Slowing down the pace of childhood

How can you teach kids to appreciate slowness in a speeded-up world?

My father, a geologist, spent the summer helping to unearth a triceratops. He’s been volunteering on and off at an active excavation in central Wyoming ever since he retired from the oil and gas fields. My dad is a man of few words, even in our very active family group texts. But starting in July, a wave of messages started to roll in.

Today I found a sacrum bone.

In the Mesaverde Formation.

Found and excavated this rib bone from a Triceratops.

Here’s part of the skull of a triceratops I found.

Sometimes there was a photo. Most of them just looked like dirt with something sharp jutting out, or a shallow pit full of rocks. Occasionally I could make out a bone, its outline in stark relief to the ground around it. 


Throughout the summer, my daughters, Juniper and Marigold, did their own excavations. Every day after daycare, we’d march out to the garden and turn over a large flagstone wedged between some mint and penstemon, looking for roly-polies. Startled by sunlight, the bugs coiled into spheres and froze on the cool ground. If we were lucky, there’d be a fat worm under the rock as well. We’d sit and watch worms wriggle and roly-polies digging in the cool earth, their tiny worlds invaded.  Roly-poly bugs roll up fast, but otherwise they are slow little beings. They are miniature crustaceans, their own little compost bins.  

Juniper, age 3, burrowed in the packed dirt and put roly-polies in her hands, delighted when they rolled up like small pebbles. It was a summer of learning, teaching her how to cradle the roly-poly or how to pick up a ladybug without doing damage. Sometimes she got over-excited and accidentally crushed a bug in her hands. I tell her that we must be gentle. To dig slowly. Or to not dig, to lift the rock and just observe. To watch and wait while this little ecosystem in our yard goes on about its merry way. 

Today we found part of the hip bone, the ilium.

TO JUNIPER AND HER SISTER, everything is fast. At Halloween, she wanted to watch It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and within minutes I was streaming it for her. I still remember, when I was 8, waiting to watch it the one night it came on TV, and then getting the time wrong. Crushed, I had to wait a whole year to see it again.  If Juniper wants macaroni and cheese, it’s cooked within three minutes in the microwave. Her new ballet shoes arrived overnight from a big-box store. I can download music for her to listen to on our drives in an instant. She waits for very little. And so, our garden poses a conundrum. 

It was a summer of learning, teaching her how to cradle the roly-poly or how to pick up a ladybug without doing damage.

We moved to Colorado several months ago and inherited an amazing garden. When we first went to look at the house, the real estate agent had trouble opening the door. So my husband and I went around back and saw the garden first. A ditch banked with tall grass flows through it, and I marveled at this wild yard in suburban Colorado. The people who lived here before us were impeccable with their garden. They left us, on the counter with the keys, a list of all the birds that could be seen in the neighborhood and a pole for catching crawdads from the ditch. My first thought after we bought the house was: How could we keep such a big garden? But we moved in December, and I didn’t think about the garden for months.  

Once the weather got warm, it felt like Christmas every day. We’d go outside and see all the different flowers blooming. We felt joy in finding each new plant, gratitude that we had oregano, clematis, mint and a peach tree. And then there were the peonies. Juniper was impatient with the tight balls of pink that didn’t seem to change for days on end. 

“Where are the flowers?” she asked.

“We have to wait, Junebug.” 

We jumped for joy when the peonies finally bloomed, their petals dancing in the wind like ballerinas’ tutus. 

The summer was spent making hollyhock dolls with toothpicks and watching everything slowly, slowly morph. Juniper watched our raspberry bush like a hawk, waiting for the berries to ripen. She learned that green tomatoes are yucky and that the early peas aren’t very sweet. She is beginning to understand that, in the natural world, things take time. 

This is the bone I excavated today, part of the pelvis we think. Most of it is probably still buried. 

I TELL HER that grandfather is helping to dig up a dinosaur.

“Let me see,” she says. 

When I show her the mounds of earth, the photos of one lone bone, she is confused. 

“That’s not a dinosaur!” 

I assure her that it is, that the bones are under the earth. That you don’t have to see all of something to believe it. That things take time. And that bone by bone, that dinosaur will come up and be put whole again. 

“I want it now!” she exclaims.

It’s hard to explain patience to a 3-year-old. Her sister, at 1, is even worse. She cries as I warm her milk in the morning. I tell her it can’t warm any faster. I want to explain to them both that the best way isn’t always the fastest way. How do I teach my girls garden time? And, even slower, geologic time? 

Today’s find, part of the frill. 

WHEN I ASK my 83-year-old dad why he wants to go out and volunteer in almost 100-degree weather with no shade to do painstakingly slow work, he takes a minute to answer. 

I assure her that it is, that the bones are under the earth. That you don’t have to see all of something to believe it.

“It gives me a thrill to find a 70 million-year-old bone. And to think it’s the first time it’s seen the light of day in millions of years? How amazing is that!” His eyes light up with wonder, like Juniper’s.

For months, I’ve been asking her what she wants to be when she grows up.  

“A dinosaur!” she replies. 

What kind, I ask? 

“A big one!” and then she roars at me. 

Last week, her answer changed. 

“A roly-poly!” She folded her body into a tiny ball, shrieking with laughter. 

She may not understand time, but she appears to have the wonder part down just fine.     

Nina McConigley is a writer and professor at Colorado State University. She is the author of Cowboys and East Indians. In her “Township and Range” column, she writes about the intersection of race and family in the interior rural West. 

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