The Big Epic

Connect with Nature - One Adventure at a Time

Category: Outdoor Adventures (page 1 of 14)

Let’s Raise Brave Kids (and forget “risky play”)

I want my children to enjoy adventure and be brave enough to try new things and explore new places. How about you?! This post is Part III in a series about raising brave kids and getting our kids outside. Don’t miss Part I and Part II.)

“Risky Play” versus “Brave Kids” – who cares which words we use? Is there some reason one of these phrases is better than the other? Isn’t this just a matter of personal opinion? I argue that we should all stop using the currently common phrase “risky play.” Words matter – they often invoke significant positive or negative emotional responses. Parents and “experts” around the world are discussing the importance of outdoor play for children. (See bottom of post for list of countries talking this topic.) Let’s explore how our words and actions can support our adventurous kids to better enjoy being outside.

joy in being outside

Let’s start by defining what we mean by “Brave Kids.” The words “risky play” imply danger and a need to protect our kids. Obviously, we are not eager to support dangerous behavior. On the other hand, we DO want our children to enjoy adventures, using curiosity and experimentation to explore the world around them. Although this type of discovery-based-learning has the potential for physical injury, it is also a natural and necessary part of children’s play which helps develop many significant skills and attributes.

brave kids jump glacier run-off

That’s a fine definition, but let’s go beyond the dictionary. Here are some examples of helpful activities to build adventurous brave kids. Most of us want our children to learn to walk, ride a bicycle, and swim. These are seen as important developmental milestones in our culture even though they involve risks of physical injury. Generally, we accept activities such as climbing, swinging, sliding, balancing, jumping, and hanging, especially if these things are done on a “safe” playground. It’s rarer for parents to encourage making fires, using a knife, or practicing the above behaviors in wild nature places. We need to let our kids roll down hills, climb trees, swing on vines, slide down rocks, balance on logs, jump off boulders and hang upside-down from branches! And we need to teach them how to safely make fires and use a knife.

brave kids climb rocks

But why should we allow “risky play” when it makes us anxious? What are the benefits of raising “Brave Kids”? I discussed this in more detail in Part I of this series (found HERE). In addition to the many physical, emotional, social, and academic benefits of encouraging outside time for our children, raising kids who enjoy adventure helps them appropriately judge risks, learn to try new things, and strengthens their self-confidence. It may be counter-intuitive but allowing our children to engage in exploratory play can even reduce their risk of injury!

That’s nice…but I don’t want my son or daughter to get hurt! How can I raise brave kids but still keep them safe? Like many aspects of parenting, this is a balancing act. We need to determine what is actually “dangerous” versus things that have an acceptable level of manageable risk. Then we need to train our children in how to make these judgements for themselves.

First, we need to look at ourselves. What are our own fears? What activities did we grow up doing? What things were we stopped from doing when we were kids? All of this plays into what we consider to be “dangerous.”

teen skiing at Killington VT

Here’s an example of how our own childhoods affect our beliefs and actions: my family grew up snow skiing in Vermont every year. We loved this special time together (and, of course, did not consider it to be dangerous.) In the summers, we sometimes went canoeing. That, too, was considered safe, but ONLY if we knew how to swim and wore effective life jackets. And then we grew up. My brother-in-law eventually joined us on family ski trips. We were quite surprised to find out that his family considered downhill skiing to be quite dangerous. After all, celebrities had died on the slopes! On the other hand, he and his dad and brothers went fishing in Canada each year—out on the water with no life vests even though they didn’t know how to swim. Now THAT was dangerous (in our opinion!)

brave kids and grandma hiking on the AT

Once we clearly see who we are and how our own upbringing has shaped us, we need to take time to consider the individual personalities of each of our children. This one is a risk taker, that one hates to try anything new. This one seems to always get hurt, that one is very aware of what her body can do. This one loves to be outdoors, that one hates the bugs and the cold or the hot sun. This one thrives on experiential learning, the other one prefers to learn from books or to watch others for awhile before trying things for himself.

What is our role as caregivers? We start by affirming our responsibilities as parents. Our job in all arenas of life is to give our children freedom to pursue their interests and build needed skills for healthy adulthood. This requires our support, encouragement and training/discipline to help them learn new things, make good decisions and manage risks and difficulties. As parents, we, of course, must protect our children from dangerous things which are genuine threats to their health and safety while still teaching them how to manage appropriate risks.

We need to find a balance in raising adventurous brave kids—not being overprotective nor negligent; not limiting necessary exploration nor pushing children into things they aren’t ready for; not making them fearful nor allowing them to be in genuine danger. This is where we need to remember what we learned about our tendencies and about our children’s personalities. Like most other areas of parenting, how we best support our children varies depending on individual strengths, fears, and personal preferences (theirs and ours!)

child wading in a stream

We also need to remember that getting bumps, bruises or scratches is not imminent danger. Nor is getting dirty or wet something to be avoided at all costs. When we head outdoors, we can plan ahead and bring a change of clothes, some towels, and a small first-aid kit. Learning to overcome small difficulties builds resilience to handle bigger challenges later in life!

