Seconds after I began swaying in a lakeside hammock with my baby cradled in my arms, my 3- and 5-year- olds began to wander out of my sight into the thick of the nearby woods. Barefoot and bathing-suited, they were armed with sticks and their imaginations; peals of laughter and the crack of dry wood snapping under their feet were my only clues as to their whereabouts.
I stayed put and closed my eyes, giving in to their desire to roam freely and giving up my instinct to overprotect. Feeling more relaxed than I had in five years of parenthood, I recall thinking, “I’m onto something here.”
Turns out, so were my free-roaming kids. Their sticks and wild play soon disturbed a nest of angry ground wasps hidden beneath the thin soil of the forest floor. A couple of hours and two baking-soda-anointed kids later, I had to chalk that one up as one more part of my learning experience on parenting in the woods.
Beyond remembering to carry a first-aid kit, I’ve also come to realize that such brushes with nature, big or small, reveal an important version of my kids — and myself — not always apparent in our city life.
Wasp stings and the bites of half a dozen other bloodthirsty flies and insects are all part of the daily routine when your backyard is a huge, wild forest. For my kids, this backyard is sometimes an outdoor freshwater field station where their dad is a scientist. Tucked into a remote corner of Northwestern Ontario, the research facility is a collection of 58 freshwater lakes and their boreal forest watersheds on a swath of remote, provincially owned land. Access to the area is tightly controlled, and the site is not marked on any gas station road map.
It’s part backcountry adventure, part family-friendly work camp. A handful of cozy cabins and bunk-style dorms are set into the trees along the perimeter of a cluster of chemistry and biology labs, a workshop and a dining hall that doubles as a meeting space. You can find just about everything you need to live and work comfortably and communally here. Families are welcome to visit and stay during the long weeks and months that field work demands.
The seemingly endless forest of evergreens and birch looms large in this landscape, and you don’t have to walk far in any direction to find the clear, unspoiled waters Northern Ontario is known for. The nearest grocery store, playground and reliable cell phone signal are in a town of 1,200 people an hour’s drive away.
Quite often when we head for these woods, it’s just me and my kids, a couple of dozen researchers, staff and their dogs, and the great, wild outdoors. We can wander freely, where and as we want, for as long as we want, with nature as our playground — making my approach to parenting out there as much of an experiment as any official study of freshwater science going on.
There’s an abundance of convincing research out there for parents these days showing why it’s good for kids to spend more time outside. Ironically, a lot of this evidence and advice is aimed at my generation of 30- and 40- something parents — the last generation of people who really played outside.
Our childhoods were full of free time spent wandering streets and playgrounds, forests and fields, in multi-age gangs of kids, no adult supervision in sight, and coming home only when the streetlights turned on.
Yet our own children are being raised largely indoors, with more time being spent on more abundant screens. And even when our kids do go outside, the way they spend their time there has changed: they’re more likely to be in highly organized sports, safely designed playgrounds and supervised schoolyards, rather than playing freely and imaginatively on their own.
Coining the phrase “nature-deficit disorder” — what he describes as “the broken bond between our young and nature” — author Richard Louv explores the links between time spent playing outside and kids’ overall well-being in his book Last Child in the Woods. While making the case that our generation of outside-raised kids is raising its own generation of restrained “containerized kids,” Louv’s most salient point is that while any time kids spend playing freely outside is better than none, the very best things happen when they do it in nature.
Indeed, in our own private wilderness, I’ve learned at the first mention of “I’m bored,” to grab our water bottles and rubber boots and go for a walk. With no particular destination, and no fixed plan or activity, we just head for the trees or the water, stopping when the kids want to explore or play. Within minutes, the grumbling and complaining gives way to relaxed conversation and curiosity, playful, peaceful intent, and genuinely happier kids.
Just like full tummies and quality sleep, daily unstructured time outdoors has become an essential tool in my parenting kit, whether in the woods or at home in the city. Be it a bike ride around the block or just free playtime in the yard, children return to the indoors a restored version of themselves, all the keyed-up dials set back to normal.
