When my 5-year-old nephew, Austin, and his family recently came to visit, we lined up theme parks, trips to the beach, children's museums, and fun places to eat out in anticipation of making it a visit he would never forget (this being his first trip to Southern California).
From the moment he arrived, Austin fell in love with our place -- he loved Willie (my goat), the cats and dogs, the garden and yard, the horse corral and barn. He loved ''exploring'' all around the property. Each morning when we talked about that day's planned adventure over breakfast, Austin just didn't seem all that excited. Once breakfast was finished, he would ask permission to go outside. While the adults got ready to go, Austin was usually deeply involved in a conversation with the dogs, looking at all the bugs under an overturned rock, building a little stick fort out of tree branches, or picking some flowers in the yard. Reluctantly, he would stop what he was doing and come with us for another day of ''fun.''
One day when I went to get Austin for our trip to a marine theme park, I found him crouched in the yard watching snails. Fascinated by the way they moved, he had built little obstacle courses for them to see how they would get around a stick or leaf. When he found one on the sidewalk, he carefully picked it up and carried it over to the garden. At that moment, I realized (finally!) that Austin didn't need us to make ''fun'' happen for him. He loved nature, animals, exploring, and being outside. He was having the time of his life, and we were actually ruining it by dragging him all over town.
So often we think we need to schedule every minute of the day for our children. Not only does this not leave any down time for them to tap into their natural curiosity and feed their own interests, but often what we adults come up with is way off the mark as far as what truly feeds their souls. We assumed Austin wanted to be entertained by our planned activities, when he was doing just fine, keeping perfectly happy with the help of a few snail companions.
Next time he visits, I hope we have the sense to refrain from getting swept up in the ''entertain Austin'' syndrome. His ability to amuse himself is such a precious gift, a gift all children have and which we adults can nurture by simply standing back and celebrating their innate and marvelous interest in the simplest of things.