Now that we know ourselves, and we know our kids, we can find the best ways to support each child in trying new adventures!

As stated at the beginning, words matter! Let’s guard our tongues and limit phrases such as “Stop!” “That’s dangerous!” or “Be careful!” These statements might make us feel better, but they are too general to actually teach our children safe practices. In addition, when we express our anxiety, we teach our children that we do not trust them, that they can’t handle challenges, or that we are the only ones capable of making good decisions. Instead, we need to use positive language to help our children consider what might happen next. (This article gives excellent suggestions of specific phrases and questions which help build confident kids.)   

Instead of hovering over our children (which exhausts us and them), we can build their skills and their confidence by offering our help without being pushy. As they demonstrate good decision-making and appropriate actions, we gradually give them more freedom. To support them as adventurous explorers, we can:

  • Model behaviors/attitudes about being outdoors and trying new things
  • Teach skills incrementally with supervision and grant greater freedoms gradually
  • Stay close enough to monitor their behavior but only step in if necessary
  • When we are uncomfortable with what our children are doing, take a 17 second pause to determine if this activity is an immediate danger or has manageable risks
  • Choose skill-building words (as discussed above) to support our kids

teen at a campfire

Let’s close with a step-by-step example: even though I’m terrified of simply lighting a match, my daughter Andowen became an expert campfire-maker while we were on our first long backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail. Her mentor was a fellow hiker named “Blaze.” Each evening when we met up at a shelter, Blaze took Andowen with him to find appropriate tinder, kindling, and larger fuel in the surrounding woods. He had her sort it into piles near the fire-pit. He showed her how to stack the wood and how to light it without firestarters. Eventually, he had her try it under his supervision. And, of course, he taught her about keeping a safe distance from open flames and how to fully dowse the embers at the end of the evening. After many days of practicing with Blaze, the time came that we were alone at a shelter. Andowen was quite proud when she made us a campfire all by herself. (I quietly kept a close eye on her safety from a few feet away.) We took a photo of that fire, and when we showed it to Blaze later, he dubbed her the “Mistress of the Flame.” I’m still fearful of lighting birthday candles, but my daughter has the skills, confidence, and good judgment to make campfires for everyone to enjoy!

Now it’s your turn! What will you try from this post as you work to raise your own “Brave Kids” who pursue adventures?

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(Read about why I make sure to take my child in the woods…)

(When I did research for this post, I found significant discussion from multiple countries about how to support children while they safely and independently explore the outdoors. Articles were posted from Australia, Canada, Germany, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, UK, and the USA. Books about similar parenting choices include “There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather”  in Sweden, and “Achtung Baby”  in Germany.)

How to Get Your Kids Outside

I want my children to enjoy adventure and be brave enough to try new things and explore new places. How about you?! This post is Part II in a series about raising brave kids and getting our kids outside. Don’t miss Part I and Part III.)

By now, you’ve heard all the reasons you should get your kids outside on a regular basis. (If you need more convincing, read my recent blog post about the many benefits of nature connection for children.) You want to do things that are good for your family, but you might have no clue how to make it fun for your kids. Some of us loved being outdoors in our own childhood, but the complete freedom to wander that we experienced doesn’t feel possible today. Others may never have been comfortable outside. So how in the world can you begin to add enjoyable nature time to the life of your family?

Let’s start with a little humor. Take a moment and read the infographic in this blog post to learn how to Work Hard to Avoid Nature Connection! (Shhh! Don’t let your kids read this one. It might give them ammo for their arguments to just stay inside…) Your first steps to getting kids outside can be simply to do the OPPOSITE of everything listed in that chart! Haha!

yoga poses, balance on rocks

Let your children have time to FREE PLAY outside. No worries! This idea doesn’t require skill or (much) planning. Simply find a local park, forest trail, or nature area and let your kids play freely with what they discover. More and more parks are including a “natural playground” area with logs to build with and rocks to climb. Stay near them if you are worried for their safety; but try to resist a constant chorus of “oh be careful!” “Johnny, stop that!” “Suzie, you might get hurt!” Let them climb on rocks, splash in a shallow stream, jump in a mud puddle, pick up sticks, and use their imagination in an outdoor setting. (To allow more freedom, you might want to bring towels and a change of clothes and shoes for when they are finished playing!) 

kids outside, running on dirt path

All of you might enjoy the opportunity to EXPLORE NEW TRAILS. Ask around and find a local park that has walking trail(s). Bonus points for no pavement! Ask your kids to stay within your eyesight, even when the route is fairly even and flat. Often, they will be more excited about exploring if they can be in the lead. This might be less worrisome for you if you find a simple loop trail with no intersections that might be confusing. (You and your kids might enjoy joining our Lego Tiny-Mes as they explore the woods and go on a bear hunt!)

