What to Do in the Wild: Ideas for Creative Wilderness Play with Children

One of the biggest obstacles to getting engaged with the wilderness is a lack of inspiration. Kids - especially urban kids - simply don't have the experience to generate fun ideas when they arrive in the wild to play. Teachers and parents, having perhaps not much experience themselves, or otherwise having left wilderness play behind in their childhood, may not know how to help this situation. I'd like to offer some ideas about both preparing to take kids into the wild, and then inspiring them to engage there.

There are some general preparations we can make, as adults, to ensure that our wilderness adventures will be safe and fun. If we are confident ourselves, the kids we bring with us into the wild will be much more confident also, and then we're all likely to get more out of the experience. Most importantly, although I'm going to give some cautionary notes, don't let these things scare you; just get used to looking for them. There are far more hazards in the city, but because most of us are accustomed to these hazards, and automatically keep an eye out for them, they don't pose much of a threat. I promise you that with enough time spent in the wilderness, a similar sense of confidence and ease will develop.

Get to know the plants: Take a camera or a notebook or whatever you need to help yourself engage with what you encounter, and get to know the opportunities and hazards in your area. I recommend a high-quality, photo-rich plant identification book, so that you can familiarize yourself with what you'll find, locally. Spend some time every day identifying plants, until you feel confident. If you discover dangerous plants in your area, don't avoid them; learn about them so you can pass this knowledge onto the kids. It's always better to be informed than sheltered. You never know where or when these plants will be found again.

Get to know the terrain: Try clambering through some rough areas so you get a feel for what you are personally able to tackle, and what the terrain is like, in general. Try out some of the wilderness activities listed below! Keep hazards in mind, so that you become more attuned to them in general. This skill will keep you safer, but more importantly keep your mind at ease, when you're out with your children or class. Some general hazards to watch for:
  • Look up for things that can fall (rotten or dead trees, branches broken off but hung up overhead, large dangerous cones, wasp nests, overhanging loose rocks, etc.)
  • Look down for ankle-breakers and sink-holes (quick-sand, deep holes that may be hidden by ferns, wasp nests and biting ant hills, deep mud, sharp garbage or barnacles, etc.)
Getting to know the terrain doesn't just mean identifying hazards. It also means falling in love with it - inspire yourself! Look to see what you can discover that's amazing about someplace seemingly mundane. Even a relatively featureless muddy bank holds not only a plethora of life-forms, but also opportunities for play. Get down on the ground and explore with your eyes and nose and fingers. See what wonders you can find and let yourself fall in love. The children you eventually bring back to this place will catch your enthusiasm like a steady wind and carry it on.
Get to know the weather: Certain weather patterns can present certain challenges, so checking the forecast and being prepared is always important. Obviously, storms can present hazards (falling trees, flooding, extreme cold, lightning, etc.) that you may want to avoid entirely. But in addition to those extreme situations, unprepared people often run into trouble. Here are some useful preparations:
  • If it's hot, bring sunscreen, water, and plan to be in the shade. Sunhats are essential for programs I run in hot weather.
  • If it's cold, keep active, and keep dry. Even with mittens, hands tend to get cold, especially when building things, so some sort of hand-warmers are a great idea. (Learn how to make reusable hand-warmers here.)
  • If it's cold and wet, don't plan to be out all day, and dress appropriately. If there is any water available (rain, creek, puddles, mud, ocean, etc.) kids will get wet. So waterproof rain gear and good tall boots are important to have over top of warm garments, mittens and hats. Fleece or sheep's wool is best because it dries faster than cotton.
  • If it's wet but temperatures are mild, kids can still get quite cold, as the damp saps the heat out of their bodies. Bring rain gear and a change of clothes.
  • Let kids regulate their own temperature. Make sure they have warm/dry clothes with them, but allow them to wear what they feel is best. They will usually reach for warmth when they need it, and learn from mistakes when they get cold. Keeping kids bundled when they resist can also be a hazard, since overheating is also a problem (and for some kids happens quickly when they're active), sweat eventually also becomes cold, and mostly they just feel disrespected and miserable.
So you're comfortable in the wilderness. You'd probably be just fine sitting there with a book or your phone, or simply taking some much-needed rest from the busy world. But I think we all hope the kids will get more engaged than that. Let me offer a few creative and explorative activities for you to try. I don't recommend taking kids out with the intention of doing any of these specifically, but keeping your mind open to the nature of exploration, and having these up your sleeve for those 'what to do next' moments.

