Three, sweet kids and their mom, an old friend of mine, took me on an adventure into their neighborhood woods this morning. Attempted social distancing is still difficult and awkward, and it doesn’t work in every moment, but we are humans, so we just did the best we could. The littlest of the three wasn’t quite up for the entire exploration which began by crossing their beautiful neighborhood to get to the woods path. Her dad came and picked her up, and we decided that next time we will stick to the wild area behind their home where we can spend the entire time exploring and less time walking. There is always more to discover and every day there are changes, even in the places most familiar to us.
As soon as we reached the path there were so many things I wanted to show them, and I always like to hear what the kids already know and what they enjoy in these spaces. The oldest of the three excitedly told me about all of the tiny toads they’ve been finding all over their neighborhood. We briefly examined a couple of them that had expired on the sidewalk. Before we even entered the shelter of the trees we stopped to notice and re-learn poison ivy identification. In comparing poison ivy to a wild berry cane, we discovered that the wild berry brambles were covered in the tiniest, hard, green, berries that will surely be gobbled up by animals and children alike when they ripen! I love how one small discovery opens up the next, and the next after that. We identified some oak trees and I also pointed out a terribly invasive bush called, “autumn olive.” It has a lovely name and a nice scent, but other than that it’s not much use here. It is pushing out native plants that support the native wildlife.
Moving on into the woods I could have happily left the trail for all sorts of places that beckoned to me, but I knew I wanted to first encourage the kids to show me what they connected with in this place. They spoke of an old staircase and a path to the river where someone left a fishing pole and chairs. We paused along the path to examine some decomposing logs and silver-gray beech trees. My friend shared about how ancient some of the trees are in her own yard, which reminded me to talk about how these forests are not old-growth forests, which means that all of the trees that would have been hundreds of years old here have long since been felled for timber when this area was being settled by our various ancestors. All of the trees here are relatively young compared to some of the old-growth forests of Europe. As we walked, the kids noticed and pointed out changes just since the storm we had the other day.
The kids led the way to a stairway of roots and we looked down into the flooded riverside where a huge tree had fallen, its lacework of roots now tipped on its side while virginia creeper and other vines grew over it. I could feel the child inside of me longing to scale that root system and climb aboard the old tree trunk as it lay nearly horizontal over the water. Initially, the kids seemed to hold back at the idea of wading through the ankle-deep water to reach the fallen tree, but I decided to try it myself in hopes they might follow.
After some hesitation and discussion of how they would navigate, both kids began to climb up after me from a place they felt more comfortable. Just as they began, one of my feet suddenly broke through the vines over the root cage and I found myself realizing it was more precarious than I had anticipated! This root system was unsupported from beneath, and the vines that covered it were masking multiple openings where feet could go through! I was relieved to have discovered this in time to warn z. and g. to climb with more care than I had. I mentally commended their mom for remaining calm and collected as we challenged ourselves to this climb. From our elevated perch we could see the swollen river flowing by and we looked up into the green canopy of leaves, and I took a deep, happy breath.
On our way back down, g. slipped and slid into a half-fall which scared, scraped, and startled her. In my past experience with children and in my own childhood I know that when a parent is nearby, kids tend to be more likely to cry or to look for comfort when frightened or hurt, whereas with a teacher they will often brush it off and swallow their tears. This makes perfect psychological sense! With our parents or caregivers we feel safest (or we should!) and we trust them to protect and care for us. It is easier to be emotionally vulnerable with these trusted adults than it is with an adult who is not family. I took a moment to reassure her that her tears are the body’s natural response to stress or fear, and it is important to allow ourselves to cry if we need to because we will feel better for it, and we can then move on to the next thing. I once again silently admired her mom’s composure as she gently reminded g. that she was okay, that these things happen sometimes, and that she was brave for what she did! Kids definitely look to their parents for their response, and there is nothing like a visibly freaked out or openly worried parent to make a kid feel even more scared! My friend clearly knows this and though she may have felt her own fear upon seeing g. slip and fall, she didn’t show any fear when her daughter needed her reassurance.
We had so little time left by that point, but I knew they wanted to show me the river up close, so we hurried to the other fork in the path and approached the rain-swollen river as it slipped past us. Where there is water, there is life, and I could have happily stayed there and explored some more, but our time was up so we headed back through the woods. We briefly searched under rotted log pieces for a glimpse of a salamander, but no such luck today. At some point I stopped to demonstrate how to give your hands a dirt wash, or, if there is mud, to apply mud gloves or mud mittens, so as to protect any amphibian we may handle from whatever substances we have on our hands. We did admire some iridescent green and blue damsel-flies though. g. explained that she likes to look at certain animals but not to touch them, even though she knows they can’t hurt her. I meant to tell her that the best way to learn about animals is just to observe them anyway!
One of my favorite activities in the woods is to close my eyes and shift my attention from one sense to the next, but today we hadn’t take the opportunity to do so until my friend suddenly lifted her face and sniffed, catching the sweetness of nearby wild roses blooming. She encouraged g. and z. to do the same and soon we all stood in the path just sniffing the wind. g. wasn’t sure which plant smelled so good, so I stepped off the path and broke off a small sprig of blossoms for them to sniff and take home.
The final pieces of nature information I shared for the day were related to my recent learning about trees and how some of them can communicate with each other. I would never have guessed this! Last year I read an amazing book called, “The Hidden Life of Trees,” and discovered some truly shocking and fascinating information about these ancient beings! I have always been close friends with trees, ever since I can remember, but this book opened up a whole new learning experience for me.
Next week I get to go explore even MORE of what nature has to offer with more of our local, Rockford, families. I can’t wait!
p.s. After the session was over and I returned home, my friend sent me the best text message and it made my day.
“Invitation is definitely a form of flattery… we just returned from a walk in the same woods with 5 neighbor kids and two moms. We looked for poison ivy, climbed the giant tree roots, and went off the path. The kids had a ball and (the littlest one) went the whole time with zero complaints! So fun!”