“It takes time—loose, unstructured dreamtime—to experience nature in a meaningful way.” – Last Child in the Woods
That quote circling through my mind, we set off into the wild… Well, our own version of the wild, that is. It’s certainly not the most remote place on earth, but this wooded hillside has its own quiet beauty that we enjoy daily. We spend as much time outside as our weekly rhythm allows for, beginning the slow trek up our side of the hill, through the overgrown meadows of wildflowers, until we finally arrive to the edge of the forest.
I want to give my little ones as much free time running about in nature as possible, because of just that dreamy state which truly does descend upon them as they experience the natural world, how things function and interconnectedness, and their own place in it all. Time and again I watch the peaceful contentment settle over their young features as we first set foot on the quiet path before us, through field or forest.
Margot quickly runs ahead of me, and I am always amazed at her confidence for one who is only just turning 3 years old at the end of summertime. She’s simply at home here. That’s all there is to it, and it makes my heart glad to see her so at ease in the natural world.
Cassian usually experiences these outings in our old, secondhand jogging stroller we have, literally held together by tightly twisted wires at this point. My sweet little boy is 1 year old now, and I simply cannot babywear him in the carrier for our hours long excursions anymore (maybe that’s a reflection on my own lack of upper body strength though, ha), not to mention all the additional necessities: snacks, water, diapers, a blanket and book, and at least a couple of baskets for wildcrafting herbs or nature treasures to bring home with us.
We may be out for a couple of hours, but that doesn’t mean we cover much ground necessarily. We walk at a slow pace, stopping whenever something catches Margot’s eye. Bugs are of course still the main attraction these woodlands have to offer for my little girl. One of our favourite moments this summer was finding a lively stream of ants weaving in and out through the carved paths of the bark of a tall tree. We sat for such a long while simply watching their activities and wondering all about them.
Margot always has the sweetest thoughts about the bugs too:
Margot: “What’s that? A house buggy. What’s his name?”
Me: “I don’t know! What do you think?
Margot: “He wants to talk to me.”
“Bye Mr. Beetle!”
Sometimes it’s just a simple flower or an acorn, or the slow, steady drip of tree sap that catches Margot’s eye, but either way we stop and turn things over in our hands. We admire its beauty up close, also sharing it with little Cassian who appreciates these bits of nature brought to him in the stroller, until we stop and take a break somewhere and let him out of for a bit of one-year-old-sized adventuring of his own.
Often, in the dimly lit areas underneath the branches of aging Pine and Fir trees, we gathered together all the various kinds of cones to be found. Margot will crouch there sorting and arranging, her mind quietly at work.
This has led us to a new nature activity this summer: collections! Gathering and placing items into her basket has become a great woodland task, Margot bright-eyed and eagerly searching. It usually begins with her discovering a small nature treasure, and I then encourage her to find more if she likes and place them in her basket we brought along.
And we’ve formed wonderful collections of sticks, leaves, pine needles, rocks, young green acorns, spiky balls, flowers, early autumn berries, shells, and pinecones of all sorts. I love watching her mind at work as she sets about this tiny nature explorer’s purpose.
All this collecting provides for the perfect opportunity to gently practice number counting in an organic way too. We’ll carefully count each item, either in English, or more recently we’ll use it as a moment to practice the Hungarian language Margot is starting to learn since we moved here. I’m so proud of her as she quietly counts: “Egy, Kettő, Három, Négy, Öt”.
I’ve also been asking leading questions of Margot, to support her wondering and observation. What can you hear? What can you smell? What can you see? I especially love asking what colors she sees, and then hearing her answers sometimes in English, and also sometimes in Hungarian. It’s so rewarding to listen to, admiring her steady progress in learning another language on top of her own mother tongue.
“It’s a big wind.”
“I’m tweetin’ the birds! Tweet-tweet!”
Or, my absolute favourite, when she notices something unprompted, and before even I notice it too:
“I hink I hear an owl!” (‘hink’ is her cute pronounciation of ‘think’. Gets me every time!)
One thing I love about being in the forest is the multitude of textures, surfaces, and patterns there are for us to touch and explore. Moss-covered rocks, ridged tree bark, and an endless variety of plants growing at our feet, offering up fuzz, spikes, bumps, softness, smoothness, and crispness.
The forest is also the perfect playground for larger movement than our small apartment can afford. There are endless tree stumps to climb on and even low branches to hang from, and always the narrow path to dart ahead and explore. The uneven surface provides for lots of balancing and a few tumbles, but Margot is quickly learning to be steady on her feet.
One of my biggest goals for these early childhood years is to never hold the kids back with what they can do or how they can use their bodies, but to also never push them past their comfort. Just as I want them to learn to balance well, I have to balance my expectations and encouragements. I never want them to be afraid or limited in their efforts, nor to feel that more is expected of them than they are able.
And I also want to take a moment to teach how to do something, rather than doing it for them. If I can teach Margot how to scramble up a steep surface or to climb a tree, she can then do it from that point onwards by herself, rather than always needing me there to do it for her. I love seeing the confidence in my children’s eyes as they learn to do something for the first time, mastering new skills of their own. I’m endlessly amazed at what feats my tiny little ones can accomplish.
The forest is turning into the ultimate backdrop for Margot’s imagination too. The fantastic adventures this girl comes up with! And even the seemingly mundane activities that entertain her at great length. Everything from dramatic, super-powered exploration, to a thirty minute “farming” session as she hoes or rakes leaves and low bushes, hard at work on her crops. It’s hilarious and wonderful to watch, my own thoughts and the world of the adult being sifted down into the present, joyful moment, here, just learning about life and practicing the imitation of it.
I love this quote from Last Child in the Woods:
“Nature inspires creativity in a child by demanding visualization and the full use of the senses.”
It’s so incredibly accurate. Using the tools of sticks and pine needles and more, this little girl regularly shapes a world around herself. She becomes a cleaning person diligently sweeping and scrubbing, a worker digging great depths, a camper and her cozy campfire, a photographer with her camera (imitating me, no doubt!), and a farmer with her farming equipment and tools. And I watch her use those sticks and pine needles to form anything in her mind that her playing requires: umbrellas, balloons, musical instruments, tools, knitting needles, and more…. One of my favourites being when Margot decided to “paint” all my fingernails and toenails with her little flower-bud brush.
We’ve had a wondrous, full summertime spent in these woodlands, exploring to greater depths all that God has created, quietly waiting for our notice. And we’ve made so much time for that this summer, and I see the benefits and rewards in our lives so clearly. We always return from the forest, knitted closer together in our hearts and to Creation, and in an intimate communion with God.