What About the Creek Down the Street?

Here are my boys at the Menlo Park side of the San Francisquito Creek.  It's a beautiful spot, and it's a few blocks away from our home.

Here are my boys at the Menlo Park side of the San Francisquito Creek. It’s a beautiful spot, and it’s a few blocks away from our home.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we live in a land of wonderful public parks. There are countless web sites and books telling us how to take advantage of them. What’s more, we all know dozens of people who go there every weekend.

Unfortunately, almost all of these are not accessible to us and our kids by foot. In other words, getting there depends on planning and driving.

The picture to the right shows my sons at a beautiful creek scene. You might have a photo like this, too. What’s interesting about this one for me is that it was taken on the bank of San Francisquito Creek, which is within a five-minute walk from my house and thousands of other homes in the Palo Alto / Menlo Park area. And we took it on a beautiful Sunday afternoon (March 8).Why wasn’t there anyone else there? We were there for a half hour, and we didn’t see a soul. Why didn’t we see dozens of kids wading around, throwing rocks in, building bridges to cross and explore the other side?

I could give a lot of reasons, but I’ll focus on one: we parents are fools. We move so fast in our lives that we fail to see the natural treasures right under our noses. When our kids are young, we don’t wander our neighborhoods with our kids and we don’t let them wander on their own. Then, when they get older, we drive them around like mad.

Often, we drive them to “environmental education programs” to learn about nature in wonderful parks like Foothills Park in Palo Alto or Hidden Villa in Los Altos Hills. Both these parks and many others have very large summer camp programs where parents drive their kids there once a day for a week or two. Tiny Treks takes young kids around a beautiful park once a week. Two weeks ago, I took my kids to a “Family Play Day” at a “Wild Zone” at Ulistac Natural Area in Santa Clara.

These are all great resources, but if you really explored what you have right by your house, within walking or biking distance, you might find great resources your kids (and you?) could get to every day. You wouldn’t need to make a plan ahead of time, you wouldn’t need to drive anywhere. Because of the latter, you’d avoid the greatest danger to children in America today and you’d save the environment from some automobile emissions at the same time.

I can anticipate two primary objections:

  1. Local rules and regulations: Is it illegal to play in the local creek or forest preserve? Do they have fences around them? Sure, if Marines come out of the brush with rifles the moment your kids enter the area, you’d better advise them to stay away. More likely, though, local prohibitions, if they exist, will be vague and lightly enforced, if at all. Usually, these rules are designed to discourage the bad guys doing bad things like doing drugs or destroying property. If a cop finds your kids wading through a creek with hip boots, tossing stones and catching butterflies, is he going to send them to jail? I don’t think so.
  2. Safety: What if my kid falls into the creek or gets poison oak? Sure, there are risks like these, but they’re all a part of childhood. Would you have preferred your parents protect you from all of this and drive you around everywhere when you were a kid? Of course not! You can mitigate these dangers somewhat by taking your kids to these local natural areas when they’re young and teaching them about safety. That’s what I’m doing with my boys these days.

Here's one wet suit you can buy at <a href=isnorkel.com. They even have toddler sizes!” class=”photo” width=”101″ height=”100″ />

So, I plan to trek in and around San Francisquito Creek with my boys in the upcoming weekends. I’ll be buying wetsuits and neoprene booties for all of us. Then, in the summer, when there’s no water, we can continue exploring. We’ll have a blast! I’ll be reporting back if we find anything particularly interesting…

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4 Responses to What About the Creek Down the Street?

  1. Jake O. in Palo Alto says:

    I totally agree! I grew up (from 10 yrs thru H.S.) in Santa Clara with Calabazas creek adjacent to my back yard. I essentially spent my pre- and post-pubescence living in that creek, rain or shine. Here is a list of things that we (me and several neighborhood kids and school mates) did during those years:

    – built countless forts of dirt, sticks, branches, lumber, scraps and whatever we could find
    – had dirt clod wars
    – discovered tadpoles, frogs, ducks and countless plants
    – constructed and extensively used an epic rope swing
    – constructed and used makeshift boats to float down the river
    – bridges, fords, wet and dry crossings
    – Way too much to remember

    What trouble did we get in? Very little.
    What trouble should we have gotten into? Way more than I would wish on my own kids! (5 yr girl, 4 yr boy, 22 mo boy)

    Here’s a partial list:
    – floated down the “creek” during flood stage risking drowning, injury and hepatitis
    – Poison Oak so bad my eyes swelled shut (many times)
    – Hooky from school
    – Starting wildland fires
    – Risking injury or death from the following:
    * rope swing falls
    * dirt clod injuries
    * using a machete (several stitches in one foot )
    * exposure to hazardous materials
    * way too many to list.

    Granted, I was a mischievous boy, but not atypical. I count those experiences as extremely formative. I am currently exploring options for us to be able to provide opportunities for my kids to have a similar experiences growing up. It certainly does create a lot of interesting moral and practical considerations when I look at my experiences and project them on to my kids. e.g. I would NEVER let my kids float down a river of street runoff water – but that is exactly what I did at 12 yrs old – with my father’s blessing.

  2. sallyann says:

    I agree Mike. We are regulars in Matadero Creek at Bol Park. Not many people want to come with us and get messy though, especially when they see the poison oak.

  3. Bethe says:

    Fantastic post, Mike. I couldn’t agree more. Nature is found everywhere, and you need not be an expert to enjoy it with your child!

    Hope you will visit a new blog dedicated to restoring childhood and all the muddy fun things that go with it: http://www.grassstainguru.com

    Cheers- Bethe

  4. sandra says:

    Great article, Mike. I completely agree. We live down the street from a creek that my two girls have enjoyed for years. Someone with a sense of humor put up a sign for it: “Rattlesnake Creek (no rattlesnakes).”

    Yesterday, I let my 10-year-old and her friend go there without me for the first time. Later, when I took my dog for a walk (o.k., to spy), I saw them splashing around in their swimsuits in total glee. When they walked home, each girl was only wearing one shoe. They’d apparently only brought one pair with them and were sharing it because their feet hurt. They were wearing their beach towels like capes, arms outstretched like they were flying in the wind. From their smiles I could tell that they’d had a great time.