The Forgotten Path


Why do I get so much joy and satisfaction watching my children play in nature? It is something I have wondered about myself.  One of my favorite activities.  I like to play with them in nature, but honestly, I like sitting back and watching them even more.  I struggle here, to put it into words.

I use the term ‘my children’ loosely as I have taken on 18 other children each week out in the woods.   Watching children in deep play outdoors is something I love.  Why?

Freedom?  I know that when they are unencumbered, outside and unstructured they are free.  Maybe it is the sitting back that is so rewarding.   I move out of their way.  I step back from the telling and the teaching, and create a sacred space for their freedom to step forward.  I love watching where they take it.  There is a deep sense of peace that descends on a creek when children become engrossed in what they and the creek decide to do together.  Two puzzle pieces, the creek and the children, fitting together perfectly and suddenly it all makes sense.  Freedom is definitely an essential ingredient.  Yet…

Wild is the other.

When children set out on their own adventure into wilderness, they are seeking a relationship.  They are looking for connection with each other and me.  But deeper than that, they are seeking connection with the wild.  They know on some soul level that when they find that tadpole and hold it in their hands, it was created in just that way, at just that moment, just for them.  When they are mining for gold in the creek and they find a ‘crystal’, they believe that rock was put there at that moment in time, just for them.   When they sit in their secret hide out, hidden from the rest of us, they are not alone.  They know that this secret spot was created around them, for them.   They don’t seek connection with the man made bridge, as much as, they are drawn to what is flowing and growing and swimming and winding beneath it.  The wild.


Two weeks ago when a pouring rain just happened to find us outside looking for adventure, they embraced it as the gift it was.  How could this not have been created just for them?  The joy as they received this gift however they chose, was something I will never forget. Standing back and watching them dance with the wild was my joy.

They went home high.

The next day I heard reports of “the best day ever”.  One child told his special grownup that it was “the best day of his life”.  Then he changed his mind.  “It is the second best day of my life.  The best day was the day I was born.”

I watch this and I remember.  I remember what I was born knowing and then forgot. I remember my own freedom dancing with the wild.  I seek relationship with What created the wild.  I catch a glimmer of conversation with my Creator.

The Forgotten Path.  Children are born into the world knowing this path.  It is not forgotten for them.  By protecting space for them to play on their own path, I remember.  They are my guides.  They teach me how to recall all that I know.  It is as much for me as for them.





made with love

Cocoon of Trees

Chicago 2014.  I sat listening to crickets in the trees one night before our move South.  So much unknown terrain stretched out in front of me.   I remember thinking that only in nature can the deep quiet be so loud.  That is when it happened.

God said to me, “It will be the same.”

What I thought?  What will be the same? It is such a surprise to be spoken to this way.  Not the way we speak to each other, but a knowing, a memory of the conversation.  As if you catch it just after the words are spoken.  It took me a minute to gather my wits.  What just happened?  And then I knew.  I was about to pick up my family and move to another planet.  God was tucking me into the roller coaster ride with a message to hang onto.

“It will be the same.”

The same trees, the same sounds, the same sky, the same.  God will follow me there.  With his majestic creation.  I will be starting over, a stranger, but I will be wrapped in a cocoon of crickets.  The same crickets.  They will sing me this very same song.  The one they have been singing forever.  Since the beginning.  A cocoon of trees.  The same trees.  Green and tall and solid, with roots that connect them in communal unity.  A cocoon of sun and sky.    The same sun filling me up with the essence of myself.  A cocoon of earth and dirt.  The same dirt reminding me of where I come from.  All familiar and the same.  This will be my blanket of comfort in the unease of change.

South Carolina, 19 months later, I stand on my back deck.  It is night and I am listening to the crickets in the trees.  They are the same.  A cocoon of trees tucking me in.

I go to say “good night and thank you.”

I look up at these guardians towering over me.  At that moment it happened again.


God said, “It is here to take care of YOU, not the other way around.”

I said, “who?”  “what?”  There I was again trying to catch the conversation as if that is possible.

God said, “all of it, but especially the trees.”

I stopped chasing and let it sink in.  “Wow, that changes everything.  What fools we are NOT taking care of them, so they can take care of us.”

I got no response.  Just the wind blowing and the crickets chirping.  The same as always.

No wonder I feel grief when I see a forest felled in a single day.

