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What were some of the best exploration adventures you had as a child?

Feb 25, 2014 // By Marcus Brotherton

When my mom, Dorothy, was 8 and her brother, Bobby, was 10, their dad bought a 3,000-acre dryland wheat ranch in Montana.

No, their childhood years had no Disney-style entertainment equipment, no video games, or cable TV, but their childhoods came with a lot of adventure.

I asked what they liked best.

There were:

coulees to traverse,

chokecherry stands to discover,

pastures to explore,

a streambed or two to follow,

alfalfa to taste,

curious weeds to collect,

rattlesnakes to learn the sound of and to avoid,

prairie dog towns to wander into,

cloud formations to dazzle,

thunder storms to be caught in.

Exploring became their favorite form of play. If they were heading outdoors and their mom asked, “Where are you going?” the usual answer was, “Just going exploring.”

What was their main activity while exploring?

My mom responded to my question in an e-mail: “Alone in my private adventure playground, I thought my first big thoughts. I looked at my feet wandering along the cow path, small under the big sky, and realized, this is me.”

The joy of reckless exploration

Few children today are privileged to have such a wide expanse to explore, but all children instinctively explore their environment.

This past summer my five-year-old son explored his grandparents’ garden. It was all new to him. He found corn growing on stalks and whooped at the fun of twisting off an ear and peeling away the husks. He helped snatch tiny tomatoes that blinked like red lights, teasing him under the foliage. He found mounds of potatoes to unearth with Grandpa’s help.

He carried the bucket into the house and announced, “Look at this. We dug these up right out of the dirt!” His amazement was catching and we found ourselves looking in new wonder at the way things grow.

I restrained the urge to hurry him to the sink to wash his hands before we had properly appreciated his harvest.

The power of learning to explore

Sometimes a child’s exploring is about, “What would happen if I . . . ?” Sometimes it’s about, “Are there some new ways I can use this stick?”

We all know there’s no better toy for a kid than a cardboard box, especially one big enough to climb into. It’s another kind of exploring to figure out the spatial relationship between himself and the box, to learn how and where his body will fit, to let his imagination discover ways to turn the box into whatever he wants it to be.

Sometimes exploring is geographic. When families go on road trips, even short ones, it’s a good idea to equip a kid with a map and let her follow the route. She’ll gain a sense of where things are in relation to other things, an awe of the challenges of terrain, and a confidence in navigating her way in the world. She may even muse on what must have been the impressions of the first settlers who saw this part of the land.

A child who is encouraged in his instinct to explore may grow up to be the kind of person who discovers new worlds, who takes the extreme challenges, who imagines solutions from experiments in test-tubes.

My guess is that the people who sailed with Columbus beyond the edge of the known world, the families who trekked over the Oregon Trail, the Neil Armstrongs and Buzz Aldrins of space fame all started out as kids exploring their environments.

Maybe they tasted a rock, made a ship from a box, or roamed their father’s ranch, and the world is a richer place.

Maybe they had dads who gave them freedom to explore.


Question: what were some of the best exploration adventures you had as a child? If you’re a parent today, how have you helped your children learn and love to explore?

  • Abedrossian

    My best explorations as a child were when I would ride my bike out on trips. Day to day, week to week, I grew more comfortable going further and further away from home, reaching into the city from the residential neighborhood where I lived. Exploration coupled with mindful education from a guide is part of the foundation of making a healthy and happy human being. Funny thing is…my explorations have stopped…or they have become limited to watching and learning through monitors. Something that I think I should rectify straight away! Thanks for the reminder, Marcus.

    • Marcus

      Cool. I rode my bike all the time as a kid too. Thanks for posting. –MB

  • Scott Taber

    Wow! Your mom live my dream for my kids! I posted earlier about where I grew up. Obviously this is where my explorations started. I was lucky to grow up on farmland with old broken down barns and woods behind the house. I lived around those barns for over a dozen years and yet they never ceased to amaze me. I found old newspapers broken brass bedposts, and other ancient artifacts that caused me to marvel in amazement at the past. The woods were mysterious to me. I loved to go in them. The only problem was I was unsure who owned them and amazingly never tested the fence line inside them. I always wondered what was in there. Just last year a new employee came to work with me and we got to talking. Turns out he was in the same youth group I was in about 5 years before me. We started talking about the area we grew up in….you know what? His family owned those woods! All that time. He let me know everybody went in there……so sad. Oh well, the mystery behind it all still reminds me of good memories.

    • Marcus

      Great, thanks Scott.

