As a child, my playground was the woods.
The end of our street opened into a vast wooded forest, defined by a thin dirt footpath that stretched into a world of exploration for us. Our friends and neighbors, our siblings and dogs, all found peace and adventure under the shade of sky-high oaks and cedars.
It was there that we breathed in our first taste of independence, running freely through the creeks and over wooden bridges. Banding together despite our varied ages, we carved our names into trees and spent afternoons searching for lost treasure. We learned about ourselves and saw each other in a new light, as if sunshine cast through an umbrella of leaves had the power to illuminate our truest selves. My big sister, for instance, seemed to shed all her worldly insecurities the moment her foot hit the dirt, trading them in for agility and strength and confidence. No matter who she was on the outside, to all of us in the woods, she was a leader.
Season after season, we grew in those woods. It was there that we conquered our fears, braving ghost stories with wide eyes and pushing our sneakered feet off a dirt cliff, praying the worn rope swing would hold our weight as we floated over a deep ravine. My very best friend and I built a wooden box one summer, which we hid far off the path and used as our own personal mailbox, filling it with notes and stickers and pictures for each other. The anticipation of running into the woods to see if anything new had been left for me causes my heartbeat to quicken to this day.
We lived. We laughed. We soaked up the kind of childhood every kid deserves.
I look at my own children and wonder if they will get to flourish under the same freedom we enjoyed during all those summertime adventures. We’re raising them in a culture of fear, where police are called when kids are left to play outside alone and primetime crime dramas fuel parental anxieties. We’re raising them in the culture of video games and smartphones, where staying in is too often considered easier and safer than playing outside.
And so, as if answering an urgent call from the beginning of my story, I placed a bookmark where I stood and turned back a few pages. Carrying my new characters to a beloved setting from the front of the book, where the pages were dog-eared and worn, I took my kids to my woods.
I drove past the house I grew up in and parked in front of the entrance to the woods. With the baby in my arms and my 2 and 4-year-old cautiously stepping into the darkened opening, I walked straight into the scene that had greeted me a thousand times before.
My face instinctively tilted up to the heavens, my eyes closed, and I breathed in that old familiar scent. This feels like home, I thought to myself.
Walking along the narrow path, with leaves and flowers tickling our sides and insects buzzing in our hair, my kids felt the same magic that’s always drawn me to the woods. They asked if this forest was enchanted, and I replied in earnest that I didn’t know for sure. I asked them to just stop and listen, reminding them that just because they don’t see any creatures doesn’t mean the creatures don’t see them.
We approached a deadened tree to the left of the path, whose blackened arms had grown twisted and distorted, curling into itself before cascading onto the overgrowth below. “That looks like a witch,” my son said, pulling my arm forward. He was right. We pressed on.
At a clearing, they collected acorns and stuffed the little treasures into their pockets. I told them to look up at the branches of leaves towering so far overhead, the sunlight barely peeking through the gaps. “Look how small we are in this world,” I whispered to them, relaying one of the most profound and humbling lessons nature has to teach us.
As we doubled back up the path, we stumbled upon a family of deer. The male with his full-grown antlers ran straight past us, unexpected and jarring. My arm flinched out to stop my kids the same way it does in the car. After he fled past, we noticed two other deer frozen just feet away from us.
“Don’t worry, it’s just a mother and her baby,” I told my kids, who were also frozen in panic. She and I looked into each other’s eyes, and I like to think she was telling her little spotted fawn the same thing.
We drove home that day with fresh mud on our feet and burrs clinging to our clothes. We smelled like the rain and exuded the wonderment that comes from feeling God in the center of His creation.
I left still tingling with the sublime aftershock of a tiny wrinkle in time, watching my babies’ feet fall onto the invisible footsteps I’d left as a child myself.
So although we no longer live a stone’s throw from a forest, and although we spend too much time tethered to technology, I promised myself that I would make this a priority. I promised I wouldn’t let my own anxieties overrule their need to explore. I promised to let them seek their own adventures, to let them wonder and wander, to let them find out who they are under the protective arm of Mother Nature — the same way I did.
In many ways, this was one of the greatest gifts our parents gave to us, surely passed from their own parents and generations of eager explorers. Before we become the first generation to deny our own children the same, turn back your pages and remember what it was that first made you feel like a tiny part of something magnificent. Let that same spark catch in your child’s eyes, and you just might get to feel it all over again.
Catherine Naja is a mother of three under age four and the voice behind Choking On Applesauce , a forum dedicated to seeking humor and positivity in all of motherhood’s most honest moments. Find her on Facebook for more.
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