We live in a very flat area surrounded by cornfields, so a visit to Nana’s house a few hours away is always fun because of the different terrain there. There are more hills, more twists and turns, lots of rivers, streams and forest preserves and Nana’s house is surrounded by woods. It’s magical to go from our neighborhood of houses near cornfields into the solitude and majesty of the woods, so we call Nana’s house “The Enchanted Forest.” On our visits, we always carve out time to spend in the woods and it’s always worth it- no matter the weather. Being a homeschooler, a playworker and being interested in forest schools, this is my prime location: in an amazing set of woods with plenty of time to follow my girl, Taylor, and watch her discover what has happened since our last visit.
One day in the Enchanted Forest we went exploring. We noticed that one area of the forest seemed to be brighter than usual, and wanted to investigate as there had been wind and storms in the area a few weeks prior. We crossed the clearing and lept over the creek and came upon a fallen tree, which Taylor immediately began to climb. The tree was huge, definitely one of the big guys in the forest, which explained the sudden bright spot. It had been pulled up, roots and all, and had fallen onto another tree, causing a domino-like reaction that involved 4 trees total.
In the place the roots previously occupied, there was now a cave or a den. We examined the root system and noted that the roots were shallow. Just then, Taylor noticed fur. My little one claims to actually be “Mother Nature” -a story for another time- so she studies nature almost constantly. “It’s the fur of a red fox! He must’ve been sleeping in this little root-den, because foxes like dens. I wonder what he was doing…”
Curiosity now making her speed to see what the next discovery could be, Taylor had climbed midway up the tree in no time, with no fear. We noticed a fresh wound in the tree. In addition to falling, this big beautiful tree had lost a large branch. “Where did this branch go?” we both wondered aloud. We looked around and found nothing…. No explanation of what had happened to this clearly-new loss of limb. Inside the area where the limb had broken off, Taylor discovered more fox hair, fox scat and the bones of a smaller animal- likely a ground squirrel.
“That sneaky fox must’ve eaten up here, pooped and then went down to his den to sleep!”
Further up the tree, we notice that the big tree has partially fallen on some of the small, new trees. Because of these trees’ youth, we were able to pull their tops out from under the big tree to allow them to continue growing. “We saved them! We saved three trees, Mom!”
After listening to the theories of where the fox may be now, why the trees fell in the first place, what would happen to the small trees now that they had more sun due to the break in the canopy and gathering up our evidence to show off to family later, we turned to go further into the woods. We notice a strange looking tree which, upon further inspection, isn’t tree. “It’s the missing branch from our big tree! It twisted off and landed straight up and down next to this other tree!” It was amazing because it was as tall as the other trees it landed on!
We marched on and discovered more that day. We played in the creek and built dams and then destroyed them and circled around to the other side of the house before returning to tell our tales. It’s amazing what an hour or two of child-led exploration in the woods can yield.
Here’s 3 things you can do to support your child as they explore:
1. Ask questions, don’t answer them. I’ve found that if I point things out and answer the questions, the discoveries don’t matter to the child. Let them discover them. When asked about the missing branch, I could’ve answered where it was. But it was so much more meaningful for her to discover it on her own. Instead of pointing to the missing branch, I said “I don’t know, let’s look around. Do you think it will be close by? Where should we look first?”
2. Let them lead. This whole experience probably isn’t a discovery I would have spent more than a minute investigating. Maybe, but I would probably have gone straight to my favorite hiking spot. Stepping back and allowing her to lead our path and decide how much time we spent in the area led to such depth in discovery! I truly had fun with her on this, so I’m glad I followed her lead.
3. Don’t be afraid to get dirty. I’ve learned that when we go to Nana’s, I need to pack extra shoes and clothes. I’ve learned that I’m going to be doing laundry while I’m there visiting, and that she will need to shower before dinner. Those are all adjustments that can be made with a little bit of planning. Our visits are so much more memorable when we allow time and space for getting dirty. My husband and I typically require an extra change of clothes due to mud and creek water, too!
Remember that exploration takes time. Clean up takes time. It all takes time! Be intentional about carving out time for open-ended nature exploration. If you feel like you need to, you can ask questions like “I wonder why this rock in the water is so smooth?” See if they answer! Also, remember that exploring the same area is great because it can lead to more in-depth studies, but new environments are important too! Find your local forest preserves and go exploring!