girl by tree, in the woods

Consider whether or not you and your kids would find it fun to LEARN about NATURE. For some of us, more information is a good thing. For others, simply being free to experience the outdoor setting is more enticing. There are many resources for identifying trees, wildflowers, and animals/tracks. If you want broader background knowledge of the outdoors, consider one of the many free Jr. Ranger booklets from the National Park Service. (I’ve written about our daughter’s quest to collect Jr. Ranger badges HERE. This post also includes links and resources for this program. It’s fun to visit the parks in person. But many general booklets are available to download online. Plus most parks will mail you a booklet if you request one. Your child can mail the completed book back to the park to receive a shiny badge!)

Would you like to know about the Hidden Life of Trees? Did you know that they communicate, they have a “wood-wide-web” and they take care of their children and their elders? (I know! Crazy…right?! Read more about this HERE.) A brand new book I just discovered (and love) is “Can You Hear the Trees Talking?. The author explains secrets of forests with simple language and beautiful illustrations. In addition, he offers fun activities to try when you have your kids outside in the woods. (Link to book on Amazon HERE. Even better, buy it from your local book seller.)

kids outside, peering into hole in tree

For fun and games outside, challenge your kids to a SCAVENGER HUNT. You can search for fairies or other imaginary creatures. (Read about our long-term quest of “Finding Fairy Houses” on my blog.) Look for a certain color or search for animal tracks if the trail is soft. Take along a favorite small toy. The toy(s) can go on an imaginary adventure (like our lego Tiny-Mes did in this post) or you can hide the toy(s) for your child(ren) to find. (Check out my Instagram account @legotinyadventures to see all the wonderful places our lego Tiny-Mes have wandered!) WARNINGS: If you wander off the edge of the trail, please be aware of poison ivy or bramble bushes. And if your child might be upset when their favorite toy gets dirty, choose a different toy to hide.

girl sitting on a rock

Finally, when you get your kids outside, have everyone USE THEIR SENSES to connect more deeply with nature. Find a place where everyone can relax. If possible, close eyes (our usual sense through which we process the world.) What can you hear? How does the air feel against your skin or in your hair? What can you smell? Is there any direction that is “calling” you? Open your eyes again and notice what new things you see. (For more ideas or “invitations” to use your senses outside or from a window, check out my nature Instagram @jecolorfulheart_thebigepic.) Consider returning to the same place every week or two and notice what is different! This can be interesting to do even in your own backyard or from a balcony at home! (Returning to sit quietly in the same place over and over is called “Sit Spot.” I’ve written more about this practice HERE.)

I hope these ideas help you to let go of the dreaded “shoulds” of getting your kids outside and help you actually get out there and have FUN together! I would love to hear about other ways you and your family enjoy nature together. Please share your ideas in the comments…

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A few additional resources you might find useful:

This website has free activity ideas and printables. There is also an active facebook group. https://wilderchild.com

I absolutely love Susan, a friend I discovered online who is passionate about helping families get their kids outside. She offers free monthly challenges on her website https://mountainmomandtots.com And as one of her patreon supporters, I have won some really cool things in her monthly gear giveaways.

Finally, this article gives more ideas on how to get your kids outside: https://childmind.org/article/ideas-for-getting-your-kids-into-nature

Why in the World Should We Raise “Nature Kids”?

I want my children to enjoy adventure and be brave enough to try new things and explore new places. How about you?! This post is Part I in a series about raising brave kids and getting our kids outside. Don’t miss Part II and Part III.)

In today’s culture, there are few “Nature Kids” to be found. (This is a big change from past generations. Read about my informal poll of favorite childhood activities HERE.) Most families today have busy schedules. We participate in school and work, lessons and sports, family gatherings and community groups. We pursue connection, entertainment, and knowledge through our electronic screens, often while we are on the go. We feel like we have no time to add anything else to our hectic to-do lists. When we add fears about safety and being uncomfortable with the unknowns of being outdoors (in ourselves or in our kids), it can be a hassle (or even an all-out  battle) to get our kids outside. Why in the world should we bother?

too many screens, stop electronics use

The NEGATIVES: Study after study in the past decades show this indoor, hectic lifestyle is not merely neutral. Our children are actually harmed by the lack of being “Nature Kids.” In his ground-breaking book “Last Child in the Woods,” (written in 2005) author Richard Louv challenged that the exploding rates of ADHD are actually symptoms of “Nature-Deficit-Disorder.” The same can be said for the current rise in sensory processing disorders, delays in the development of fine and gross motor skills, childhood obesity, and even pediatric mental health diagnoses. (There are an overwhelming number of articles and studies online which discuss this problem. Here are two I recommend: “Why Kids Need to Spend Time in Nature” and “Less Outdoor Play is Causing More Harm than Good.”)