Things to Do:
Water Play: If you can get to water (or if you can't escape it), use it! It's not only a fabulous resource for learning about physics (I'm not suggesting formal lessons; just freely playing with flow and permeability is highly educational), but is also a wonderful way to bring people together. Maybe you all get together with a common goal of diverting a creek, or of creating a little pond. Maybe one person is delivering water for another's sand or mud-construction. Maybe the rain just soaked everyone and now you're huddled in a grotto eating lunch. Or maybe you're all just jumping and rolling in a flooded meadow. Whatever it is, take precautions (watch for strong current in creeks or signs of kids becoming too cold), and have fun!! Once you get used to the idea of being wet, you can play and explore with abandon.

Climbing Trees: A tree can be a wonderful vantage point, as well as a unique ecosystem to explore. It also provides a great opportunity for muscle and skill development. So educate yourself about safe climbing practice. Good climbing trees are reasonably open near the trunk (not too bushy), while having enough branches to easily climb. They are flexible, strong, healthy trees, with branches generally at least as big around as your upper arm. Always test branches before putting weight on them; always make sure you're hanging on in multiple places, so that if you begin to fall, you'll still be holding onto something. Always keep your weight near the tree's trunk. And don't panic. In our area (the Pacific Northwest), some excellent climbing trees are young healthy cedar, Douglas fir, and alder. Some brittle trees to avoid climbing are maple, hemlock, and anything dead or dying.

Generally, I think it's important for kids to get themselves into trees. If I have to help them up, they haven't gained the confidence to climb safely, or to come back down safely. So I may give advice about technique or suggest good-looking foot-holds or climbing-routes, but I don't lift. And yes, I do also climb trees myself, while making sure that when I'm with young kids, I can still easily and quickly get to them if needed.

Digging: Using hands, sticks, flat rocks, or even shovels, digging can be a fabulous activity. There are wonderful creative and explorative opportunities in the holes excavated, the pile of dirt created, and whatever may be found in the dirt, while digging. Digging might be towards a specific goal, like harvesting clay, creating a sand-castle, or play-mining, but it might just be for the joy of discovery. Some dangers around digging are harming the roots of trees, or creating instability in a slope. Keep these things in mind, but otherwise have fun!

Building: Build whatever your imagination can dream up, using whatever materials are available (without killing plants or disturbing too much habitat). Sticks and branches are familiar materials for forts, walls, and bridges, but try some other things too: Mobiles (using rope, string, or vines), sculptures (sticks lend themselves very well to making forest fairies or tall human-like sculptures, and improvised handmade tools and musical instruments. Rocks can be wonderful for building dams, rock-houses, rock-stacks, and inuksiuk. They can be used to line fire pits for real fires or play, to support structures, and to divert water-flow. Both sticks and rocks can be used in conjunction with all manner of mud, dirt, moss, and clay to create sturdy structures. One word of advice for the well-being of the environment you're using: It's important not to take more than can quickly regenerate. Pulling out lots of ferns, branches, or moss can be tempting, especially when they seem abundant, but too much taken causes serious harm to the environment. For example, too much moss removed from the trunk of a tree or the forest floor will prevent water retention in that area and may cause the tree to weaken or die. Pay attention to the ecosystem you're working in, and respect it.

Pretend Play: Any imaginative game you can play in the house can be easily moved to the wild. You don't need to bring any supplies; costumes can be made of wilderness materials (leaves, grass, bark from dead trees, and face-paint of crushed grass, mud or clay), and props and tools will similarly be improvised. Take any inspiration and see how you can make it work in the wild. Alternatively, let the wilderness itself inspire you! Look around and imagine something fantastic. A couple of weeks ago one of the boys in the group I was leading found a big crumbling rotten stump, spilling its orange and brown powdery remains onto the forest floor. Instantly it seemed to him like the mother-load of cheese, and he began "mining" for cheese. Soon he was delivering all sorts of different types of "cheese" to his friend, who opened a "restaurant", serving amazing-sounding meals (mostly of cheeses) upon fancy bark-plates. This particular pretend play lasted for two afternoons, and we are all now a little more knowledgeable about cheeses, restaurant entrepreneurship, and decomposing forest materials.