Long ago, when God made the world for us, trees had legs.  They could walk and run just like us.  This is not in the Torah.  It was inspired by my daughter, Hannah, one day as we hiked through the forest.  Trees traveled from place to place.  Usually, they were making sure we were taken care of.  It was their job.   For thousands and thousands of years this worked.  We loved the trees and they loved us more.   Then about 10,000 years ago, we stopped living in small family clans and started figuring out how to farm the land.  We changed.  We started trying to conquer instead of collaborate.  Everyone wanted to be the boss and nobody wanted to compromise.

We began killing for meanness.  We fought just to fight.  The trees were extremely worried for us.  The Grand daddy trees called a council meeting of all the elders.  They came from all over the world for a once in a million year event.  They wanted to help us.  Trees know only peaceful protest and standing for what you believe in.  Period.  No exceptions.  They decided that they could only lead by example, and it had to be drastic.  That is when it happened.  They stood.  Still.  Forever.  The only travel now is a seed carried by wind, or bird or other avenue of nature.

They are waiting for us.  They stand still in their love for us.  They refuse to move until we change our selfish ways.  Of course, we didn’t get it.  Still don’t.  Will we ever?  We cut them down and they let us!  They just stand silent.  When they fall sometimes a groan slips out, but usually their thunderous fall is all that marks the tragedy.   Then the ones still standing  just continue their watch over us.  A loving example.  Waiting.

I am in a quiet place of my life.  It is hard lonely work to pull up your roots and replant them.  Is this how the butterfly feels?  Tucked into her cocoon.   Wrapped up tight.  Is she quiet and lonely?   Or does she know that it is loving protection for the work of change?   The only way transformation can take place.  Does she know that it is temporary?  Something to cherish for the restorative sleep that it is?  How I want to appreciate this silent stillness.  How I want to become the tree I already am.

I am tucked in my cocoon of trees.  They rock me to sleep and sing me to wake.  If you listen in just the right way, they will tell you things.  Ancient things.  They look down with love and look away with respect.  They hold me safe.  Protecting this time of transformation.  They never lose hope.  They are always the same.  I am the one who needs to change.



More time in the woods Part 2

An Afterschool Program

What are your earliest and most powerful play memories?  Mine are outside playing with other children.  If there were adults there at all, they were on the periphery.

Many sleep overs with Debbie and Melody on their farm.  We would play ‘king of the hill’, work on our ‘house’ in the back of an old bus and run through freshly plowed fields of soybeans.  They taught me how to hit a softball.   I learned what an electric fence feels like when you accidentally touch it!  It was a small price to pay to hold the baby pigs.  I saw my first birth as a baby calf came into the world.

Countless days exploring the Sound with my best friend, Betha.  Her backyard was the Inlet Waterway.  Here we were also served up a large dose of freedom.  We were allowed to ride bikes as far as our endurance could take us.  We would take her boat by ourselves to go clamming.  It is the only time I liked the taste of clams.   Maybe dipping them in freedom was the secret sauce.  I felt the vastness of the ocean when the motor quit and we began to drift out to sea.  I lived to tell about it.  Turned out the gas line came loose.  We had the fear, nerves and exhilaration of saving ourselves.

I can’t remember all the weekends I spent playing with cousins on my family’s farm near Chapel Hill, NC.  Spending all day, getting dirty, building forts, climbing trees, playing chase.  Then riding home in an old pick up truck long after the sun went down, starving and unable to feel fingers and toes from the cold.

Then, just about the time girls my age began chasing boys, my Dad gave me a horse.  It was love at first sight!  I pined away for him at school all day until the bus could get me to the barn.  The only way my parents could drag me away was with promises of when I could come back.

And if I was not at any of those places, you could find me at Wrightsville Beach, 10 minutes from my home.  My parents were especially drawn to the ocean.  They took us there in the spring, summer, fall AND winter.  They went for themselves and we got to benefit.

I spent most of my childhood in some kind of natural setting, playing with other children and/or animals, unsupervised.  It was an age of freedom.  You must know deep in your bones what that feels like, before you will care enough to seek and protect it.  I would like to say that I am giving my children the same experience.  Frankly, it is not that easy now.  I have access to wild natural areas.   I take my children there to play.  I arrange play dates.  I would lean towards kicking my children out the door and saying “don’t come back till dark”, but they would be alone.  Those days of children roaming the neighborhood in their free time are over.  Most children are tied up with homework, their electronics or organized after school activities.  Present day parents, including myself, worry about the safety of children roaming unsupervised.  It is a slippery slope because now there are less children allowed to roam unsupervised which makes it less safe!

