I recently wrote about our excitement in joining a forest playgroup this fall. This was one of our favorite things to do with friends last year. A couple months into our new group, and we are in love. It is the highlight of our week, for both my daughter and for me.
Our forest playgroup is a mixed-age, weekly gathering in the same patch of woods, rain or shine or snow. Kids range from newborn to tween and there is no set activity. Our rhythm is simply arrive and free play in the woods, following the lead of the children.
That this has an official name other than just play, makes me think of something I recently read by Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods.
In my great-grandparents’ day, most people spent the better part of their lives outdoors. They didn’t have to think about nature as something to be attained, because it was integral in their lives. As it had been for untold generations. To be human was to be part of the natural world….Things are different now. Our society has largely come to regard nature as separate from normal daily life.
Interacting with nature has become much more intentional nowadays. We have to want to do it, make time for it and put ourselves in it. I am grateful to see the same troves of kids I may have seen running around my own neighborhood growing up, now running around our patch of woods, even if it’s just once a week in our playgroup. It fills me with such joy to see kids of all ages taking over the forest. They’re everywhere – running, creating, discovering, listening and laughing. As much as it feels organic, it also feels quite sacred. I understand not everyone is doing this, and I feel lucky that we are because the benefits are tremendous.
Of course there’s fresh air and exercise, but that’s just the beginning of the takeaways that come out of this experience. It’s beautiful as these benefits unfold almost immediately around you. Here are five of my favorites:
Unlike a standard playground, the woods are filled with millions of dynamic parts – things you can pick up and move, elements you can build with or break and endless opportunities for creation. I’ve watched kids turn a fallen log into a jungle gym, a kitchen, an art canvas, a stage, a bus. I’ve watched them take fallen branches and create tee-pees as houses which spawned endless hours of imaginative play. Leaves become crowns, branches a chandelier, tree shavings a cake. Imaginations are alive in the woods and moving faster than most indoor or structured activities make possible.
Kids are so tactical in their learning and the woods is a full sensory experience, in this way. There is so much to see, smell, hear – yes, even taste – and touch. As kids get hands on in their exploration they climb, balance and test their strength in ways they don’t ordinarily do.
Being in nature allows for the unexpected challenge to arise. Kids can’t map out how to climb a fallen trees’ twists and turns until they are in it, experiencing it. It’s new, each time, and it’s thrilling to take these risks in a seemingly safe, but also challenging environment. To this end, I’ve watched toddlers – including my own – climb 10+ feet in the air on fallen branches. I’ve watched babies climb over benches and smaller fallen logs. I’ve watched kids hang upside down calling themselves monkeys, balancing on extended branches. They’re pushing themselves and testing their bodies.
03. Caution: Focus + Safety
With these physical challenges comes multiple takeaways. The first of which is the focus kids engage in once they set a goal in their mind. When they want to climb to the top of a fallen tree, they are intensely focused on that goal and the steps needed to make that possible. You can visibly see their concentration and the way they use their knowledge to navigate.
When kids take risks, they also begin to quickly understand cause and effect. They’re continually testing out what is dangerous and what is safe. Parental guidance is always helpful here – reminders to test if branches are strong or weakened, even from one week to the next – but by and large kids do this on their own. Even as toddlers, they figure out how to reach their goals with a balance of both stepping outside their comfort zone as well avoiding immediate danger.
04. Respect: Communication + Support
I love watching kids communicate with each other and form friendships in this natural setting. Older kids take younger kids under their wing, while younger ones are inspired by all that older kids are doing. I’ve rarely, if at all, heard kids being competitive, putting each other down or engaging in any sort of shaming. Instead, I’ve seen collaboration, interest in one another’s ideas and accomplishments, and genuine support for their newly found friends. To this end, kids will say, “Look at me!” where others reply, “Wow, how did you do that? That’s so cool. I want to do that too!” And this is followed by kids helping other kids navigate to accomplish the same goal. It’s truly the things parents’ dreams are made of.
And last but not least, every week, I watch my daughter’s confidence grow. I don’t need to infer that she did either. It is a clear A to B. She steps out of her comfort zone, takes a risk, is focused on her goals and challenges herself to reach them. When she does, and sometimes it takes a while for her to do that, her satisfaction is palpable. I never seen a wider smile play across her face. That her fellow forest friends celebrate her accomplishments with her is icing on the cake. When they want to follow her lead, she now assumes the role of teacher or expert, sharing her knowledge, moving with ease around an element which moments earlier was unsteady territory. Each week, my daughter leaves the woods feeling better than when we came. She’s restored in a way that she and nature create together.
It’s a joy to watch my daughter take part in this. It’s slow and quality living at some of it’s finest. And at the center of it all, is a rewarding experience in nature. Kids respect their earth, understand it’s cycles, celebrate its bounties and recognize its limitations. They experience how small they are, compared to how big and powerful nature is, and they leave most weeks feeling proud and bonded. As a parent, I couldn’t ask for anything more.
Have other benefits to playing in the woods that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear your experiences and your takeaways. Comment below. Cheers!