I had the great good fortune to be raised by two people who are, to this day, more at home outside than indoors. Every day, rain or shine (or blizzard), we bundled into outdoor gear or applied sunscreen and bug spray and poured out into the woods and fields around our little home in New Hampshire. The adventures that filled our days spent among the trees, alongside the brooks and scampering over the old stone walls shaped me. I learned at a young age that I was not separate from the rest of nature and, as such, was never alone. In my teen years, when confusion overwhelmed me or when our small house threatened to stifle, I would seek solace on my back under tall, waving pines.
Our early adventures also taught me that the natural world was powerful and to be respected – as a teacher, as our life source, and as something we could not actually control, despite the fact that modern society has provided us with the illusion of mastery.
Adventure. Surely it is a word that beckons to both the youngest and oldest among us, full of promise, full of enchantment.
Our young family now attempts to embark on adventures outside every day. We don’t always succeed, but the intention certainly ensures that we get outside more days than not. Sometimes our enthusiastic announcement that it’s time to go outdoors is met with grumbles, but we have found that almost always, if the adventure is interesting enough, the grumbling fades.
Here are some of our favorite adventures. These are ideal for our young kiddos in their toddler and preschool years. We also love to take hikes, walks and swims. The following adventures are ones we have found add a bit of flair while also enhancing the interaction with the world around us, deepening connection.
This is decidedly one of our stand-bys. When a walk needs a little spruce-up, or we want to deepen exploration, we make lists for each other before we begin. Our oldest makes a list for us, and we make one for her. What do we want to find and notice on this walk? We draw connections between the items on our list. And sometimes we find extra, unexpected delights that get added as bonus finds. For example, a recent wintry walk found us with noses tipped to both ground and sky as we looked for bird and squirrel tracks and certain types of trees. The bonus find was the fox tracks zig-zagging their way along our path. The scavenging tradition started very simply, when our daughter was two, riding on our shoulders as we walked our dog. “Let’s look for bearded lichen.” And she’d find it. “Can we hear a bird call?” Sure enough. I look forward to watching the scavenging evolve as our children grow.
We try not to alter the natural world around us much on our adventures, but our time spent as sculptors is an exception. Inspired by the work of Andy Goldworthy, we park ourselves in a space outside and each begin to collect natural materials that find their way into a sculpture. We can easily pass quite a bit of time in this activity and find ourselves noticing and marveling at more subtle aspects of fallen leaves, acorn tops, and rocks. We never move anything living. And one of the more delightful aspects of the sculptures is continuing to pass them on our walks and seeing how they change. We observe the shifting forces of sun, rain, wind and the way animals make use of the objects. It ends up being quite an interactive experience!
Wonder walks are a close relative to scavenger hunts. The key difference is the lack of a list. On a wonder walk, our objective is to open as many senses as possible and let the world surprise us. A wonder walk should not be taken on a tight time schedule, as slow movement and the space to unwind and allow the senses to open is essential. We might marvel at the way sap hardens around a wound in a tree’s bark, at the evidence of a “squirrel picnic” where pine cones pieces are spread across the ground (and wonder how the squirrel rips the pine cone into pieces). We might sit for a long time at the water’s edge and watch for fish leaping for flies. Knowing the answers to the many questions that unfurl on a wonder walk is not important. Curiosity itself is the point. We find the answers later.
As a child, my sister and I transformed a particular corner of the woods near our home into a small village of forts. Again with the rule that we could not disturb anything living, we moved fallen branches and small trees to configure little huts, built fireplaces with stones, and collected dried leaves, old berries, pinecones and acorns for food. As we grew older, we crafted bows and arrows. We spent hours in our forts, our imaginations meeting our love of being outside as we worked our muscles and our minds making the shelters, figuring out how to craft beds or build a small container for water. These were the most joyous hours of my childhood and it has been delightful to watch the tradition continue with my children. Our daughter found her way into the practice on her own, around age 1.5, when she started to set a “tea party” for her stuffed animals on a log, using bark and leaves and acorns. We have since worked with her to build several forts and our son was wiggling on a blanket in the fort village when he was three months old.
This is a lovely tradition we have only just begun. I keep my own nature journal, marking events like the first frost, the first call of the wood thrush or when the ice is finally gone from the pond. My daughter has started to help me in this practice. And we have expanded to get her a little sketch book she can bring, along with a few pencils, into the woods. We take a seat and we observe. We record what we see, whether in pictures, writing or something pressed between the pages. This is definitely a practice that will evolve with age.
I can be a protective parent, but I knew it was important to teach my daughter comfort in nature along with respect. So, when she was two, I began taking a seat at certain points in our walk and let her have a little solo walk on her own, whether ahead of me or back along the trail. She would not go far; her internal compass called her back to me quickly, but I did let her get out of sight if possible. She wandered just around the bend in a row of tall huckleberry bushes or a cluster of young pines. We’d often play it as a game. She’d ask me what I’d like her to fetch and brought me back a pine cone or a stick or a piece of bark. I made sure we set ourselves up so that she wouldn’t be able to go far and such that our surroundings were well-known to us both. But I knew that the distance of just a hundred feet felt huge to her young body and while I felt nervous the first few times, I made myself allow her that space. It is clear to me now that it has fostered both a sense of comfort and assurance in her and actually furthered her respect for nature. I have noticed that she only explores that which is safe and familiar when she is on her own.
And many more!
While we will continue to share our adventures as they grow, I highly recommend the book Play the Forest School Way. It is a lovely resource for outdoor adventures for children of all ages and the young-at-heart.