My children and I try to spend as much time in the forest as we can. Winter is actually my favorite time to explore (no bugs), but I know most people find the Spring the ideal time for a forest romp. I'm not an experienced hiker. To be honest, I am not even really the outdoorsy-type. But, I love to get my kids playing outside in nature. We are very lucky to live within minutes of the South Mountain Reservation, with access to deep, dense woods and beautiful trails. My children have a favorite spot in the woods and we almost always go there. A few times I have insisted that we try a new spot or hike a new path, but it never works out as well as when I follow their lead, and take them to their favorite spot.
Here's what I've learned over the past few years of regular trips in to the forest with my own kids:
- Follow your children's lead, return to familiar spots. I like the idea that I have the lay of the land. It gives me more confidence to allow the children to roam. (I'm always a tiny bit nervous when we are in an area that I am unfamiliar with and they run off to play.) Remember, nature is always reworking the backdrop so you don't have to. New trees have fallen, the river has frozen or it is bone-dry. There are new treasures to discover depending on the weather, so returning to the same spot never gets old.
- Set up camp, even if you don't plan to stay long. I bring a sturdy blanket or mat. The children know where to find me and where to come to rest or snack. I usually lay out a few pencils and clipboards for writing and drawing, and of course, snacks and water. Depending on her mood, my youngest will sit with me or play very nearby where she can see me. Sometimes she brings her little toy mice and sets them up to play in the leaves and sticks.
- Insist on proper gear. There is nothing worse than getting all set up, and your kid gets wet or muddied and is crying to go home. Water pants and proper footwear (although in the summer my crew is almost always barefoot) will keep them warm, dry, and protect them from ticks. If you know us, you know that all three of my kids have long hair, and a lot of it. I insist on hair being tied back, and I prefer they wear a hat or head scarf.
- I pack a backpack full of supplies... and the children to carry it. They are just as responsible for our gear as I am. I refuse to be their sherpa. It makes me cranky and you know how that goes. When mom is not feeling it, everyone's mood heads south. The children take turns with the backpack and I pitch in as well.
- Know your limits. Know your children's limits. As moms, we are pretty good at gauging the amount of time we have left until one or all of the kids melt. Do not push that limit in the woods. Remember, you still have to hike out. Pack up camp on a high note, that will make the trek back to the car much more pleasant.
- Have rules. Stick to them. When we are heading in, I always remind the kids that they absolutely MUST listen to me on the FIRST ASK and come the FIRST time I call them. I want to allow them some freedom, but it is still my most important job to keep them safe. The forest is wonderful, but not without risk. I need to know that if I see an off-leash dog or any other questionable situation, that my kids will listen to me without question. We talk about this every single time we are heading into the woods and there are no opportunities for second chances here. If they do not comply, we leave. Immediately. That is the natural consequence. It is a huge disappointment, but they must know that I will follow through.
- Check for ticks. When we arrive back at our car, the kids are usually spent. I do a quick tick check before they get in. And a more thorough one when we return home.
Do you like to adventure into the forest with your kids? Do you have advice for us? Please share in the comments below.