Some of the most remarkable things that occur on a Happy Trails Family Nature Club outing, happen as a result of our willingness to try new things, and one recent event was by far our most adventurous! In a St. Paul, Minnesota park, our group decided to attempt going deeply into a wood, down a steep embankment, into the (somewhat) unknown. We discovered that the area was greatly overgrown with huge burdock leaves, as well as strewn with large log piles and muddy, slippery rocks. In other words, it was fantastic!
As we made our way along the faint trails, we found ourselves dealing with the first humid day of the season, fatigued little kids, and uneven terrain. And though it may not look like it at first glance, the experience was nothing short of a miracle. What is so miraculous about sweaty people, trying to find the best way back to the main trail and parking lot? The child development geek in me was thrilling at just some of the benefits those kids experienced as a result, that only time exploring in nature can provide:
Physical - The children had to navigate around, over, under and through lots of branches, logs, slippery mud and boulders. They used core muscle strength, as well as leg and arm muscles to balance as they trudged along. They pumped their little hearts as they climbed up and down steep hills. Their bodies accomplished all of this in relatively high Midwestern humidity (as one mom said, "It's not like the world is a temperature-controlled 70 degrees").
Cognitive - The kids’ brains enjoyed a smorgasbord of sensory experiences! At every turn, our eyes beheld new views, patterns, even light intensities. We sharpened our acuity by scouting for spring ephemeral wildflowers, and the hundreds of caterpillars that accompanied us that day. The kids judged distances, far and near, and listened for sounds of the trains and highway, to help us navigate. They learned about dozens of plants, birds and bugs - not even knowing their names - but learning about them nonetheless by being with them up close. They learned which plants were scratchy or delicate, or what happens when they try to step on a slippery rock. If this data was only read from a book, they would not “know” this information, in the way that this wisdom is part of them now.
Emotional - Even if some of them complained at times, these kids now know that they can handle a challenging experience like that hike. They realize that humidity, hills and fatigue are short-lived in their lives, and that their bodies and brains are amazing! I talked with my 6 year old about “mind over matter”, and posited tricks such as singing or telling stories to pass the time. He didn’t go for it (probably because this advice came from his mom), but at least he knows challenges can be mitigated by how we choose to think about the situation, one of the great truths of life happiness. Nature is the best teacher.
These kinds of challenges are essential for the developing human, and they are almost non-existent in kids’ lives today. They need opportunities to experience those “if I can do that, I can do anything!” moments. A healthy childhood includes ample opportunities to face fears head on, and work through them, with skills adults suggest, and also those they develop on their own. That day, I saw a girl who started out at the beginning of our hike panicking at a small spider, her eyes surveying cautiously for poison ivy, who an hour later appeared much more used to and relaxed in her surroundings. How could she practice bravery in the unknown without her supportive dad leading her by the hand into it?
Social - The kids got to know new friends, and relied on strange adults to help them walk across logs, or remove a caterpillar or daddy-long-legs spider from their leg. They knew that even strangers can be counted on to help, and to be fun. Kids shared nature knowledge with each other, whether or not it was “correct” information. In natural settings, kids are often more at ease with one another, and more cooperative. In two years of Happy Trails outings, I have never heard cross words between kids in the wilderness (or among adults, for that matter).
Spiritual - At one point near the end of our trek, when my son was expressing his dissatisfaction with this hike, I reminded him he could ask his guides, or even the nearby animal spirits, to help him make the rest of the journey better for him. Again, he didn’t appear to heed my advice, but he now carries this wisdom for the next time he’s faced with a challenge. The kids on this walk weren’t just in and out of a playground for a while, they were immersed in the natural world for over an hour, and were blessedly humbled by it. They likely sensed something of the world around them and their place in it. The kids quite enjoyed this hike, and told their parents so.
These are just a few benefits that came to my mind. There must be countless others those children received that afternoon, benefits that only nature can offer. While others may think that the kids were “only” taking a walk in the outdoors, we can know that there are myriad complex meanings, about themselves and their surroundings, that became part of them for life. On that particular muggy May day, our children, like a classic metaphor, walked down into the wood that day believing something about themselves in the world, and likely had an revised view as they emerged, upward into wide open space. Lucky kids.