine course.
“We also had a fully-equipped paramedic bag onboard,” says Alison, a trained First Aider.
Activities around camp
Yasmin’s 14-month-old boy was happy to just explore around the campsite and play with stones, sticks and leaves and observe the insects.
For toddlers, a bucket and shovel, a magnifying glass and a bug net are fun tools for nature exploration.
“Kids can sense what their parents feel so if parents fear and react to insects and bugs, the child observes and follows suit,” adds Yasmin. “Try to adapt to any circumstances. Just remember that kids adapt easily as long as their parents are with them and are having a good time. Relax, bond and take lots of photos.”