I am an extremely lucky teacher. Our school is located directly adjacent to miles of hiking trails. At least once a week, my co-teacher and I take our children beyond the black wire fence of our playground and into the woods, where we create our own playground. The way my children interact with each other and with the non-humans in the woods gives me hope for a harmonious relationship between all living things. Simultaneously, watching my children play gives me insight into the power of wonder and beauty in the world.
When we leave the confines of our school grounds, a transformation occurs in my children. Everyone seems more relaxed. Challenging behaviors decrease in frequency and intensity. Creativity increases. We all smile more. Playing in the woods encourages children to develop along multiple dimensions. They develop coordination as they navigate around the roots and rocks on the trails. As they navigate tree branches as they climb or balance on a log, they are developing problem-solving skills. They learn to distinguish between the subtleties in different plants, which eventually helps them discriminate between subtleties in letters, encouraging literacy development. When they are working together to carry a fallen branch from one side of the field to the other, they are developing communication and cooperation skills. I could go on. Being outdoors does amazing things for the growing child. And the rest of us.
I find the most inspiration in the way that my children transform the natural world. We go on destination hikes. We hike for a distance (anywhere from 200 yards to 1.5 miles), and then we settle down in one area to play. It is hard to explain the sheer depth of play that I see in these locations. The most creative play I have ever seen has occurred in the woods. Rocks, sticks, logs, and leaves are all nondescript objects that can be interpreted however the children need to interpret. The same log that was a solid wall for a zebra cage at the zoo one week becomes seats in a movie theater the next.
I recently re-visited Rachel Carson’s essay The Sense of Wonder. I highly recommend this read to anyone who is passionate about young children, nature, or things that are beautiful. Carson reflects on her experiences seeing her young nephew interact with nature. She notices the deep respect and wonder he carries with him in the woods. She believes that young children have an innate capacity to absorb powerful experiences through their senses, and to maintain a strong sense of magic and mystery.
I undoubtedly see this same sense of wonder when I take my children into the woods. They notice things that I glance over. There is a small creek that flows behind one of our natural playgrounds. Too often I see it as a nuisance; I constantly have to figure out if it would be a bigger battle to keep the children out of the creek, or to convince them to change their shoes when we get back to school. But, many of my children have figured out that if they stir the creek very slowly, they can see the way that flecks of mica make the water sparkle. As Carson says, “And then, there is the world of little things… Many children, perhaps because they themselves are small and closer to the ground than we, notice and delight in the small and inconspicuous.” So, I let them play in the creek. I don’t want to stop them from noticing the little things.
Young children are said to have “their own private dream world.” I have noticed that the natural world tends to mesh extremely well with their dream world. A few weeks ago, my co-teacher and I took our children hiking, even though there was a high chance of rain. One moment, we noticed that the clouds were darkening, and we heard some drops hit the trees. We started wondering if it was raining, and if we should head back before we all got soaked. But one of our girls spoke up and said, “No, it’s not raining. The trees are just laughing.” We decided to stay in the woods. We couldn’t disappoint the happy trees.
I see a sense of wonder as being one of the most important BrainPowers to combat some of the mindsucks of our current culture. It is too easy to get caught up in a big-picture world. Mundane details just distract us from our product-oriented mindset. Our increased dependance on technology practically removes any room for exploration or connection. Too often, we are rushed and stressed, and feeling overwhelmed with life. I feel that Carson is spot-on when she speaks of the benefits of nurturing your sense of wonder. “Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life. Whatever the vexations or concerns of their personal lives, their thoughts can find paths that lead to inner contentment and to the renewed excitement in living.” Perhaps taking time to appreciate the mystery will be just the panacea we need for our stress.
My suggestion for you would be to take a young child into the woods. If you don’t have one yourself, I have some you can borrow. Make sure you stop walking for a while. Allow this child to be a child. Watch for what your child is watching. Feel what this child is feeling. Allow them to get wet. Allow yourself to get wet. Take some time to climb trees. Your child will reap the benefits long-term. And you will too.
“If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life.” -Rachel Carson, Sense of Wonder