From bald eagles to mazes made of hay bales, the last few weekends have felt familiar and yet new. With both sets of grandparents visiting, we returned to some of our favorite local places: Meadowside Nature Center, the fall celebration at Butlers’ Orchard, and Cabin John Regional Park. While we had been to them all last year, it was revelatory to see how much Sprout’s reactions changed over time.
At all of these locations, he was far more engaged than before. Previously he would just watch something intently; now he remarks and interacts with it. The animals at the Nature Center were of particular interest, as he loudly pointed out (multiple times), the snake, owl and eagle. That night, we overheard him telling his stuffed animals about the animals he saw earlier in the day. He still didn’t have a lot of patience with my explanations of the feeding habits of snakes, but that will come with time.
At Butlers’ last year, he spent most of the time slowly wandering around, blocking up the little bridge and other playground equipment for the rest of the kids. Instead, he was running around, evading my mom as he darted between sections of a wooden train.
In the past, he reacted to the running, yelling kids and the shadowy interior of Butlers’ hay bale maze by crying. This year, he sprinted down the hallways, occasionally looking back to see if he had lost us yet. He barreled through the older kids, paying them no attention. When we rounded a turn and “found” him, he giggled hysterically. He climbed straight up a ladder into a giant tractor and down a dark slide. He was also a big fan of a fake spiderweb, with bouncy elastic strands. He wasn’t that interested in climbing across it, but spent a good 10 minutes standing up and plopping himself down, the exact same way he jumps on our bed.
At Cabin John Park last year, Sprout stuck to the side with the little kids’ equipment, like houses and play cars. This time around, he still spent quite a bit of time exploring those sections, but was more sophisticated in his understanding. He actually pretended to drive the cars rather than simply spin the wheel. When he saw me whack the bells with a stick, he looked on the ground for a suitable one as well. Beyond the “baby” equipment, he tackled parts of the playground far beyond his current age, scrambling up a rock-wall and inching through tubes in the 5 to 12 year old area. I spotted him on some of the trickier aspects and warned him away from going down ladders, but for the most part, he handled it extremely well. He even slid down a giant slide that I thoroughly expected him to get to the top of and then refuse to go down. It was just as steep and far higher than the slide at Constitution Gardens Park that he was uninterested in only a few weeks ago.
But he wasn’t fearless about everything; there were still a few things that definitively scared him. However, when he was scared, it was a more emotionally complex response than in the past. For example, the Nature Center has a fake cave kids can crawl through that you enter through a very dark, narrow tunnel. Sprout was thoroughly uninterested in going in it last year, but forgot about it as soon as we moved on. In contrast, he was actively frightened by it this year, and got upset when anyone mentioned it later that day. The next week, he showed a similar level of anxiety towards touching the sheep at Butlers’. That night, we heard him say to his animals that he was “a little nervous” about it. I think he picked up on me saying it, but it’s still a sophisticated concept.
Reflecting on it, I think I understand the connection between the two and why they bothered him so much. Rather than simply being scared of those things – which he normally gets over quickly – there may be a level of regret to go with it. He wanted to go in the cave and touch the sheep (he’s touched one before), but was too frightened to do so. While this may be reading too deeply into his emotions, if it is true, we’ll have to think of ways to help him not dwell on those situations. I don’t want to pass my neuroses on to him.
Besides changes in Sprout, we had slightly different options than before at each of the locations, which made for a different experience. In particular, we spent much longer at Butlers’ Orchard than we did last year, due to the fact that we weren’t freezing our asses off. In contrast to last year’s cloudy and wind-blown weather, we had clear skies. Soaking in the warm autumn sun, we went on the hayride where we actually sat in piles of real hay and stopped at a pumpkin patch. Sprout has been mildly obsessed with a “little pumpkin” we picked up at the farmers’ market a couple of weeks ago, so he was in squash heaven. He bounced around looking at all of the options and with my mom, picked out a medium-sized one that he could barely carry and a gigantic bumpy pumpkin.
I love trying new things, but there’s a charm in having traditions you do each year. It’s like a growth chart for mental and social progress for your children.