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It’s back-to-school time. You know what that means, Mom and Dad. Book-laden backpacks, No. 2 pencils disappearing into couch cushions, and forgotten lunch boxes that quickly attract swarms of fruit flies. Oh, and let’s not forget overscheduling. There’s so very much to do and so little time – dance classes, piano lessons, karate, fencing, robotics club, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, science fairs and homework loads that gather strength with each passing school year.

I was racing home from work in Philadelphia yesterday to reach the Timberlane field in time for soccer pick-up when a billboard caught my eye. A charming spotted fawn gazed out at all the gritty road warriors, head cocked, inviting us to the forest for a staring contest. Have you seen it yet? The ad campaign, which includes TV commercials, promotes the Discovertheforest.org initiative, urging people to “Reconnect your family with nature. Discover a forest or park near you!”

The campaign – originally launchedStaring_contest as “Unplug and Discover the Forest” a few years back – speaks to that growing trend we all know so well, a little something I’ll call the iPocalypse. Technology is oxygen for our kids, which explains why, according to the Ad Council, children spend 50% less time outdoors than they did 20 years ago. Instagram is not entirely to blame. We are all just so freaking busy, and, let’s face it, our houses are pretty comfy places to retreat to when we get the chance. Why leave? With enough zesty lemon hummus, gluten-free crackers and hot coffee (maybe not at the same time), I literally think I could rule the world from my overstuffed reading chair.

In all honesty, though, that would be boring. Why leave? Because we can — and we should. Hang tight: I promise this won’t get too preachy. I’ll leap over a discussion of the obvious health benefits of getting outside and toss out one word that has been on my mind lately: “wonder.” We use it often, especially to answer questions like, “How was your day?” “How are you feeling?” “How is that double-chocolate brownie?” “Wonderful!” we exclaim. That response has become as banal as the oft-maligned “Amazing!”

But if you think of the true meaning of the word – to be filled with wonder is to brim with curiosity. For me, a wonderful day has many layers that inspire me to question, observe and explore. I recently moderated a discussion about “Innovation and the Art of Problem-solving” between a professor and a business executive. Aimed at high school educators, the podcast speaks to the definition of innovation, why it’s so important in today’s workplace and how to help our students become innovative thinkers. Guess what words come up most? Experimentation. Exploration. Creativity. Discovery.

Last week, my 4-year-old and I headed out on the Five Senses Trail in the woods around the Washington Crossing State Park Nature Center in Titusville. It was a glorious late summer afternoon with a cloud-dappled azure sky and apple crisp air. We talked about how the breeze in the treetops sounded like distant rushing water; imagined the conversation between two screeching blue jays; ogled the speckled toad hanging out under a loose rock; and tried to spot the humming crickets and cicadas.

Nature_Center

We gave up looking when a gorgeous red fox slipped over a fallen tree about 30 feet away, pausing briefly to check us out before trotting away. My son caught his breath and opened his eyes even wider: “Mommy, I’ve never seen a real fox. It looks just like the one in my coloring book. What does he eat?” I assured him that mice were on the fox’s lunch menu, not people. Then, a few minutes later, he asked: “Does the sun really have a smile?” I know, sort of unrelated, but too cute to leave out.

And it does speak to my point. I’m an advocate of the idea that open space opens minds and hearts. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service manages 193 million acres of open space, the life force of its “Discover the Forest” campaign. Pennington, Titusville and the greater Mercer County area boast an ample share of forests and grasslands, from Rosedale Park, to the Stony Brook Watershed, to Washington Crossing State Park, to Baldpate Mountain, to Howell Living History Farm, and beyond.

We have endless opportunities to spark curiosity, nurture creativity, guide exploration and possibly inspire innovation. In the end, this isn’t an either/or decision: either inside or outside; either iCloud or actual clouds. I love technology, too, and I realize that it facilitates all those activities I just mentioned. And who would deny anyone the joy of Jimmy Fallon’s “Gaming with My Mom” montage in honor of video game week? Hilarious! But YouTube videos and Facebook feeds provide superficial connections, while the world around us connects us to nature, to each other and to a much deeper place within ourselves – both intellectually and spiritually.

So, please, take a few hours to seek out the smiling sun, and have a wonderful day in the woods!

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Diana Drake
Diana Drake is a journalist who has been connecting with nature since floating her Barbies down the creek behind her childhood home in Somerset County. After graduating from Skidmore College, Diana felt certain she was destined for a life of new adventures in faraway places…until that cute boy in a baseball uniform kept showing up at her waitressing job at the local Rocky Hill Inn, where she was earning extra cash to supplement her budding journalism career at a N.J. newspaper. While she has long since retired her black-and-whites, she kept the guy. A few decades later, they live across from a 235-acre horse-breeding farm in Pennington with their daughter, 14 and son, 4. Yes, 10 years, and yes, it keeps you young. Diana has run a successful freelance writing and editing business, Drake Ink, since 2001, publishing articles, newsletters and supplements for the likes of NJBIZ, The New York Times New Jersey section, New Jersey Monthly and The Trenton Times. She is currently managing editor of Knowledge@Wharton High School, an online portal published by The Wharton School, U of Penn that promotes finance, business, entrepreneurship and leadership for high school students and educators.

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