The POSITIVES: Okay, so those are the negative ways that too much inside time might harm our children. But why should we actively fight to help our children be “Nature Kids”? I have summarized the benefits of spending regular time outdoors in the following infographic:

infographics, benefits for kids in nature

Since childhood I have always preferred to get outside as often as possible. Once we had a family, because our kids were (mostly) homeschooled, we had plenty of opportunity for them to experience being “Nature Kids.” I admit that some of my now adult children prefer to spend most of their time indoors—but they still occasionally go for walks or drive to a park or a beach for some outdoor time. A few of my adult kids get outside regularly. And in the past five years, we have realized that our youngest daughter NEEDS extended nature time to be healthy. (Read more about this in “Outdoor Girl” and “Child in the Woods.”)

 

dragon trainer, nature kids

“To benefit your family, you do NOT need to commit to big adventures in the wilderness!”

The GOOD NEWS: With further research and through my training to become a certified Forest Therapy Guide, I found some good news for all of us. The many benefits of connecting with nature do not require large sacrifices in our normal schedules. Yes, my daughter and I enjoy living in the woods for weeks at a time as we backpack on the Appalachian Trail. BUT—you do not need to commit to big adventures in the wilderness! Studies show that even just 30 minutes of outside time each week bring long-lasting benefits. Surely, we can find that much time to improve our families’ health and well-being!

nature kids, family outside

Let’s head outdoors and begin to raise “Nature Kids.” Will you join me?

Wanna Go On A Bear Hunt?

Have you heard the rumors? Black bears and wildcats wander the woods and swamps of New Jersey! The Tiny-Mes read that New Jersey has the densest population of black bears of any state. “Ooooo!” they said. “Let’s go on a Bear Hunt to meet some wild animals!” (Hmmm… I think they’ve been reading a certain picture book with my grandkids. Link to animated story book at end of post…)

We tried to convince them that we were very unlikely to find large wildlife along the local trails. We tried to argue that meeting bears and wildcats is not safe. But, we always enjoy a good hike so the Tiny-Mes finally convinced us that we *needed* to take them on a Bear Hunt! Join us to see what they found…

lego minifigures walking in green plants, going on a bear hunt

Wanna go on a bear hunt? We’re gonna catch a big one. What a beautiful day! (We’re not scared…)

Uh oh! MOSS, long wavy moss. We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh NO! We’ve gotta go through it! Swishy, swooshy. Swishy, swooshy.

lego minifigures in blooming moss
warrior woman, lego minifigure in blooming moss

Wanna go on a bear hunt? We’re gonna catch a big one. What a beautiful day! (We’re not scared…)

Uh oh! A RIVER, a deep cold river. We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh NO! We’ve gotta go through it! Splash, splosh. Splash, splosh.

https://youtu.be/tcDUmZDiuZ4

Wanna go on a bear hunt? We’re gonna catch a big one. What a beautiful day! (We’re not scared…)

Uh oh! MUD, thick oozy mud. We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh NO! We’ve gotta go through it! Squilch, squelch. Squilch, squelch.

lego minifigures mud hole

Wanna go on a bear hunt? We’re gonna catch a big one. What a beautiful day! (We’re not scared…)

Uh oh! A FOREST, a big dark forest. We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh NO! We’ve gotta go through it! Stumble, trip. Stumble, trip.

lego minifigures, tree trunks

Wanna go on a bear hunt? We’re gonna catch a big one. What a beautiful day! (We’re not scared…)

Uh oh! A STUMP, a tall scary stump. We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh NO! We’ve gotta go up it! Huff, puff. Huff, puff.

lego minifigures, decaying tree stump

lego minifigures, decaying stump

Wanna go on a bear hunt? We’re gonna catch a big one. What a beautiful day! (We’re not scared…)

Uh oh! A CAVE, a narrow gloomy cave. We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh NO! We’ve gotta go through it! Tip toe, tip toe.

lego minifigures, rocks, caves

Oh no! What’s that? One shiny wet nose. Two big furry ears. Two big goggly eyes. It’s a bear! We yelled, “Quick, back through the cave. Let’s run home!”

calico critter bear, cave, stump 

But, Tiny-A had wandered off. She heard a rumbling, purring sound in the woods and wondered what it was. And Tiny-S insisted there was no need to run. After all, she had her trusty tea pot and was certain any wild animals would be happy to gather for a party. So, we sat down in the wild woods and waited to see what would happen.

lego minifigure, calico critter cat, nature

Tiny-S found the bear in the cave and invited him to tea. He put on his best acorn hat and joined us under the trees. Within minutes, here came Tiny-A with a wildcat kit, ready for cookies and tea. Whew! This Bear Hunt turned out to be fun after all!

lego minifigures, calico critters, tea party in a tree

calico critter koala bear, lego minifigure, tea party

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Read about our encounters with bears (real and imagined) on the Appalachian Trail.

