These days there is considerable concern about the fact that most kids spend very little time outside and even less of that time in an unstructured form. This concern is not without reason and I thoroughly encourage any parent to send their kids outside into yards, parks, and woods. I learned many valuable lessons out there and I’m healthier than many of my peers as a result of those adventures.
However, because of a many years spending my free time in the same stretch of creek, I noticed some discernible differences between the way I and the kids I directly influenced treated the area and how other kids did. Somehow I managed to acquire a certain respect for God’s creation that other kids did not. Over the years the lack of respect for natural areas seems to have worsened over time, so much so that it’s almost painful for me to visit the stretch of creek where I grew up.
I’d like to pass on the previously unspoken rules and realities of the forest that I learned as a child. Because it’s good for your kids to be outside and enjoy unstructured play, but obviously it’s not good for them to be destructive or endanger themselves and others.
- The one everybody knows, don’t start fires unless you’re in an area where it is allowed and you intend to keep a sharp eye on it. Put it out properly if you start one.
- Don’t torment or kill animals. Following them curiously at a distance is fine, but don’t drive them out of the woods, throw rocks, etc.
- Don’t leave traps or snares around, take them down when you leave.
- Don’t litter or leave garbage, throw it away properly.
- Don’t drink the water.
- If you must go to the bathroom in the forest, bury it.
- Don’t eat anything you don’t absolutely know is safe.
- Don’t completely strip bushes or trees of fruit. The animals need to eat too.
- Use only materials you can find in the forest to build things.
- Don’t expect anything you built/left to be there when you return the next day.
- Don’t pointlessly mutilate trees. Carving your name in the bark is one thing, taking out huge gouges or destroying exposed roots is another.
- Drawing on rocks or trees with stuff that will wash away is fine.
- Trimming or pruning undergrowth to clear a path is fine. Hacking at undergrowth for no reason is not.
- Avoid raccoons.
- Don’t pick berries at raccoon level.
- Traveling/playing in groups of three or more is best.
- Make sure to make note of your surroundings so that you don’t get lost.
- Pick flowers, don’t rip the entire thing out of the ground.
The rules boil down to: Don’t hurt anything or anyone, leave no trace, be prudent, have respect, nothing here is yours.
A few ideas for parents who aren’t as familiar with outdoor play themselves or are nervous:
- For older kids, get walkie-talkies. That way you aren’t hovering, but your kids can contact you if trouble arises.
- For those close to creeks/rivers. Get the kid some wading shoes, that way they won’t ruin good shoes.
- Wash off wading kids’ feet and legs with the hose before they come in the house.
- It’s highly unlikely that wild berries will have been “sprayed” by the government, most local governments don’t have the time or money for such things. It doesn’t hurt to check how things are done in your area though.
- Research local plant life and find out what is and isn’t edible. Teach your kids.
- Teach your kids what poison oak, poison ivy, and stinging nettle look like.
- Research local rules, find out if campfires, fishing, etc is legal there. Teach your kids accordingly.
- Find out if ticks are common in your area, if they are advise your kid to avoid tall grass and thick underbrush.
- Unless we are talking about some seriously untamed forest, there are unlikely to be large predatory animals.
- If you are concerned, your best bet is a dog for a companion.
- There’s no reason you can’t go with them and keep a direct eye on them, just don’t start every sentence with, well, “Don’t”.
- Younger kids or irresponsible kids should be accompanied.
- A scraped knee, blackberry scratches, or a sore, wet tush will not permanently harm your child.
- The rules that I’ve outlined above are for daytime trips into the woods/ a park. Hunting and camping trips obviously adhere to slightly different rules.
- Mint oil will help repel mosquitoes. Sunscreen helps prevent sunburn. Do not mix the two. This will create a rash similar to poison oak.
- Pocket/utility knives are very useful, just make sure to teach your kid to use it responsibly.
Of course, all this is just from the perspective of someone who spent her summers knee deep in creek water with a mouth full of unwashed blackberries. I don’t yet have the honor of being a parent, but know that I’ll be teaching my kids these things when they come along. And I really hope you’ll teach your kids these things, or at least teach them not to litter. I’m no environmentalist, but a creek bank strewn with garbage is a truly depressing sight.
On the other hand, a child with twig-filled hair and a tanned, smiling face is a beautiful sight indeed.