Walking along the creek by my house has been a favorite pastime since we moved in. But rarely can I do so without spotting some manner of trash in or beside it, whether rushed in by a rain or left behind by the displaced people who sometimes pass through.

Early on I found an empty plastic bag caught in the roots of a tree, tattered and sun-bleached, but strong enough to function. I decided I would pick up whatever litter I found on my walk, and when the bag was full, take the cue to head back.

It wasn’t long before I realized I could share this ritual with my toddler daughter, but I couldn’t have expected what a treat it would become.

I’d told her before when she asked why I pluck my eyebrows or shave my legs, that grooming is one way people like to show ownership of something, that it’s how I choose to give my body affection. Likewise, planting flowers in the yard is how I demonstrate responsibility for that space.

Though we do not own the creek nor any land beyond our fences, we do have a primal obligation to the Earth in general, particularly its bodies of water. So it made sense to me that I should teach her to groom open spaces, wherever she happens to be.

 

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It may sound odd or even off-putting, encouraging a young child to futz around with trash, but the benefits are many. So now, in addition to riding bikes and chasing down the ice cream truck, we like to put on our boots and garden gloves and “go grooming.”

Here’s why you should, too:

1 | It gets kids outdoors

This one’s obvious. Our kids spend so much time inside and in front of screens, solo children often don’t know how to play outside without another kid chasing them. Whether you take them to a city park or a suburban grove, they will enjoy the feel of shifting breezes, the angles of natural light, and benefit from the physiological effects of forest bathing, which is proven to boost immunity.

2 | They exercise their senses and physical dexterity

Kids love treasure hunts, even when the prize is simply spotting something first. To notice litter, they have to look both closely and far away, while staying aware of where they’re stepping. As the terrain shifts, they adjust their footing, make judgments about whether and how to reach, and use their fine motor skills to pick things up with caution. Even the most hardcore playground cannot develop their balance and coordination like a good old fashioned forest floor.

3 | It practices their judgment

Even at her tender age, my daughter understands there are things she shouldn’t touch. Jagged bottle caps, cigarette butts, broken pieces of glass – these things she will point to, but not pick up. She calls for me excitedly and practices patience as I make my way to her to assess her finds. I like that she is learning to think before acting and to see asking for help as a natural part of cooperation.

4 | The conversation can’t be beat

Nothing brings up a kid’s questions like the mystery of a found object, making our grooming walks the most cherished of quality time. Some of these talks veer into subjects I would otherwise not broach with a child so young: homelessness, addiction, consumerism, pollution. But the tangible evidence of these realities invites some matter-of-fact exchanges that, while incomplete, provide a strong base of social awareness.

Not to mention, it builds a great precedent of open parent-child communication. We will have to circle back and elaborate on these topics when she’s better equipped to engage with them, but I’m incredibly impressed at how even a Pre-K kid can live unsheltered and yet un-jaded, accepting of the truth that human beings still have a lot to figure out.

5 | It’s a soft introduction to meditation

Though the chatting is great, the silence is almost better. Grooming walks are a wonderful time to sink into trance-like quiet, to distract the monkey mind with a defined task while enjoying the harmonious rhythm of walking to the soundtrack we evolved with. As far as spiritual practices go, I can’t think of anything better than one that engages the calmest of consciousness along with physical exercise and service to other species.

I’m happy that no matter where she goes in the world or how much time she has to spare, my kid will know at least one guaranteed way to ground herself.

6 | It’s empowering

It’s parents’ responsibility to teach their children about the ecological realities of society, but we run a great risk of overwhelming them with anxiety and guilt. Teaching them to make a habit of looking out for the environment gives them the pleasure little kids love most (feeling useful) within a finite framework: Once the bag is full, you’re done for the day. No need to take more than you can carry.

Now, we all know that trash itself is a problem even when it goes to the landfill, but here at least they get to make a measurable improvement that benefits the larger community of human neighbors and other species who would otherwise be choked or poisoned by our litter.

7 | They learn about their habitat

Together, we note subtle and seasonal changes you can’t see from far away. Walking the same paths over and over, we get to witness the lifespan of individual flowers, the breakdown of a fallen branch, the surprisingly fast migration of snails. We notice where the birds roost, what’s submerged when the water is high, and where the trash tends to gather as water current and wind inform each other’s force.

My daughter is sensitive about where little critters live and considers this before taking a step off the path or reaching between rocks. The occasional ant bite and itchy leaf remind her that not all of Earth is her personal dominion – people need to make space for creatures.

Above all, she is intensely curious about the natural world, and when she grooms it, that attachment grows.