Call it a consequence of the long New England thaw, or call it the residual effect of an early life spent at camp; whatever the reason, the call of the summer wild is a joyous and loud cry, and my family answers it gleefully.
I attended camp loyally as a child, and then I was a camp counselor for many years. My favorite class I both attended and taught was nature. I was given free reign to teach campers about whatever inspired me that day, so we spent many an hour tromping around in creek beds and mud pits. I became somewhat infamous for returning campers to their parents with more dirt per square inch of skin than ever before, and I relished my role in providing the children their opportunity for “dirt therapy.”
Now that I have my own kids, I cherish our unstructured time together in the woods, when we interact with the natural world following our own special rhythm of the day. The joy of discovery is written on my children’s peaceful faces. They splash, they giggle, they dig, they whisper, they collect and keep. Alongside the wonderful rambling excursions, I also share with them my favorite structured wilderness activities: quiet exploration; tree identification by smell, sight, and texture; making tea and bark rope; and creating a scavenger hunt in the woods.
Using your senses is an important skill for wilderness explorers. Before I even start pointing out features of nature to my kids, I first find a comfortable spot on the forest floor and sit quietly for a few minutes. Without any words shared between us, my kids mimic my behavior and sit quietly too. Watching a normally rambunctious toddler sit calmly in the woods for minutes on end without an eye-catching story or television program to keep her attention is a pleasant sight for this simplicity-minded mom.
A second quiet activity is stalking. You’ll be amazed by the critters who will pop out for a visit if your children learn the art of quiet observation. Small children will not have the patience for the stalking game, so this one is for the older kids (aged about 6 years and up) and if you have at least three participants. Blindfold one person and place him/her, i.e. the “stalkee,” in the center of an imaginary circle in the woods. Teach your stalkers to use proper form: low center of gravity, limbs held close to body, achieve balance prior to walking, and use a toe-heel placement when taking a step. Uneven terrain is fine and can add an element of difficulty to the challenge. Typically, the stalkers all start from the same distance from the center at different points around the circle, but you can make up whatever rules you like!
Tree Identification by Sight, Smell, and Texture
Tree identification is a life-long pursuit for my husband and me, and I am enthusiastic about passing along the pastime to our kids. If you don’t yet have a guide book, I highly recommend purchasing one to assist identification; my favorite is the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees: Eastern Region. You can identify trees and leaves by sight alone, but adding the elements of touch and smell make the activity both more fun and memorable.
The species below are trees you will find in the forest that you may or may not see in your backyard; I also recommend teaching your kids the frequently observed ornamental varieties as you are out and about. I am amazed at my four-year-old daughter’s ability to remember the ones I’ve told her and repeat them to me as well as spot new ones of the same species.
Here are some of the more easily identifiable trees to include for each of the categories: (note: I am mostly familiar with trees of eastern North America, but some of these trees will be found in western parts as well)
By Sight (Leaves)
All conifers: Pine, Juniper, Hemlock
Older children can also begin to identify more difficult leaves by their arrangement (e.g. opposite/parallel or alternate/spiral) and edge/margin (e.g. smooth or serrated). Good leaves for older children to identify are:
By Smell (when a leaf is bruised/crushed)
Sassafras (leaf and root both have a smell)
Conifers: Pine, Juniper, Hemlock
A garden is a great place for identifying leaves by smell; here are a few of my favorite garden plants:
By Bark Texture (another great blindfolding activity for older kids)
Another fun challenge for older kids is to parents to present a homemade “seeker” award (e.g. a pretty feather or rock as the charm) to whoever identifies a rare American Chestnut tree.
Making Useful Items: Tea and Rope
Tea: When I was a child, we used to make sumac tea at camp. As an adult, I’ve learned that even the non-poisonous variety of sumac berries we used could have potentially been toxic. I’m leading with this information because you should be wary of making tea from wild edibles unless you have done your homework and feel confident you understand the skill involved and potential danger. My favorite plant from which to make tea is a sassafras sapling. Because the root of the plant must be used, thereby killing the plant, I always look to be sure there are numerous other trees of the like in the area prior to harvesting the root. To make tea: remove the root from the plant, clean it, and simmer it in water (not boiling) for approximately 10-15 minutes. Add some honey, and you end up with a tea that tastes similar to root beer. Kids love it!
Rope: Whenever I am backpacking, I am always the tinder-maker, seeking out some dry cedar or tulip bark (depending on where we are) to help start our evening fire. If you have ever done this activity with tulip bark, you are on your way to making rope. When a tulip limb is sufficiently brown, you will know it is ready to use for rope because the bark will peel away from the tree easily. Strip the long pieces from the inside of the bark and soak them quickly in water. Find the center of a piece and begin twisting the two halves in opposite directions; then coil the segments around each other as you go. You can add graft-twist new pieces into the rope to make it longer. E-how provides another longer explanation. The children may want to make bark-rope bracelets and necklaces. It’s a fun project, and you can even weave strips of colorful bandanas into or around your rope. Be creative!
Forest Scavenger Hunt
If you have a local wilderness sanctuary, see if they offer a seasonal kids’ scavenger hunt. Our local garden in the woods provides an already-printed version with regional/season-specific items to find, so when we’re there, I request an extra copy to bring home with us. If you don’t have such a resource, you can find plenty of good ideas online, or you can involve your kids in the process and make your own list of items, like these examples:
A leaf that’s bigger than your head and another smaller than your thumb
A good hiding place
Something: red, blue, orange, purple, etc.
Something with a strong scent
A heart/diamond-shaped rock
An item for every letter of the alphabet
In an era full of ubiquitous electronics and viral news, I feel lucky my children are as in love with nature as I am. When given uninterrupted access to the outdoors for at least a few hours, it is our instinct to play in the wild and get dirty, helping us to simplify and slow down our fast-paced modern world. My daughter will attend summer camp at a farm for the first time this year, and it’s my ardent hope she comes home dirtier than ever before.
The summer wild is calling our names.
Justine Uhlenbrock is an urban homesteader, a minimalist mom, a writer, and a doula-in-training living with her husband and two young girls in Arlington, Massachusetts. She is passionate about sustainable living, health, frugality, and her quest for real food and family heirloom recipes. She blogs at The Lone Home Ranger.