Learn more about bears in NJ, including links to games for kids!

Watch an animated reading of “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” by Michael Rosen & Helen Oxenbury.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Waoa3iG3bZ4

6 Gifts Found in a Sit-Spot

Life is uncertain. Life is sometimes chaotic. And we make it worse by over-filling our calendar and our to-do lists which makes life hectic and draining. I’m now two months into the mentored practicum to become a certified Forest Therapy Guide. It is exciting to discover new skills and activities that can counteract all of this craziness of modern Western life! “Sit-Spot” is one of these practices I am now using regularly.

“What will you do with your one wild and precious life? –Mary Oliver–

Each week during training, we are expected to spend 2-3 sessions with the practice of “Sit-Spot.” This simply means finding a place outdoors where we can sit quietly for 20+ minutes. It could be a beautiful hidden place deep in the woods. But to be most effective in building a regular habit, a Sit-Spot should be somewhere close to work or home, where you can sneak outside for 10-20 minutes each day. My most used sit-spot is on a corner of an unused porch that faces into the neighborhood backyards. I can’t manage to focus my mind enough to be successful with meditation. But I enjoy this form of being quiet and present in Nature. (I compare Meditation, Forest Meditation and Forest Therapy HERE.)

wellness practice, just be

Now that I regularly spend time in a tiny corner of my outdoor world, I am noticing that Sit-Spot gives me 6 specific gifts:

  1. It is an opportunity to PRACTICE STILLNESS of both body and mind. I rarely take time to let my body relax at the same time as allowing my mind to also rest (until I fall exhausted into bed each night.) This is an opportunity to let go of my busy-ness and notice what is around me. No making lists, updating my calendar, or scrolling through fb and emails. Simply allowing myself to “be.” (Yes, I admit, this is hugely challenging for me at times. Please assure me I’m not the only one!)
  2. It is a gift to EXPERIENCE SILENCE—no talking to others, no demands from others, no droning background noise to life. (Even extroverted chatty me benefits from silence occasionally!) At Christmas, we often sing about a “Silent Night” – but how often do we actually experience one?! Studies have shown that human-made noise pollution adds significant amounts of unrecognized stress to our daily lives. It’s hard to completely avoid human-sounds, but we can try!

dramatic sky, storm clouds

  1. Sit-Spot is another way to form DEEP CONNECTIONS WITH THE NATURAL WORLD. People have lived closely intertwined with nature since the beginning of time. Today’s loss of connection is at the root of many of the maladies affecting us in our current chaotic culture. (You can explore some of the scientific studies and other resources about the importance of Nature Connection HERE.) The practice of Sit-Spot helps us return to our roots—literally!
  2. One of the most significant benefits of forming deep nature connections is it LOWERS STRESS & ANXIETY. There is something freeing about just allowing life to flow around me. It takes a few minutes of sitting still, but eventually my breathing slows, my blood pressure lowers, and I relax into the calm of simply being outside. This type of calming effect is certainly a gift! (I wrote HERE about how outdoor time is a game changer for my daughter who has huge challenges in these areas.)

reflections, floating leaf

  1. By returning to the same place on a regular basis, I NOTICE SMALL CHANGES. I enjoy watching the tall grasses “dance” in a breeze. I see plants changing through the seasons. I feel subtle differences as weather systems approach. I hear insects and birds and begin to notice their patterns. When I sit regularly, Nature is no longer merely a backdrop for daily life, but becomes something to enjoy in and of itself.

notice changes, blue skies, fairy grass

  1. Sit-Spot GIVES ME A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE. The troubles and trials (and even celebrations) of my life are not the center of history or of the universe (much as I might want to believe otherwise! HA!) I laugh at the cheeky squirrels—stealing nuts from each other, stuffing themselves for winter hibernation, and wobbling their chubby way along the fence top. I mourn the deaths of birds and beasts. I enjoy the brilliant colors of fall leaves. As I connect with the natural world, I am reminded that everyone and everything is doing the best they can with their one wild and precious life…and that’s enough.

I invite you to join me in discovering the gifts found through a simple Sit-Spot outside. I would love to hear YOUR favorite things from connecting with the natural world. Please drop me a comment below!

 

Please Don’t Screech!

Please tell me I’m not the only one! Please reassure me that you, too, let out a yelp or a screech when you are startled by something out in the woods. I’ve done this forever, even when a moment later I KNOW there is actually nothing to be afraid of. But, when I’m leading other folks on walks to more deeply connect with Nature, I’m going to have to change this pattern of screech-first-think-later. Let me explain…

As a guide, I am learning to use language very carefully. It is important to let our guests know about possible challenges without causing fear. As part of our standard practice, in our introduction to the guided Forest Therapy Walk, we talk about “awarenesses” rather than “hazards.” A great majority of the time, simply being aware of our surroundings and of how to avoid problems is all we need to stay safe.

photo by Anabell O'Neill

However, they didn’t talk to us about controlling the involuntary screech when startled. I wonder why this didn’t come up in our training classes? After all, I suspect this reaction might scare the walk participants far more than using the wrong words in my introduction! (Please tell me I’m not the only one who does this?!)

