When the great outdoors is just beyond the back door, you don’t have to venture far to have a fun adventure. Since our three children, including twins, were babies, my husband and I have taken them into the woods. As toddlers, they ditched the baby carriers, eager to strike out on the trail on their own.
Now ages six and four, the kids have some favorite hikes that involve driving anywhere from 15 minutes to half an hour or more to reach the trailhead. But often we simply head outside and explore the fields and forest closer to home.
We are lucky to have trails meandering through the old apple orchard in our back field and into the forest beyond. We get outside as often as we can, in every season, and my children have come to know their little corner of the world pretty well.
Through the seasons and the years, we have noted which flowers bloom first, where the squirrels like to munch their pinecones in the woods (as evidenced by their middens, or piles of discarded pinecone scales), when to listen for the peepers singing from the nearby pond, and where the best stashes of wild blueberries and blackberries grow.
The kids love to look for animal signs – deer and moose tracks in the mud along the driveway, oblong holes in dead trees made by pileated woodpeckers, bear scat near the apple trees, broken branches where the bears climbed for treats or the moose nibbled at buds. When they find an unfamiliar flower, they’ll bend down for a closer look, usually amazed at some feature that would have gone unnoticed from a loftier adult height.
If we find a track or a flower or tree we don’t know, we’ll return home and open our trusty Field Guide to New England, published by the National Audubon Society, to learn more about it. When we cross an old stonewall, tumbling and moss-covered amidst the forest, or a stray apple tree or patch of day lilies far into the woods, we wonder together how those things came to be.
Not everyone has trails right in their back yard, of course, but if you live in the Northeast Kingdom or northern New Hampshire, you’re close to some trail system, whether a town conservation area – the Dells in Littleton or the St. Johnsbury Town Forest – or a state park, a public wildlife refuge, or a national forest land.
Even exploring your own back yard or taking a walk down the road can reveal some of the natural wonders in your neighborhood – anthills in the driveway, bees buzzing around the garden, the tat-tat-tat of a woodpecker in the trees, a dozen types of colorful fungus.
In becoming familiar with the world immediately around them, my children have learned to make careful observation, to see how things are connected and how the landscape and activities change with the seasons. When we take our adventuring further afield, they can recognize many of the things we see along the trail from our own wanderings close to home. Along the way, they’re building up those hiking muscles for longer treks.
Getting outside can be both calming and invigorating. Looking at the landscape of home from a child’s perspective becomes a learning experience for all of us. As adults, caught up in an array of responsibilities, we often forget the sense of pure wonder we felt as children. It is easy to reclaim that wonder when you go outside with a child.