Has the age of freedom for children passed?  If so, now what?  I won’t accept my children growing up without tasting this delicacy.  Play, in nature, with other children, without adults hovering and directing.

This past fall, I tried an experiment.  Our school has access to a wild wooded area.  They believe in the importance of nature based play.  So with their permission and support, I started an after school program called the ‘Woods Exploration and Adventure Program‘.

I honestly figured it was a way to get what I wanted for my own kids.  I was hoping at least a few kids would sign up.  Much to my amazement it filled to capacity.   It has become the most popular after school activity.   Every single week, I have children asking me to talk their parents into enrolling them.

I am sharing it because it is easier than you think.   Call it a  grass roots movement to ‘re-wild’ our children and detox them from the sedentary virtual adventures of technology.  Let them have some real live adventures of their own.  Let them have at least a taste of the freedom most of us grew up taking for granted.

As I gear up for round two,  I am learning much along the way.   As I watch these children navigate freedom of the forest, I am wondering if we have romanticized the past a bit?  Did the complete freedom of days past come at a cost?  Did children get socially stuck and need help working things out?  Did that lack of a trusted mentor within reach leave kids stuck in roles of bully, bullied, left out, freak…?

I believe we are on the edge of a new age.  One that has the potential to be better than the past.  A hybrid of what was good about freedom for children to play in nature with other children, combined with the kind of mentoring and support that we know benefits their development.  It is free to organize and easy to implement.  Any caring parent can do it.  Here is all you need.


l.  A wild playground.  Anything from a vacant lot to a backyard to a forest.  Not a planned playground environment.  A natural environment to interact with and explore.  The more ‘loose parts’ the better.


2.  Mixed age group.  This is important for social emotional development.  Older children become more nurturing when younger ones are present.  Younger children step up to learn from older ones.  Competition is not as fierce as with same age peers.  Valuable learning happens in mixed age play that can not happen otherwise.  A ratio of one adult to 12 children is a good guide.  Yet, you can do it with just one other family on the block too!

3.  Unstructured play.  An adult present as a coach for relationship roadblocks.  The adult does not direct the play, but can participate or stand back and observe without interrupting the flow.  The adult serves as a trusted mentor for children to go to for guidance or comfort.  This is very different from structured activities that children spend more and more time in after school.  Those are adult led and children are told what to play.  They have an important place in teaching skills, but this is child led and created with adult support.  This is a crucial part of developing the ‘whole child’.  Body/mind/spirit.

4.  Enough time.  It takes about 45 minutes or longer for children to work through all the negotiations and whining and boredom to enter into deep play.  Often times, grown ups get annoyed or discouraged and give up too soon.  Two hours is not too long to plan for this activity.  I started with a 1 hour program and it is not enough time.

5.  Risk taking.  Children are allowed to take risks.  By having the freedom to practice taking risks, they learn to assess risk, manage their body in space and test their physical abilities in a way for which they are ready.  The adult is there to spot, if necessary, but not impede risk taking.  If a child is putting themselves or another child in danger, then the adult needs to step in.  If it happens repeatedly or with the intent to harm, this may signal a need for further intervention and removal from the group.  Most children become safer, by beginning to protect and police each other, when they have freedom to take risks.  Parents/teachers/caregivers involved should discuss what they are comfortable with ahead of time so that the group leader has clear guidelines to stay within.

6.  Rules.  Created by the children with help from the adult at the very beginning.  These can be simple.  Ours are:  1. stay safe and 2. have fun.  This covers pretty much everything.

For many thousands of years we have evolved and developed through play based connection with others in a natural world.  Only since the invention of agriculture have we come out of the woods, so to speak.  In the last 200 years we have made progress with lightning speed.  We do not yet know the unintended consequences of today’s sedentary/technology/achievement driven culture on our evolution.  What we do know is that our partnership with nature is a good one and, at the very least,  does no harm.  At the most, it can be therapeutic and reverse some issues that are on the rise in children.  Anxiety, attention disorders, behavior disorders, depression and obesity.  Some where in the middle, it can be preventive medicine.  Providing our children with unstructured play in nature with other children can be a way to take an active role in our very evolution,  balancing our minds and bodies, while we play catch up to our ‘progress’.  It is how we invite our children to fall in love…with nature and their own freedom.