Here are a few examples. I’m not sure I will believe you if you tell me you have never let out a screech (or at least a little whimper) when you unexpectedly face critters like these:

We used to live on a farm. Most evenings I walked out to the barn before bed, making sure the sheep and chickens were safely settled until morning. Some dark, moonless nights I would open the door and almost drop my flashlight when a glowing-eyed, pointy-nosed “demon” was sitting on top of the feed bin, hissing at me like a crazy thing. I always let out a loud, high-pitched “SCREECH!” followed by a muttered “Stupid possum!” And that furry creature sauntered away, snickering at winning round number 372 in the scare-the-critter game… (Photo taken by a friend when a possum was on their roof. I wonder what game it was playing?!)

photo by Susan Heino

Daughter Andowen and I take weeks long backpacking trips on the Appalachian Trail. All hikers need to be very aware of black bears. (Read a story HERE about the trials of hanging food bags to keep our supplies away from bears at night.) We tend to talk or sing while we walk, so we rarely see bears during the day. (They prefer to avoid humans, if possible.) Last fall, however, daughter was standing silently under a large tree, waiting for me to catch up. She heard the noise of a hiker coming up the trail, then was started by twigs, leaves and a young bear falling out of the tree, landing right at her feet! She let out a “SCREECH!” and the bear took off running into the woods. She wasn’t sure who was more startled, her or the bear!

please don't screech and scare the bear!

When we are backpacking, the first one hiking down the trail has the pleasure of seeing scenery with no other humans in view. However, they also have the “joy” of clearing the spider webs that were built across the trail during the night. On beautiful crisp, cool, fall days, that front person sometimes finds a snake, warming itself in the sun. It really isn’t a problem when the reptile is just sitting there. It is easy to see what type of snake it is and what type of response is needed. (Often, if it is sunning itself on the trail, just banging trekking poles together will cause the snake to mosey on its way.) But sometimes, as the first hiker is walking along quietly, mind wandering, there is a rustling in the leaves beside the trail, and a long black slithery-snake darts across, almost under one’s feet. After a loud “SCREECH!” the hiker laughs, knowing the snake was harmless. (We actually like the non-poisonous snakes which keep the mouse population under control at shelters.) It still takes awhile for the heart to start pounding though!

actually black rat snakes are harmless

Most of the time when we sleep in the open fronted shelters along the Appalachian Trail, we are happy to see spiders sitting in webs high in the rafters. This usually means there are fewer pesky bugs to bother us. But one rainy night, there were tiny glowing eyes every direction we looked. Our headlamps highlighted what felt like a million spiders who had us surrounded. We could ignore the critters keeping to their own private corners, but when one walked toward us and couldn’t be scared away, the other hikers and I convinced my terrified-of-spiders daughter to kill the intruder. She shuddered, flinched, and let out a few yelps of fear. (Okay, so it wasn’t full-fledged SCREECHES! But I’m still counting it as a similar reaction.) She unsuccessfully tried to swing at the spider several times. Finally, she gathered courage, yelled “For GONDOR!” and flipped the spider with her shoe. Lord of the Rings to the rescue yet again!

sorry, I have to screech!

Fortunately, the most common hazard (ahem, “awareness”) along the woodland trails in Ohio is poison ivy. I am confident I can help participants become more aware of this plant—both how it is high energy food for deer and other animals and how to avoid touching it as humans. Whew! No worries about inadvertent screams when I unexpectedly see this plant!

biggest hiking hazard

So what’s the point of these stories (beyond entertaining you)? I’m reminding myself that I need to curb my instinctive tendencies to SCREECH! I’m working to finish my certification as a Forest Therapy Guide and it is apparently not professional to scare your walk participants. Wish me luck!

(Wondering about our encounters with wild animals while backpacking? You can read a summary of the real hazards of hiking HERE. You can see photos and descriptions of critters we see HERE and HERE.)

PLEASE assure me that I’m not the only one to yelp or screech when startled! Share your story in the comments below.

Rainy Days & Trees

“Rainy Days and Mondays always get me down.” This song by the Carpenters has been resonating the past few gray, rainy days. Fog, mist, drizzle, shower, downpour, thunderstorm—we have seen all of the forms of rain recently!

Rainy Days & Me:

When it is dark and gloomy and oh-so-damp, I just wanna stay inside. (Please tell me that I’m not the only one?!) If I have to go somewhere, obviously, I dash to and from the car, hoping I won’t melt in the rain.

