Outdoor Girl

Please join me in saving our kids. Let’s take them to the woods and let them connect with nature.

Our daughter struggles with severe anxiety issues and other mental health challenges. From a very young age, she was driven to spend extended periods of time outdoors. We have learned that when she gets agitated or argumentative or teary, it’s time to send her outside, no matter what the weather is like. It even helps her think more clearly. Others sometimes question how we could allow our daughter to be outside in pouring rain, or in a snowstorm, or on a crisp, cold night. We know that’s the wrong question. The real question for our family is how could we ever imprison her inside? Outdoor GirlAll of our children spent the majority of their growing up years being homeschooled. Each one spent some time in public or private school settings, with mixed success. This youngest daughter tried valiantly to survive 6th and 7th grade in the local school. She was even granted an accommodation to be allowed to step outside with an aide or a counselor if she really needed it. But that just wasn’t enough. She melted down numerous times per day, overwhelmed by classroom chaos and expectations, fleeing to the quiet of the office. Obviously, academic progress is difficult when the student is never in class! We brought Daughter back home for school last fall…and she and I spent 6 weeks backpacking on the Appalachian Trail. (I’ve written other posts about homeschooling on the trail HERE and HERE.)

Counter to prevailing wisdom, Daughter and I did not take overnight backpacking trips prior to leaving on our adventure. I was afraid that if she was uncomfortable or became anxious about the trip, she would melt down and refuse to give it a try. It seemed to be a better option for us to do some outdoors walking in local parks, then get to the AT and hike “for real.” I knew hubby would come rescue us if needed, although we didn’t mention that to daughter. She focused on the itinerary for each day and made the decisions of when to stop for snacks and lunch. Having that level of control was helpful for her staying motivated to keep hiking.

After debilitating anxiety attacks 2-3 times per day during the school year, and 2-3 times per week during the freedom of summer, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect while we were backpacking. I was amazed that during our time on the trail, Daughter was generally calm, even-tempered and cheerful. She took pride in being equal to adults in skill, performing camp chores, and taking responsibility for herself. Yes, she had some grumpy, exhausted, teary moments…but so did I! In the 6+ weeks we were hiking, she only had one (count ‘em, ONE) anxiety attack. And after a stop for water, a snack, and belting out a favorite song, she was able to calm herself back down. The only time she struggled with maintaining her composure was when we were in the chaos of towns for resupply. Outdoor Girl ChildWe KNOW time outdoors is both helpful and healing for our daughter. She thinks more clearly and can focus more effectively on current tasks when she is in nature. We joke that we need to find a cabin in the woods to move to…even though that isn’t really feasible right now. So, she and I try to regularly walk in nearby parks, she spends hours on her scooter, and we are starting to count down the time til we head back to the Appalachian Trail for another long distance hike late this spring.

This winter, I was fascinated to discover that there is an entire branch of science focused on this link between nature and human well-being, called “eco-psychology” or “eco-therapy.” Here are a few links to interesting articles about the benefits of hiking, being in nature, and connecting children to nature:

Your Brain When You Walk in the Woods

Hiking Is Good for Your Mental Health

Less Outdoor Play Is Causing More Harm Than Good

Letting My Autistic Son Go Where the Wild Things Are

If you would like to read an entire book on this topic, this one is a classic: Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. It is available on Amazon HERELast Child in the Woods

Child in the Woods

“God has given me this child…and she is in God’s hands!”

I have had many folks question how we could consider taking our young teen on a long distance, multi-week backpacking trip. Although I usually just smile and make some inane comment about how much she enjoyed the trip, my thoughts scream out “I had no other choice! This is exactly what she NEEDED!”

We have tended to be “outside-the-box” parents, homeschooling our kids, letting them explore interests, and helping them pursue passions. This one, our youngest, has extra challenges. She is very smart and learns some things quickly. At the same time, most “book-learning” takes extraordinary amounts of work. She craves social contact, but lacks many of the skills needed to be successful in building relationships with peers. She is often at the center of a hurricane of emotions, made more unbearable and unmanageable with extreme anxiety. Life sometimes feels like a never-ending series of appointments with therapists and doctors to find the help she needs to manage daily living. That’s no way to feel strong and successful in life…

child in the woods

Then we decided that she and I would spend a few months backpacking on the Appalachian Trail. As journaled here on this blog, I researched, planned, bought gear, and off we went. Along the way, we discovered that this is exactly what she needs! Being in nature brought anxiety and emotions to manageable levels. We could walk peacefully through most days. She enjoyed the social contacts along the way, with little of the stress that debilitates her in town.

Folks questioned how we could make her take this trip, focused on the physical dangers. We now realize that she and I will take many more adventures along the AT, focused on the personal healing that comes when this child is in the woods…

“Little School in the Big Woods”

For the past 23 years we have homeschooled our kids. Over the years that often included extended travel. This is the first time, however, that we have tried “Little School in the Big Woods.” Outdoor education

While our primary focus for the past six weeks has been life skills in the context of daily backpacking, we have included relevant academics as well. Sometimes this was in formal settings such as visiting museums, earning a Jr Ranger badge at a National Park, or attending a historical reenactment event. Museum

Jr Ranger

Civil War Reenactment

Natural Science is obviously easy to cover.  (See blog post HERE about critters we have seen in the trip.) We also made time for drawing, journal writing, storytelling, and singing. Journaling

Drawing of Backpack

Schoolwork

Finally, we carried my kindle so we had access to literature about the great outdoors. Most evenings we read out loud: poetry by Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, Robert Service, and from Psalms; and historical fiction about early exploration and settlement of the Ohio Valley in “The Frontiersmen” by Allan Eckhart. (We would love to hear YOUR favorite literature or poetry about the great outdoors! We want to continue exploring this theme throughout the rest of the schoolyear.) Traveling library

Daughter was so enthralled by “The Spell of the Yukon,” a poem by Yukon gold miner Robert Service, that she now has it memorized. She gives dramatic recitations to all who are interested (and even to those who are just being polite!) If you don’t have the chance to hear her in person, you can read the poem HERE.

When we get home, we will continue to explore what we have learned in our outdoor education. Possibilities include making posters and brochures, writing stories or even a children’s book, building a model of an AT shelter, designing quilt squares, and more. We will keep you posted…

(Note: we finished this year’s epic adventure on Oct. 21 but still have plenty of photos and posts to share with you!)