A few weeks ago I got to take twelve girls, grades 1-3, into a local woods to celebrate one of the girls’ birthday. She and her sister were both former Woods and Wetlands explorers from my summer sessions and they were so excited to share their love of nature-play and exploration with their friends. It’s always a bit of a gamble to do this. It is one thing when my group is comprised of explorers who have chosen to sign up for an adventure in the woods and we have spent 8 mornings together developing relationship bonds. It is quite another when the group is made up of 2 of those former explorers and 10 who are totally new to the situation. Not to mention, we chose Luton Park rather than Camp Rockford, so even the location was new to Birthday Girl and her sister.
And…. they loved it! At least, most of them appeared to be enjoying themselves. They walked on logs, sniffed skunk cabbage, examined daddy longlegs, climbed a tree, and waded down the creek. At first, a couple of the girls were nervous, unsure about stepping into a creek, getting wet, getting muddy. I held a some hands for a while, and assured them they didn’t have to do anything they didn’t feel comfortable doing. But of course they wanted to do what the majority were doing, so they summoned some bravery and went for it!
On our way back through the woods in the last 15 minutes or so, our group drifted a bit, some hanging back to play along the path, others talking animatedly to me in the middle of the pack, and a few ranging ahead of us, still in sight but out of range for conversation. I can no longer remember what prompted them, but a few of the girls up ahead began to yip and howl like coyotes. Soon the girls in my “pod” caught on and tipped back their heads and joined in the choral howling. In a few moments the stragglers around the curve of the trail behind us added their voices. With all the girls howling, I found myself grinning, listening to them mingling strong, full, confident voices.
After a few long moments, it occurred to me that all of their parents would be waiting in the parking lot, preparing cupcakes and assembling gift bags. My lifelong what will other people think?! voice kicked on in my head. What if they thought the girls were in trouble or needed help? What if someone reported their unnervingly authentic coyote howls? Before I could process these thoughts as ridiculous anxiety, I hushed the girls, stealing their voices while they were still mid-howl.
I spent much of the next few days kicking myself, wishing I had let them howl to their hearts’ content. My regret continues, even now. I can’t take it back. I can’t give back that chance for them to feel powerful, connected, safe, and joyous out there in the wild. I knew better. I knew that young children should be allowed to play out to a finish what engages their interest, no matter how meaningless it may seem to adults. I knew that they would stop on their own when they were ready. I guess I felt there was a kind of feminine power being expressed that day; girls were showing that they could be loud, be strong, be wild. It may seem like a small thing to most who read this. But to me it was a mistake I couldn’t make right. I could, however, learn from it. I promised myself that the next time my Woods and Wetlands explorers were engaged in an activity that was harming no one, even if others might disapprove, I would step back and let them Be.