There’s a place in our woods where we like to walk barefoot from the beach and play under the shady, cool canopy of the older evergreen trees.
There’s an extensive “castle” of lean-tos and fallen logs taking shape in there among the tall trees and mossy outcrops, where a carpet of pine and spruce needles cushions the ground and mutes our footsteps, turning the soil so acidic that weeds and brush can’t crowd in and block the fun.
It’s a place so quiet and mystical, you can almost believe in the fairies the kids have spent hours building tiny pinecone villages for, if not sense the presence of unseen eyes, be it wary wildlife or ancient spirits.
This is a place for messy, imaginative play, for gaining what Louv calls a “sensory experience of nature.” For my kids, this is the time and space for digging in the dirt and jumping in puddles, for berry-stained mouths and rock-filled pockets, for following a line of marching ants, chasing a butterfly or just sitting still to watch the clouds go by.
Their keen appreciation for the natural world is developing before my eyes, giving them a sense of how they fit into the puzzle of life and filling some inherent need to be connected to the land — profound feelings easily awakened in the wild that can’t be replicated in a playground.
Or as Louv puts it: “Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young … If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.”
Driving slowly along the winding dirt road back to the highway and civilization one year, my kids and I came up unnoticed behind a mother black bear and her three cubs. We stopped the car and stayed inside, watching them from a distance with cautious awe and wonder.
The cubs were jumping and rolling over each other, frolicking with playful abandon the way any young siblings are prone to do. The mother bear was ambling along a few paces ahead of them, aware but relaxed, one eye seemingly on them, the other on the road and the woods. It was only when they eventually heard us, intruders on their private moment, that they scampered into the woods, shy and afraid.
For me, too, the outdoors offer a reprieve from my everyday “real-world” parental fears. The inherent risks of the woods and wild nature somehow seem more avoidable and manageable to me in comparison to the culture of fear we’re raising our kids in, back home in the city.
Every news story about abductions, shootings and terrorism plays on my anxieties. Most parents I know even fear being judged or reported for allowing their kids to play outside without the hyper-vigilant supervision we’ve been told is the new normal. In the woods, away from relentless media coverage and social pressure, I’m often more relaxed and less afraid —– or at the very least, afraid of fewer things.
My children, too, need that reprieve, that freedom. Not just to play wildly and simply in nature, but also to be free of my motherly eye constantly trained on them. They need the less worried version of me, that one that gives less of “no” and more of “yes,” is more playful, less efficient, and who has more time to listen and enough time to want to.
Parenting in the wild has the power to show you what you’re really made of, but also what you really need. When I first walked into those woods with my kids, I didn’t think I could parent to that degree on my own, keeping them safe and occupied all day. I had to learn to trust myself, and them. We’ve all emerged from the forest a little more resilient, more grounded.
The story behind the story:
I wrote this piece in the thick of the hands-on parenting young kids require. When I pitched it, I knew I had a unique perspective to share about living at that field station, but writing it also let me reflect on the struggles and joys of finding my own way in motherhood, of contending with that isolation both physical and emotional. It’s interesting to revisit it now that my kids are almost all teenagers — so much more independent and far less interested in spending weeks alone with me in the woods. Our time in the wild comes in much smaller doses. This is a good reminder to me to savour each one.
Carmen Kinniburgh is a writer in Northwestern Ontario and the co-founder of unhitch.ca. Her work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, websites, reports, grant applications, and for a few years, even her parents’ annual Christmas letter. Thanks to the generous encouragement of the Laughing Foxes writer’s group and SFU’s creative writing community, Carmen is also now working towards her 100 rejections. She lives in a small house with her partner, four children, two dogs and a whole lot of books.
“Parenting in the Wild” was originally published in 2017 as “Experimental Parenting” in Almost Fearless magazine.
This is an edited excerpt.
Photos are courtesy of the author.