Driving in the Rain

But really, I would rather just stay inside by a cozy fire, with a good book and a mug of tea. A relaxed, snoring dog is always a plus!

Let sleeping dogs lay

Or better yet, I would like to crawl back under the covers and doze the day away!

Camping in the Rain

Rainy Days & Trees:

While we are hiding inside, what are the trees doing? Apparently they have different reactions to the rain… (This spring, I wrote about many fascinating new ideas about trees discovered in “The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben. You can read some of these mind-blowing facts HERE.)

Mr. Wohlleben explains that “Deciduous trees are shaped in ways that send rainfall toward their roots deep under the forest floor. This extra moisture at ground level helps the [surrounding] smaller trees and plants remain healthy as well.” I braved the rains to take photos of deciduous trees. I found most had soaking wet trunks, and leaves that funneled sheets of water from every branch of the tree (just like the author says).

deciduous trees on rainy days

Deciduous trees on rainy days

Mr. Wohlleben continues the discussion of rainy days and trees by talking about coniferous trees. He points out that both their shape and having needles rather than leaves help these trees deflect the rain. The ground under their branches stays generally dry and is a good place to shelter during a rain storm…but watch out for lightning!

Pines on Rainy Days

Conifers shed rain

Rainy Days, You & Me:

“O, to feel the beat of the rain, and the homely smell of the earth, Is a tune for the blood to jig to, a joy past power of words.” –John Masefield

We don’t often remember the other lyrics from that Carpenter’s song: “Rainy days and Mondays always get me down; Funny, but it seems I always wind up here with you; Nice to know somebody loves me; Funny, but it seems that it’s the only thing to do; Run and find the one who loves me”

So on the next gray, rainy days, I’m going to try to find the joy and the dancing tune. I plan to join the trees! I’m gonna grab someone who loves me and head outside. We will laugh at the rain and play under the pines. Will you join me?!

its raining, its pouring

conifers shed rain

Read about other songs of rainy days HERE and HERE.

In the comments below, SHARE your favorite way to survive a rainy day!

Finding Fairy Houses

When daughter Andowen was little, she loved to read books about fairies. She loved the photographs in the wonderful series by Tracy & Barry Kane. When she was six years old, she found her first fairy houses in the woods—on a family vacation to Blackriver Falls in WV.

Tracy and Barry Kane

On that trip, Andowen spent hours wandering the trails, posing her fairy figures in front of (and inside) openings in the roots and branches of trees. Eventually, she decided this area was a special conference center where fairies come to rest and have fun together.

Fairies Rest and Have Fun in the Woods

Eventually, all of us started looking for fairy houses as we traveled the world! Big sister Nettie delighted Andowen by building a special stump house in a campground near Seward Alaska. She even included handcrafted woodland furniture. Andowen spun many tales about the fairy family who moved into such luxury accommodations!

Custom Built by big sister Nettie

As we backpacked along the Appalachian Trail in the past few years, there are a few locations that looked like possible fairy houses but we weren’t certain if they were still occupied. One afternoon in Northern Virginia, Andowen found a Fairy Marina where tree roots met a burbling stream. There were many protected slips for a variety of sizes of boats. She watched for quite a while, but the fairies stayed hidden…

AT discoveries, VA

The breakthrough occurred when we spent a few months in Germany. Apparently the fairies have been there so long that they have developed a good relationship with humans. Andowen was quite excited to discover the Royal Fairy Academy in the old Linden tree in the town of Frauenstein. One of the fairies told her that this tree became a training school for Fairy leaders in the 800s. It has been in continuous use since then. The guide explained that there are only a few training academies around the world. There needs to be plenty of entrances and room inside for hundreds of fairies to live, learn, and play. Plus each location has to have special features that set it apart. In this case, many of the suites at this Royal Academy have mossy balconies for fairies to enjoy the lovely setting!

1000 year old Linden, Frauenstein Germany

When we returned to the USA, Andowen kept an eye out, on a search to discover the secret location of the American Fairy Academy. Unfortunately, too many people here no longer believe in fairies, so the school is kept hidden from prying eyes. Finally, Andowen found the academy, camouflaged by hundreds of fake entrances in the walls of Ash Cave in the Hocking Hills right here in Ohio. One fairy guard realized Andowen was a friend and came out to talk to her. Americans tend to be active and exercise conscious—and our fairies are no different. They chose this location because it has a huge floor for sunrise yoga sessions and midnight dances when the moon is full, all serenaded by the falling water.

Ash Cave, Hocking Hills State Park, OH

Most recently, Andowen was excited to discover the Royal Canadian Fairy Academy. Although the location is one of the most crowded trails in Banff National Park, this school is found in the walls of Johnston Canyon. Apparently this place was chosen because of the wild white water rafting on moonlit evenings. Plus there are few tourists to interrupt treks to the frozen falls when the entire park turns into a winter wonderland. (see link below for photos)

Fairy Houses in Canada, Banff National Park

Fairies just wanna have fun

Read about other ways we have fun in the woods HERE. In case you missed the first installment in our series about the Lego Tiny-Mes who go on adventures with us, you can read about them HERE.

