Into the Woods: How Nature Makes Me a Better Mom and My Son a Better Kid

mother walking in the woods with son

You know those days that seem most challenging? And your reaction to all of it is less than perfect? Those are the days the little angel on my shoulder screams GET OUTSIDE! And she is always right. For me, time in nature is like a yoga class or a hug from my mom. It allows me to stop, put things in perspective, and realize everything is going to be okay.

“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in tune once more.” – John Burroughs

Early into motherhood, I realized that my baby also benefited from time in the forest. As we walked through trees, his eyes would widen and his demeanor would calm. As my boy grows, the woods continue to help him thrive. At six years old, I’m grappling with how to best prepare my boy with life skills like handling big emotions, health and wellness, cultivating empathy, and realizing his place in the world. Luckily, I have mother nature to help me with these lessons.

Stimulates the Senses  

A hike through the forest offers my boy a balance of stimulation, calm, and awareness that we can’t find anywhere else. When he is playing legos or watching a show, his attention is directed so keenly that every distraction is ignored. But a hike requires the opposite. He uses sight, smell, touch, and hearing to take in the entire experience. Ironically, he finishes a hike feeling far more rejuvenated than he would after a half hour “decompressing” with legos or a tv show. There’s research to back this crazy claim: according to the Attention Restorative Theory, nature plays a valuable role in helping individuals overcome mental fatigue. 

Builds Confidence and Creativity 

Our time in the woods is unstructured and puts my six old in charge. He chooses the path and the tempo. We run, we stop, we get sidetracked. He builds shelters and tries to identify trees. He searches for animal tracks, and if there aren’t any to be found, we create our own and make up stories about imaginary beasts. Rules are minimal on our hikes, and I can see his pride and confidence soar as he makes discoveries and shares with me his ideas and knowledge of the outdoors. 

Strengthens Personal Connections 

Maybe it’s his more agreeable attitude or my happy childhood memories of playing in forests, but I find I become a happier, more playful mama when we are outside. We sing silly songs, we create checklists of things we’d like to see, and we always leave with pockets full of rocks, leaves, and maybe a critter or two that we return home a few days later. As kids, my sisters and I would tease my mother about her “wildlife voice”- a cross between a whisper and an excited yell. I have (inevitably) taken on the same voice, and my son knows that tone means there is something special to be seen. When we view wildlife, my boy and I almost always exchange a wordless and meaningful look, that confirms for me, that our bond is strong.  

Builds Empathy and Respect

My son’s kindergarten class kept a caterpillar in the classroom, and every day my boy reported back to me its development. When the monarch was finally released to start its journey south, we continued to wonder what adventures it may encounter. My son wanted to plant milkweed and flowers in our yard to offer snacks to other butterflies on their long migration. This experience led to easier conversations about the importance of conserving water and picking up litter. It also illustrated to both of us that the very smallest creatures can be unbelievably brave and strong, but it’s still good to offer a helping hand. And even if your journey goes in a different direction, cheer for those who are trying to reach their own goals.

“We have such brief opportunity to pass on to our children our love for this Earth, and to tell our stories, These are the moments when the world is made whole.” – Richard Louv

Want to get outdoors? Here are a few items and locations that make the journey more exciting. 

What to bring:

  • snacks and water
  • sunscreen and bug spray
  • wet wipes
  • a magnifying glass
  • a terrarium (I like this one)
  • a net
  • shoes that can get wet and clothes that can get dirty

What to do:

  • create a checklist of things to find (a smooth rock, a yellow leaf, a foot print, etc)
  • print off pictures of animal tracks and look for them around streams and ponds
  • play eye spy 

Where to go:

  • Griffy Lake: Lots of trail options! Short, long, flat, hilly. You can meander along the water or hike up into the forest. 
  • Cascades Park waterfall trail: This short trail is across the street from the lower cascades playground, and it feels a million miles away from everything. 
  • Amy Weingarten Branigin Peninsula: I love this new trail! It’s two miles roundtrip and offers the very best views to rest/play/ snack at the halfway point. Bonus points for being a long straight trail- kiddos can run ahead or lag behind and they stay in site. 
  • Brown County State Park: So many good trail options! Don’t miss a climb up the fire tower and a visit to the nature center.  
  • McCormick Creek State Park: We love to hike the wolf cave loop and stop at the waterfall for a dip on our way home. This is one you’ll want to bring the waterproof shoes or flip-flops.  

Where do you love to hike and explore the world outside?

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