I am the mom of three boys, each two years apart (almost). We are an outdoorsy family. We live in suburbia, and since we don’t have a large wild space directly connected to our home, we go in search of it. From the time I was able to walk after giving birth to our first child, I have been wandering in the woods, on a mostly daily basis, with my babes. Nestled in the sling, strapped on my back, sitting in the stroller, wandering at my side, or running far ahead or behind, we get to the woods.
Last year, when my oldest first started to attend school all day every day, I continued that routine. One Saturday, as I was pondering the happenings of the previous week, I realized that he had not spent any time in the forest yet that week. At all! But the other boys, the dog and I had been there four times. This didn’t seem right to me. Being in the forest together was something that we had always done, was an important part of how we spent our precious time, and informed the way we interact with the rest of the world and each other, how the kids create in their artwork and imaginative play. I could not imagine leaving my big boy out. Something had to be done. I decided that besides our usual weekend family forays into the wild, we would commit to getting there, all kids in tow, at least once a week.
After school time is a very special time for my family, and many other families as well. Families are reunited, siblings and friends catch up, parents and caregivers have a chance to help kids run off some energy and shake off their focus before they need to return indoors to continue with the days commitments. For the boys’ sake, and my own, I was reluctant to pull us away from the gang every week.
I decided that the only solution was to bring the gang to the forest with us. My boys attend a neighbourhood school adjacent to a park. There are 800+ students and it’s not unusual for 200 or so to be around and about for a good chunk of time when the school day is done. That’s a lot of friends to invite to a weekly forest party! I didn’t expect to get everyone (though what a treat that would be!) but I knew I could get some. I printed a map of the forested area that we planned to walk to, wrote up an invitation and explanation, printed up copies, had the boys help me add some colour, and we started to distribute.
We handed out 18 Woodsy Wednesday invitations, and waited — but not for long. That first week we had seven families join us. Yesterday we had a crew of four parents and 15 kids. I think we’ve had 10 families in total join us, and the invitation is, of course, always open. A new gang joined us for the first time yesterday. We wander through every season except summer (a time when many families take a break from yearlong commitments, us included). We’ve been there in snow, frost, rain, wind, and glorious sunshine, often almost till dark.
The forest where we gather is a bit of a lucky castoff — in between zones and near a water treatment pond, it can’t be easily developed, and hopefully won’t be for many years. The trail is only about two km. long, and less than one km. wide with various paths zig-zagging and dissecting it. It is the epitome of the perfect kids’ forest. It is a sacrificial wild place, and essential to helping these kids grow up in so many ways. Here, they are able to dig holes, to drag fallen branches around, to throw rocks at targets, to build bridges and moats, to climb as high as they can reach. Their only boundaries are their imaginations. Except for a few reminders for each others’ safety and to make sure no live branches are broken, anything goes.
Occasionally we bring a few shovels or rakes with us, but usually the only tools or toys around are whatever one can imagine and create from the surroundings. With such an open approach and such a friendly atmosphere, each week is a surprise.
We’ve seen children climb dangerously high out of reach, and make it safely back down, over and over again. We’ve seen bodies so muddy and wet (and happy) that they’ve biked home in their underwear. We’ve seen one sled turn into a rocket ship, with three kids sliding down on it and eight helping pull it up to get the next ride. We’ve witnessed the creation of coal mines, oil rigs, steam engines, school rooms, and restaurants. They’ve built bridges, destroyed bridges, helped mend broken bridges, thrown rocks and sticks from bridges, walked balance beam style across the railings of bridges, and squeezed down to skate under them. We’ve been visited by kings and queens, Robin Hood, hockey players, jungle creatures, construction workers, and many hunters. We’ve left food for the groundhogs, the squirrels, the birds, the slugs, and the fairies.
Many things make this time and this place special.
:: It connects the parents to our own childhoods. If we are not helping to find tools or building the fort, we are probably holding on to the really important sticks that will be needed later. We remember how much we wandered as children, and who we wandered with and what we did. We laugh and reminisce and remember.
:: We give our kids a chance to go, and be. Returning to the same place over and over again gives the little ones (as young as one year) a chance to be familiar with the place and each other, eliminating the over-stimulation, caution, and chaos that can happen when a new situation is introduced. All of the parents and kids know each other too, so even if we all get spread out, if a child gets hurt or needs help, someone will come who knows what to do, and the help will be accepted. Last year, we realized that three girls five and under were out of sight and probably had been for a while, maybe 10 minutes. Instead of worrying, we called them and walked a little. They soon returned, sharing stories of their adventure and making plans for their next. We weren’t worried, and neither were they. They felt comfortable enough in their wild place to go away from their grown-ups for a while, and then were able easily to find their way back.
:: It’s in the neighbourhood. We can all walk to the trail from school, then home from there. That is the biggest gift of all. We could pack ourselves into the van, bring a picnic, and head to one of the provincial parks nearby, and we often do on the weekend. That is an event. None of us — the kids or the parents — is in need of an event after school on Wednesday. What we need is a place to let loose and breathe easy and let our kids and our minds wander, before we head home for dinner, and the rest of the day’s routine.
It is (relatively) easy to convince a toddler to follow your lead — just bring them along. Getting my kids into the forest was simple before school started. I would go, and of necessity, they would come with me. After cleaning up breakfast we would pack a snack and spend the morning out. Finding time as they get older could be more difficult. It is really important to me that these regular visits that helped my boys become so familiar with our wild places remain a part of the norm and not something special we only do when we’re not busy doing everything else. Committing ourselves to getting there after school has made it a habit and part of our weekly rhythm.
Bringing our friends along and sticking to it has worked so far. When the school year ended, so did our weekly wanders, but in the first week of resumed classes this fall we were lining up our schedules to make sure we continue the tradition. We all need it — everyone.
I had a few hopes when I initially sent out forest invitations. I needed to make sure that school did not displace time in wild places in the lives of my children. I also hoped that a few friends might be able to strengthen their own, and their children’s connection to nature. It seems to have worked. On a regular basis, a child or two will find me in the schoolyard in the morning, to ask if my boys and I are going to the forest today. I almost always am able to say yes.
Simple Forest Fort Tutorial
When we started our outings last year, I was uncertain how much help to adjust to the woods some of the kids (and their parents) might need. My boys and I selected a spot in the forest, close to one of the entry points and just off the trail, to construct a rudimentary fort. The design was basic enough that anyone (including toddlers) could help build it, it was sturdy enough to withstand strong wind and snow. While many adults really did enjoy helping out, the kids could construct it, modify it, and repair it, completely on their own. It is a simple, satisfying, and fun activity that children of all ages can participate in.
Begin by finding or creating a base structure- we chose a sturdy fallen branch that crossed a live trunk. Other options include against a large boulder, the side of an overhanging hill, or creating an A-frame or tepee from deadwood.
Gather large branches and fallen trunks of young trees, and lean them against the base structure. Our little ones worked hard together to carry these large pieces of wood. Once the larger branches are in place as supports, smaller and smaller branches can be put in place until, before their eyes…a shelter has emerged!
My family and I were delighted to see that another similar fort was constructed in the same woods later that year. It was more intricate and obviously loved. We played there ourselves a few times, and gathered play and structure ideas that we transferred back to our original building. It felt good to know that the effort to help our children to spend more time in nature had affected strangers as well.
Sonja Lukassen used to get paid to bring city-folk into the forest. Now she does it with her family and friends in Ottawa, Canada. She blogs about their exploits and shares ideas at Kids in The Forest.