“for we will not fight to save what we do not love”

-Stephen J. Gould







making my case for more time in the woods

A Mother’s Manifesto

I want my children to spend more time playing in the woods!   I want them to build forts and climb trees and play wild games of chase and hide and seek.  I want them to co-exist with bugs, ants, spiders and snakes without hyperventilating.

Here is why and what I did about it.

Their school has access to a natural wooded area with a creek running through it.


Last year Hannah’s teacher took them out here to play.  Not all the teachers felt so comfortable doing this.  The teachers at this school love the children as their own.   A wild wooded area where children run free is intimidating.  The fear of them getting hurt is unbearable.  I understand and appreciate this.  Finding the balance between safety and the need to explore is not always so simple.

So this past August, I helped coordinate an in-service for all the teachers with a naturalist.  We took them out to play and learn in this outdoor classroom.  The following is my letter shared with them, making a case for more time in the woods.

I, Michaux Shaffer, mother of Hannah and Zeke, am here today as a parent representative in full support of my children spending time each day in the woods, regardless of weather, mud, bugs and risk.  I will give you 3 good reasons I feel strongly about this.

  1. Nature is the original multi-sensory learning experience.  It’s got it all.  Children can access, engage and feed all their senses.  It is a full body experience.  This forest is a natural library.  It contains an endless and untapped supply of multi-sensory learning opportunities children can explore at their own pace.  I want my children to have full access to one of our most valuable teachers–mother nature.
  2. Spending time in the natural world benefits not only learning, but the development of the ‘whole child’.  In Chicago access to outdoor movement and play is consistently limited at school by severe weather.  Many times, we begin to better understand the value of something when we see the effects of its absence.  Each winter we lived there, I watched my children grow pasty and weak, losing muscle tone and getting sick often.  My last winter there, the children did not go outside to recess for 3 months straight during an especially cold winter.  Sensory Integration issues, mood, attention and behavior disorders in children that require therapeutic intervention are on the rise.  There is a connection between this rise in serious disorders and children spending less time outdoors.  I saw this first hand in my work as a Marriage and Family Therapist.  It was not just my children who were suffering from lack of outdoor play and movement.  There were many other children who were suffering even more severely than my own.  I saw everything from lacking the core strength to sit up in class, to phobias of, not only dirt and bugs, but the very ground itself!  Not to mention, severe anxiety and depression in younger and younger children.  More and more research is focusing on extended time in nature as a therapeutic intervention alternative for these disorders with amazing results.
  3. My children, Zeke and Hannah.  Richard Louv in his book, “Last Child in the Woods” tells us that fear of the  natural world comes when we disconnect from it.  When children develop a personal relationship with nature, they become stewards of the earth.  One of the core values in Judaism is Tikkun Olam (repair the world).  I would like to find as many ways as possible for my children to uncover their power to repair the world around them.  I want my children to learn about habitat restoration and benefit from the therapeutic effects of spending time in a natural and wild habitat.  Last year, Hannah loved going to school more than I have ever seen her.  I asked her what gave her that spring in her step?  She thought for a minute and replied simply, “the woods”.  So I joined them one day at recess to see first hand what she was loving so much.  I witnessed a high level of imaginative play and movement in all different planes of motion.  Running, jumping, balancing, lifting etc.  I tried to keep up with them to video their play.  I run on trails regularly.  I consider myself somewhat fit.  I could not keep up.  They were able to move quickly over and under very technical terrain and through tight spaces.  Aside from being a workout that could stand up in any ‘cross fit’ gym across the country, these are all kinds of movement and sensory experiences that an OT would prescribe for children with sensory issues.  In a country where childhood obesity is on the rise, I can’t imagine a more beneficial way to get children moving.  I also observed that the freedom to take risks, climbing and jumping had significantly developed their judgment and ability to navigate this natural space, therefore, making them safer in the process.  When they were showing me how they climb on a ‘climbing wall’ of vines, I asked if they could go any higher?  They responded, “no” that they had learned through experience that to go higher was to risk pulling the vines down and falling.  Play researcher, Peter Gray, in his book, “Free to Learn” writes that when children and animals are given freedom to take risks in play they don’t just jump off rooftops to risk their lives.  They become scientists.  They systematically take calculated risks that they can handle, exposing themselves to levels of danger and fear that test themselves, and then incorporate what they learn.  This means that they will get dirty and fall down.  But it also means they will develop safer judgement and increased body awareness and control.  Allowing children to take risks makes them safer!  Zeke is a great example of this.  He has already had 2 concussions, a broken foot and stitches in his chin.  In his stuntman personality he takes more physical risks than most children.   I  have learned through experience, that if I do not let him learn HOW to fall, he will be in much greater danger down the road.  He is, by far, the most skilled ‘mover’ in our family.  He has astounding skill, body awareness and control of his body in space that makes him more coordinated, mobile and SAFE than most children his age.  I want my children to have access to this natural playground so they can take these calculated risks, test themselves and become safer in the process. 

