Birth was the easy bit. After five hours of labour and two paracetamol. My second child, a beautiful son arrived safely curled in my arms, happily breastfeeding at home in our own bed. Joining my wonderful, curious daughter, and completing our family. It was the perfect natural birth I had been dreaming of.
It was only following day we realised something was wrong. The redness of his skin, which we put down to the stress of birth, had not subsided. Our midwife in her first visit confirmed that our new little person had Down’s Syndrome. Suddenly an entire medical machine began to gather pace around our family and by midday my son was in a hospital bed.
Those first few precious hours with all of us together, were followed by days of hospitalisation and worry. Doctors with solemn faces talked through the implications and discussed whether to operate on the hole in his heart. We hoped that golden time, just after his arrival, could sustain us through the challenges to come. In that short time we bonded with him as a person, not a syndrome and we made a promise to always see him – not the condition. We tried to return to this pledge again and again when faced with the challenges of raising a child with a learning disability.
Our son is such a vital person. He is headstrong, with a will of iron and so engaging, he soon had us all dancing to his tune. Despite this, it was hard in the face of endless hospital appointments and school support tribunals to remember our promise to him. His arrival threw our very ordered world into total chaos. None of his milestones arrived when they should, walking, talking we waited and waited. There was no blueprint for what we should expect as no two children with Down Syndrome are the same (thankfully). I must admit I was floundering. My relationship with him suffered as he sensed the constant expectation and began to regularly resist everything I tried with him. I lost sight of my little boy behind a battalion of facts and figures and ‘what ifs’. I forgot to ‘be’. Just as we were in that bed when he was only hours in the world.
A friend could see I was struggling and she advised me to stop and do something I love for just one hour a day. I can do that, I thought. I love being outdoors, so I gave myself an hour and off I went. I discovered so many ways to spend that time. I found a chalk meadow very close to our house, littered with wild flowers from Spring till late Autumn. This is now where I go as often as possible with no agenda, simply to walk and to be. I began to visit our allotment more often, sometimes just to sit and soak up the bountiful, productive stillness which reminds me to slow down.
It worked so well that I decided to take my son with me to the meadow. I was astounded by the change in him. Outdoors he came alive, took an interest, took charge. Learning felt more like an adventure to him. Now we plan and look forward to this time together.
When we’re in the meadow he listens to me attentively (in a way he rarely does at home) when we find a flower and I tell him it’s name, he recites it and smiles. We head into the garden armed with notepads, to hunt, count and record wildlife. He enthusiastically upturns my plant pots and explores the compost heap, pouncing on anything that wriggles or tries to get away and grabs the pen to keep a simple tally of our findings.
Nature walks are a real treat especially with a bit of foraging thrown in. We love bringing home big tubs of blackberries and spending autumn weekends cooking up delicious crumbles. We spend hours in the woods, so distracted that we sometimes make ourselves late in the process. When we do arrive at our destination he calmly announces that we have been busy hunting lemurs and chipmunks.
In the evening we explore nature books snuggled up on the sofa together, looking up our finds, my son reading and reciting the words to himself, to me or the dog. He is fascinated and soaks up as much information from the illustrations, as the words. He is such a visual learner that he sees words whole and doesn’t need to sound them out, as a result is on a level, in reading, with his typically developing friends.
I consciously try to engage him in our sustainable lifestyle. It isn’t hard. There are so many jobs that he can help with. He loves ‘sorting’ and ‘tidying’ and seems tireless when faced with a mountain of recycling or cuttings. Typically a picky eater, he will happily munch the home grown tomatoes he picks himself from our garden vegetable plot.
My little boy is nine years old now, not little any more. I still sometimes start to feel overwhelmed and sorry for myself. It is usually because I have slipped back into a medical view of our situation, which creates a ‘to do’ list mindset, behind which I lose my son, temporarily, from view. As soon as I remember to get out and ‘be’, the positive energy returns.
The benefits of parenting, learning and being in nature are so apparent in all of us. But my son has responded to it particularly well. Not only has he reacted positively to the calming effect of being in nature, as I did, but also to the natural world as an incredible resource for learning. Most importantly it has helped me reconnect with him and remember my promise from all those years ago.
It can be a challenge to find accessible activities for a child with a learning disability. But we have found parenting close to nature is not just free, it is fun, educational and a highly effective family bonding exercise. Having witnessed the benefits first hand I was inspired to write about our adventures. The natural world offers endless opportunities to learn and discover together and luckily we have a big appetite for more.
Lisa Costley lives in Wiltshire with her husband and two children, aged 9 and 11. She works part time for an environmental conservation charity and interests include nature, natural parenting and outdoor education for her child with a learning disability. Find out more at https://twitter.com/lisa_costley