It didn't take long for me to realize that my young daughter and I can have different intentions when we walk through the woods. If it's just me on a walk, I plan to hike or stroll from point A to point B - and point B is usually a fair distance away. My daughter, on the other hand, can get about 10 steps into the forest, become completely engrossed in discovery and she's ready to stop. It's as though she's telling me, sure mom, I know there might be exciting things ahead, but what I'm looking at here is so exciting - right here, right now - I can't even thinking about what may or may not be down the path.
I see this happening all the time. And it makes sense, we are all simply different people, different ages and sometimes that means, we have different plans. The great thing about exploring in the woods though, is that the forest allows for my daughter's plans, as well as mine. Maybe not all at once or even in the same visit, but there is time and space and beauty in both sharing or discovering a particular experience I have in mind with my daughter, as much as there is in my daughter sharing her's with me. This means there are times she is leading me through the woods.
Here are a few ways we've come to find this balance, and have the whole family get elements of what they want out of an outdoor experience.
01. Plan (with Kids!) and Prepare Expectations
Want a balance of both child-led and parent-led exploration? Try planning - and when possible, do it with your kids - for outdoor experiences that are devoted to each one separately. Maybe you plan one outing as a hike to a particular destination, another as an activity-based experience, and another still as unstructured, child-led free play. If you know there is balance in your overall schedule, then each experience can be what it is without trying to be it all at once. At the same time, we can then set the tone for the experience, preparing our children and ourselves mentally for what will come from the outing that day.
02. Create a Yes Environment
Children wandering off the path, tromping through tall grass, stomping in puddles and creek beds, digging in the dirt, climbing fallen trees, collecting sticks and rocks and leaves. All in a day in the woods, especially with kids as leaders. The process is empowering and energizing for them, but can be filled with moments where we're tempted to say "no". Let's ask ourselves why we say no. We can try and create as much of a yes environment as possible with minimal preparation and an open-mind. The more you know about the area your child is exploring and the weather you'll likely encounter, along with having the proper gear on hand, the more confident you will feel about saying "yes"!
03. Engage as a Parent + Friend
As parents, we play such an important role, even with our children taking the lead. We help remind them of safety precautions, when necessary, we can point out interesting elements in nature, we see ways to deepen their play and we know when to take a step back and let them explore on their own or with their friends. But there is something quite memorable about us being friends ourselves with little ones in the woods. Have you puddle stomped with your kids? Run in the rain with them? Been right there alongside their wildest (and usually messiest) adventures? It can be silly and fun and outside our comfort zones - but chances are, even if for a moment, you'll smile wider than you did all day.
So, go ahead and enjoy the outdoors through your children's footsteps. The fun is in where they'll take you, what they'll imagine and in watching this child you love so much being truly happy.
See you in the forest!