  • So nice to read this (and last week’s blog!). There are several things I really remember clearly from when I was young and exploring. One time we went camping somewhere in Belgium. We placed the tents right in the dunes. My friend and I would explore the area, and found many pillboxes left and right. For us that was just really exciting. Other memories are also from exploring by bike. I have cycled so much when I was young! We would cycle all the way to Belgium or Germany! Along the way we saw many beautiful areas and buildings. The older we became, the further we would bike.
    Those times were just great. Then even later, when we had our driver’s license, my best friend and I would make many roadtrips to many places. It was so great to explore. Living in the southern part of the Netherlands, nearby the German and Belgian border sure helped to go places. We once drove to Paris in 5 hours! That was another great city to explore as you can imagine. I think there are so many places that stand out, but I can’t think of them right now. I guess those times when you are really much younger, and you get to realize certain values of things, like a beautiful area, a building, fruit growing on a tree..those things are special as well. Being a dad myself now, I see our little 9 month old girl Nora starting to crawl around. Exploring new things everyday by touching it with only one finger before trying to grab it, or placing her mouth on it! Because of this, I have indeed also renewed my view on the things in the world I normally take for granted. I realize that tree is beautiful, I realize that duck looks funny, I realize that little bird makes a funny sound…It seems I am discovering the world for the second time through Nora’s eyes. It’s beautiful.

    • Marcus

      Yuri, always great to hear a perspective from a different country. Thanks. I rode a bike a lot as a kid too. Glad to hear all is well with your little girl and your rediscovering life through her eyes.

  • gary sedgwick

    I had just looked at 200 pictures of life in the 50’s and early 60’s from an email before reading this. My early life was very simple but family friendly. My parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles plus close friends lived in a city of 30,000 with several small lakes. I can remember watching troop trains during WW II stop at Galesburg as it was a center for trains going East/West. Our treat was a 5 cent ice cream cone from Higlanders Ice Cream along with many others and my classmates. Fishing, picnics, ice skating were family fun with Sunday night movies at Lake Bracken among many other families. My first venture was a train trip to Chicago at age 10 to watch the Chicago Cubs and my first visit to Wrigley Field. In 1948 I watched Harry Truman speak from the rear of a train and remember the paper with DEWEY WINS. Lombard Junior High, about 3 blocks from our home, had the largest spreading Elm in Illinois(so I was told) and was visiting when it had to be cut down. It was sad. My wife and two kids spent many days along the Central Coast of California. They still enjoy the ocean and animals. One of my greatest thrills was showing our grandson, now a frosh at UCLA, around Hawaii at the Arizona, Missouri, Punch Bowl and Hanauma Bay. I just looked at our pictures of this trip last week. I am part of our high school class who share emails often looking at some pictures of our first 12 years of school. Like Bob Hope…Thanks for the Memories.

    • Marcus

      Gary, great memories, thank you.

  • Ralph Hanline

    I think some of my greatest life adventures began in 1955 when I became a Boy Scout. We met every Thursday night, with Caming trips at least once a month. My very first meeting, we went to several abonded gold mines here in North Carolina, close to my hometown of Charlotte. These mine were uncharted at the time, and were on private property.. It was quite an adventure. Today, those same mines are a State Park. Other Boy Scout adventures included exploring Dixie Caverns in Virginia, through a back door cave, where we stayed for about an hours in an uncharted area. I’ve hiked numerous parts of the Appilancian Trail, The Grand Father Mountain Trail, and numerous other mountain trails throughout the South. I’ve skinny dipped in Wilson Creek, the Catawba River, the Rockey River ad various other rivers, creeks, and ponds in North and South Carolina, and Virginia.
    I’ve camped on the Blue Ridge Parkway in a dozen or more spots, sleep with Bears walking around us as we cowerded in sleeping bags, or in “The Safety” of a surplus pup tent. I think the greatest adventures were the four and a half years I spent as a US Marine for 1962 through 1966, and the twenty years I spent as a Police Offier on the North Shore of Chicago. Now, I’m seventy and all those memerious are just a dream. OOH RAH and Semper FI! Ralph Hanline, Kings Mountain, NC

    • Marcus

      Ralph, thanks, I’ve always wanted to hike the App Trail.

  • David Tindell

    When I was 11 my family moved to a new subdivision in a small town. Behind our house and yard was a large empty lot where future houses would go. Formerly farmland, the ground had been plowed up and was empty. To the first impression, that is; if you looked closer, you could see how this entire area—probably about 2-3 acres—was tailor-made for young boys who were looking to create GI Joe adventures. From bare, desert-like terrain with gullies and buttes to prairies of grass where who knows what kind of creature lurked, it was a playground made to order. The following Christmas my two younger brothers got space capsules and spacesuits for their Joes. (Evidently my parents that that I had outgrown GI Joes, being 12 by then.) I managed to get one more summer of even better times out of the vacant lot before I discovered girls, and a year or so later the lot was turned into home sites. We had no video games, no internet, nothing but our imaginations, but with a vacant lot and GI Joes that was enough.

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the bestselling author or coauthor of more than 25 books. Welcome to my blog. Thoreau pointed out how too many people lead lives of quiet desperation. Their lives are bland and meaningless, or they make choices that trap them in despair and darkness. By contrast, I want to help people lead lives of excellence. Meet here regularly for powerful stories and insight into how to live and lead well.