Music and Drama: Whether you start a random beat-box on an echo-ey mountainside, a drum-circle around a hollow-log, a puppet-show with leaf-and-twig people, or theatre sports in a sunny glade, the wilderness is your stage. Take advantage of the wide open spaces you find to get loud and exuberant. Sometimes I also use performance as a way to bring divergent groups together, to bridge social difficulties, or to refocus when kids are getting tired. Have a few great stories in mind for moments like these, or allow the wilderness to inspire a new story. Some of the older groups I've worked with took a whole week or season to create a play and movie entirely in the wild, even sometimes bringing a projector, multiple extension cords, and a large flat sheet (screen) into the woods for a film-showing. Anything you can do inside can be approximated in the wild, usually with great discoveries made in the process.


Thanks for reading through this article! You now have some ideas for kids to do in the wilderness. But remember these are ideas for YOU. No child is going to be naturally engaged with something new that their parent or teacher is clearly not engaged with. I can't tell you how many times I've taken groups of people out in the wilderness and seen the kids look up at their parents or teachers, often woefully under-dressed, standing around on their phones or assuming an aloof stance at the edge of the play area. Don't be that grown-up. Tell yourself to let go of your adult inhibitions.

You're going to get dirty. You're going to get wet and tired, with splinters in your hands and tears in your eyes. You are going to haul your grown-up body to places it hasn't been in years, and lie it down on the ground. You'll go home with twigs in your hair and mud or moss or sand in places you never imagined. Take pride, because then you will be an accomplished, trustworthy mentor and explorer.

Patience with Democracy

We recently brought a kitten into our home, on the advice that this would help our three-year-old cat's loneliness. Well, it's not the kitten who's afraid and reluctant to connect; it's the older cat. This sweet, careful, and exceedingly tiny kitten takes every opportunity she gets to come close to the older cat and introduce herself. Sometimes she goes up and sniffs the older cat's nose, which generally leads to growling. Mostly, the little one approaches quietly to a safe distance, assumes a small, still position... and waits.

This has been going on for about a week, and the little one's patience seems to be endless. We humans (and probably she herself) know there is a potential friendship, but as long as the older cat is not open to it, it's not going to happen, so the little one sits and waits.

My human little one has been going through a similar process. She spent about a year and a half turning one of her favourite books into a script for a musical, then presented it to her theatre group and had it approved. After nearly two years of intense work, she had just finished the casting process, and was digging into the big job of co-directing her first play... when issues of race and representation came up. She's a girl of European descent adapting and directing a very Chinese play with mostly white children, on unceded Coast Salish territory. As settler parents, we thought this was wonderful! I was so proud of my girl for taking an interest in other cultures. But not all parents in our daughter's community felt this way, and the theatre group has tumbled over and over trying to grapple with the issues, to resolve racist connotations, to take white privilege into consideration, to make sure that the play is deeply rooted in an understanding of Chinese mythology and history, and that the lead roles are not primarily white. Everyone concerned with this issue thinks s/he knows what's right. Everyone thinks that if everyone else would just see clearly, all would be sorted out. Everyone is also open to change, to consideration and to keep coming back to the table until the issues are resolved. And of course the play is on hold until that happens.

It's a serious disappointment for a child who has put so much heart and effort into a project, only to find that she has a lot more work to do. Even for an adult this would be upsetting. But despite this setback, my daughter pointedly attends every meeting, considers every point of view, and is in this thing for the long haul. Seeing her bravely take on this challenging process, I am now far more proud of my girl than I was when all she had done was write a fabulous script.

And of course a number of people have told me that our choice to unschool, or our daughter's specific theatre program are the problems. People suggest we quit - find something better. And you know what? That's enticing! It's always easier to turn and run away, and I have certainly done that in situations where I felt I could make no headway, or simply was too immature to stay. But we are working hard for democracy in education as well as in the world, and that requires us to stay the course.

Democracy isn't an easy thing to achieve; it's not a set of standards or a system one just steps into. It requires work and acceptance and patience and most of all compassion. It requires listening to others even when we think what they're saying is stupid.

Democracy is part of every day for all of us. The issues can be small, or overwhelmingly huge, and we often make great sacrifices in waiting for others to come to the table, but until they do, no progress will be made. No matter the differences and apparent insurmountable odds, nothing gets anywhere healthy unless all parties come together, of their own volition, with a desire to move forward. This is why we unschool, why we parent openly and honestly, and why we keep reaching for democracy.

Look at those cats' faces. While admitting I surely don't know what's going through feline minds, it seems I see the little one expressing calm, curiosity, and a little fear. The older one is expressing indifference and rejection. The little one is just waiting for a sign of hope. Every time she gets one, she takes a step forward, and if the older one growls, she steps back. Literally: baby steps.