We know that it is crucial for children to have time to move, play and explore.  But when we give them this, in combination with the natural world, we take out an insurance policy of sorts for the future.  For their future and the future of their world.

I want my children to spend time in the woods getting messy, taking risks, repairing their world and experiencing ‘full body learning’.  I believe this is how we support the development of safer, smarter, happier, healthier kids. 

Please share this with anyone and everyone that you feel could benefit from it. 

Yours Warmly–Michaux Shaffer

A spiritual journey

A Walk In The Woods


Money has been a little tight at the Shaffer house for the past year or so.  I am restarting a career and Richard is changing direction within his industry.  We have been putting 4 kids through Solomon Schechter Jewish Day School and then Ida Crown Jewish Academy for many many years.  So things are tight.  I get accused of making understatements, but let’s just leave it at that.

I am starting to wonder if there aren’t some real blessings in this for all of us.  As a free activity this week I took my kids to the forest preserve by our house.  It is actually a place I love to spend time running.  I call it the path to Eli’s house.  Eli is a name I have for God that comes from my favorite children’s book by Max Lucado.  It is where I feel Eli the most.  But I haven’t been taking the kids there so much.  And if money weren’t so tight, we probably wouldn’t have been there this week!

I packed a picnic, herded my 3 younger ones to the car and off we went.  It was one of my favorite experiences this summer so far.  We found a perfect spot to practice balancing, bear crawling and jumping on and off a log.  We climbed trees.  They were wild, loud and joyful.  I didn’t have to say ‘no, don’t’ even once.  After a few face plants in the dirt from all the jumping, we recovered and proceeded to spend another hour exploring the trails.


There were squeals and shouting every time we came across a bug, spider, dragonfly, or any other little creature.  They picked up rocks and threw them into the river.  We passed lots of dogs with their owners, and horses with their riders.  Their little bodies jumped, skipped, raced, ran and moved in every way they knew how.  It was like they had been set free from some type of bondage we don’t even know we are in until we are out.  When they began to get tired, they took off their shoes and walked, ran and carried each other the rest of the way back.  There was not a single whine the entire time.  It seemed to meet each child’s needs regardless of age difference.  There was no gift shop at the end to cause conflict.  We got in the car to go home worn out and peaceful.

Not having money to spend whenever I want is teaching me a lot.  I have been learning what my parents went through at this same time in their lives.  I had no idea.  I thought they just didn’t want to have heat in our bedrooms growing up!  That we didn’t eat out because they loved their own cooking.   I thought my mom made all our clothes because she just liked to sew.  I never thought we were poor.  I actually thought we had more than most.  I am learning that having or not having money is not a character judgement.  The two things are not related.  And I am being reassured that it is temporary.  Money ebbs and flows in our lives.  What we do with that information is character development.

So maybe we are walking this path in our lives right now for good reason.  Maybe we are learning how to “be” and be thankful for what we have.  Maybe it is us parents that need to learn this more than our kids.  Maybe we just have to keep our kids from unlearning it.  Hopefully we can hang onto this lesson of what we don’t need…to always accumulate more stuff, when money is easier.  Maybe this is the real path to Eli’s house.  We are definitely becoming more humbled in our shoes.  Our worn out one pair of shoes.

Maybe my kids will look back and think that their mom just liked taking them to the woods instead of the mall.  They will be right.