It was a mild and humid winter day, the snow just a few inches deep and pleasingly soft. We wrapped up our game, the group already rosy-cheeked and impressively bedraggled. Just a few minutes after hoisting backpacks and stepping onto the forest path, a coyote trail tempted us from the trail and into the thickets.
There was passionate debate over snacks about how, and more importantly where, to proceed. When asked to point in the direction of the path the answers spanned the compass. No one was sure which direction we had come from -- their sense of space and place had been lost in the rabbit maze of the thicket. Most of the kids, secure now in their comradeship after the trials of the morning, weighed to the debate in with gusto. Our choices were as follows: to venture into the unmapped wetland, where we would win glory and satisfaction from our exploration of the fascinating wetland ecosystem, though assuredly all suffer ice-cold soakers. This was not a popular prospect, though it was gaining support over the other option of returning the way we had come through the grasping thicket to endure many heinous whippy-branches-to-the-face. The group had just about come down on the side of braving the soakers, when a hitherto silent voice piped up.
"I can take us back exactly to where we left the path! I promise! Let me lead you through the cedars!" This little person had been, to my eye at least, a kid unsure of where or how to place himself into the order of things. In a group of diverse ages and interests, he was the youngest, quite bright, and precociously self-conscious. A kid who is utterly voiceless until he feels comfortable, when he suddenly flowers lavishly into nonstop chatter. Let's call him Felix.
The group eyes him doubtfully. I eye them, alert and sensitive to the risk being taken by this young fella.
"I swear! I know I can get us back to the trail! It'll be easy this time! I promise!"
Everyone exchanges uncertain glances. The decision is teetering on a knife's edge, when the oldest kid fixes Felix with a serious gaze, and administers a gesture of gorgeous generosity. "Ok -- I'll follow you. Lead me back to the path." The rest of the group acquiesces in his wake. Backpacks are zipped, tuques yanked over ears. Felix, steely-eyed and visibly quivering with the gravity of his task, sniffs the wind and sets off. We follow, with only a small amount of preemptive family-friendly thicket cursing. Minutes later, we are standing on the main path only a stone's throw from where the coyote trail first drew us into the thickets. The cheers and rejoicing are loud. Felix is glowing, his chest thrown out, as if his accomplishment is ballooning up, larger and larger, inside his body.
There is something essential about time outdoors that facilitates moments like these. There is so much constructive, character-forming experience packed into the hour or so that this story spans__the absorption and wonder of trailing wild animals, and the new perspectives that accompany the revelation of seeing how and where animals live; the resilience to endure discomfort; the cooperative collaborative problem-solving; the weight and exhilaration of deciding among themselves the course we would take; the opportunity to take a risk; to extend themselves in generosity; the opportunity to save the day.
Every day we are in the woods with youngsters, the thickets, forests, swamps, and meadows act as thresholds that transport kids away from the ordinary parameters of their lives, to a place laden with possibility, choice, and challenge. In this wild place, of friends and trees and winds and porcupines, we see the best in every child rise to meet the challenges.