Find Andowen’s favorite Fairy House book HERE

For more information about locations of what we have found so far, check the following links:

Ash Cave, Hocking Hills State Park, OH

Blackwater Falls State Park, Davis WV

Frauenstein, Wiesbaden Germany

Johnston Canyon in the Winter, Banff National Park, Alberta Canada

We continue to look for new-to-us fairy houses and training academies. If you find any, please post photos and share the locations in the comments below! Let’s continue to celebrate our fairy-friends!

A Contradictory Week — Forest Therapy Training Intensive

I just finished the initial 8 day training intensive to start the 6 month long process of becoming a certified Forest Therapy Guide. There were 20 students and 5 mentors at the training. It was a wonderful, exhausting, energizing, stretching, amazing, contradictory week. I’m still processing all we learned…and will share more details in the next few months.

One of the mentors put together this video to give an overview of the people, place, and activities of the week. (Keep an eye out for me–I’m in a number of the shots!) This training was held at Oak Openings Metro Park in the Toledo area. If you ever get a chance to visit, it is an amazingly diverse location!

I decided the fastest way to summarize this contradictory week jam-packed-full of learning and stretching was to make a chart:

Contradictory Week

Thanks SO much to family and friends who continue to encourage me and support me. That was hugely important to keep me at the training when I was exhausted and emotionally wrung out. (Shhh! I was even ready to quit a few times when I was overwhelmed!)

The most important thing I learned during this training is that I AM RIGHT WHERE I’M SUPPOSED TO BE! Now I KNOW this is the right path for me to pursue…a knowing that is not just head knowledge but deep certainty in my heart.

If you missed it, you can see our training schedule and some of my own photos HERE

To learn more about the practice of Forest Therapy and what a Guide does, click HERE   (The Global Institute of Forest Therapy is the international organization that I am now–in 2020–going through the process of associating with for accountability, support and continuing education.)

Training Schedule for Forest Therapy Guide Residential Retreat

My residential training has finally started! Wondering what I’m doing each day on this Intensive Retreat? Here is a peek at the Training Schedule for this 8 day course which kicks off the 6 month certification program to become a Forest Therapy Guide. (This week started off with the extra challenge of heavy rains for the first 3 days and 2 nights of training … much of which is outdoors!)

they didn't list dealing with rain in the training schedule!

The Intensive Class is always located close to a Nature area with good trails to experience guided Forest Therapy walks. I chose to apply for the course which is being held at a metro-park in NW Ohio. This is only a few hours’ drive from my home. To save money, I am tent-camping at a nearby campground.

camping for training intensive

Day 1 (Saturday Sept 8) – Arrival Afternoon – Introductions and Orientation to the Training Schedule and Curriculum Goals.

training schedule begins

Days 2-3 (Sun/Mon) – First Experiences

  • Mornings: Teacher led Forest Therapy Walk and Tea Ceremony
  • Afternoons: Debrief the walk experience, using a mapping process
  • After Break: Content Session (Lecture, Q&A, Discussion, Experiential Activities)
  • Evening: More content

training schedule includes walks less by instructors

Days 4-5 (Tues/Wed) – Practicing Skills

  • Mornings: Participants guide each other on a Forest Therapy Walk & Tea Ceremony
  • Afternoon Sessions: Same training schedule as above, learn more “invitations” and guide skills
  • Evening 4: Group campfire to share personal nature stories

training schedule includes a campfire for storytelling

Day 6 (Thurs) – Honing Skills

  • Learn more Forest Therapy techniques and skills
  • Prepare to guide a public FT walk with 1-2 other participants
  • Prepare for our 6-month practicum, completed locally via Skype under the guidance of an instructor/mentor.

many instructional content sessions in the training schedule

Day 7 (Fri) – Put It All Together!

  • Morning: 2-3 Participants work together to lead public Forest Therapy walks (My piece is to make the forest tea and guide the closing Tea Ceremony for our group.)
  • Afternoon Sessions: Debrief and more content sessions

we learn about, practice, and experience closing tea ceremonies

Day 8 (Sat) – Conclusions

  • Morning: Structured solo experience with time to reflect on the week and to consider personal goals
  • Afternoon: Content Session/Q& A time
  • Closing Ceremony (and group photo, of course!)

THANKS SO MUCH TO SUPPORTERS!

I very much appreciate the encouragement and the donations from family and friends to get me to this point. I am excited to finally move forward toward being a certified Forest Therapy Guide and starting a practice of my own to help others connect with Nature.

Don’t worry! I will continue sharing what I learn in future blog posts. You can read more about Nature/Forest Therapy HERE.

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