Free Forest School in Halifax: A natural fit for young families
Last Tuesday was the first morning Mr. M (3 3/4) didn't have his morning preschool as they have finished for the summer. Moments after his sister left for school he showed up beside me with a backpack filled with essential items such as dinky cars, random Happy Meal toys, and car magazines), his sneakers, socks, and hat and said, "What are we doing today Mama?"
Right. What WERE we doing today?? It was hot and sunny and I had a little boy eager for adventure. As if on cue, a reminder popped up on my phone that I had clicked "maybe" for my RSVP to the new free forest school outing today in Halifax.
I glanced at the time. I had about 60 minutes before it started and it would take me about 30 minutes to get to the Frog Pond. It could be done, and we did it.
Our group met in the grassy area beside the parking lot of the Frog Pond on Purcell's Cove Road at 9:40, as they do each week. It's encouraged to bring something to sit on (tarp, towel, blanket) and a small amount of a peanut-free snack that you're willing to share (a snack potluck, if you will). Everyone gathered and munched and introduced ourselves. This day there were three repeat Forest School attendees (including Kirsty, the group leader) and two newbies (including myself). Children ranged in age from nine months to five years old.
Around 10:00 everyone did a quick dose of sunscreen and tick/bug spray (see more on ticks near the end) and headed off onto the path and walked about 5-10 minutes. It's encouraged to carry your baby/child, or let them walk if they can, rather than bring strollers as they sometimes head off the beaten trail. Toys are also discouraged as they may distract from the natural elements available to play with. Today we stayed on the main path and stopped at one of their regular spots on the side of the pond.
Kirsty McRae is the lovely woman who has volunteered to run the Halifax Free Forest School. She's recently moved here from Scotland. She said she started it because she loves being outside with her two children (a six year old boy and 18 month old girl) and thought it would be a good way to meet like-minded people in a new city. She's also been working with Hike It Baby Halifax planning lots of local walks and hikes for families with young kids.
On this hot morning it didn't take long before little fingers (and, not much later, little bodies) started splashing around and exploring the water. Mother ducks floated nearby with their fuzzy duckling babies, delighting the human babies.
Mr M heard a girl with our group say that she had a fishing stick and he thought that was a great idea. He found one of his own and lay on a rock swirling it around in the water, looking for fish. Before long he was completely soaked but having a fantastic time exploring (and he didn't even think twice about the bag of toys we'd left in the car or the shovel he was so sure he'd need).
After about an hour of free, child-led play that flew by, Kirsty pulled out a book (it was one of our favourites, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, this day) and read it to the group, then we sang a few songs. At this point it was the family's choice if they wanted to stay and play a little longer, or head back home.
I'd promised Mr. M we'd stop by the Dingle natural playground so we bid our good-byes but we will be back. It's a wonderful group and so much fun seeing the children comfortable in nature and creating their own fun and adventures out of the natural resources available to them.
Find out more about Halifax's Free Forest School on the Facebook group here and stop by any Tuesday (rain or shine) for some wonderful, free, outdoor fun.
So let's talk ticks now. This is the number one reason other people have told me they've been avoiding playing in the woods with their kids these last couple years.
Trust me, I get it. I DESPISE ticks and, despite living in an area surrounded by woods and building a natural playground for my kids, I worry about them a lot. Two years ago I found a tick deeply embedded in me, so much so that I ended up having to go to the doctor who had an alarming amount of trouble removing it herself.
I had to take some very strong medication to try to ward of the likely potential that I had contracted Lyme disease while they sent off the tick for testing. It all worked out in the end but let's just say I have a very real fear of ticks now.
That being said, and possibly even more so because of my scary experience, I really don't want my children to be afraid of the woods and ticks. I grew up loving the outdoors and want the same for them.
Yes, ticks are a problem in our region, and, yes, you sometimes get one on you from playing in the woods, but there are easy ways to do your best to prevent them.
For the Halifax Free Forest School day Mr. M and I wore lightweight, loose pants with socks and closed toe shoes, sprayed on some natural tick spray, and brought along a Tick Key (tick remover tool - see the image for the affiliate Amazon link for the one we use) in case it was needed. When we got home we both had a quick rinse off/tick check in the shower and we were all clear. I also have a timer on my phone every evening to do a quick visual tick check of the kids as they get ready for bed. Maybe overkill but once you've had one of those critters take up residence on your body, you become a little extra cautious!
I consider it my job as their parent to teach them to respect and appreciate our natural world and, eventually, to protect it long term, ticks and all, so we will not be scared off and we will keep going in the woods and this little forest school is a great way to connect them to our natural world through imagination and play.