Tree Games

Trees have a history and mythology of being sacred beings with the capacity for healing. Many people are drawn to trees for various reasons – because the trees seem to have character, because they’re stoic sentinels of the forest, because they offer shelter and comfort. But can a tree communicate with a person through some sort of energetic or psychic capacity? You can try this game to find out.

This activity was inspired by a friend named Geoffrey McMullan, MSc, who lives in Ireland and specializes in wilderness therapy and tracking. He uses nature in his work as an addiction counselor, and has observed incredible results from his patients and clients in how they relate to their addiction or find inner wisdom through their relationship with the wilderness. One of Geoffrey’s nature games involves forming a deeper connection to and communication with a tree, stepping a good distance away from the tree, then, while blindfolded, seeing if you can find your way back to the tree. You use almost all the senses to experience and get to know the tree, and then transcending those senses to feel a connection to a tree that has less to do with logic and analysis and more of a spiritual consciousness that can’t be explained or forced.

child and tree

I think this is a fun activity to try with a few friends or older children (12 years old and up) who already have an appreciation of nature and an openness to try new things.

I have selected the Flatirons Vista Trail as a suggested location for this activity, but any trail with the following aspects will work:

  • Heavily wooded with aspens, pines, or spruce.
  • Not along very steep slopes. Ideally a wooded area that’s as flat as possible.
  • Somewhere you can safely go a little bit off trail without trespassing on private property or disturbing the landscape too much. You’ll want a little privacy and quiet for this activity.
  • Avoid areas with scrub oak, junipers or a lot of pine kill (can be hazardous during windy or wet conditions).

The Flatirons Vista Trail runs through the northern edge of Jefferson County Open Space land, which is a 7,390 acre parcel west of Rocky Flats between 120th Avenue and 80th Avenue. The City of Westminster boasts (in their Feb/March 2010 Issue of Westminster City Views) “No other city in metropolitan Denver has 5 miles of

public land between its western edge and the foothills. Over 43,000 acres of property both within and abutting Westminster preserve this amazing ecosystem.” Indeed, as you’re walking westward toward Eldorado Canyon and the foothills, all you see are rolling hills and trees, and maybe the occasional herd of cows since this land is used for grazing. This is a trail that’s close to Boulder, Broomfield, Westminster, Arvada and Golden, but feels spacious and quiet, at least once you get far enough from Highway 93.

Instructions for Tree Games

Find a spot among the trees where you and your partners in this game can feel comfortable, safe and have some privacy. You may need to walk off the trail far enough so that you can’t be easily heard or hear other hikers pass by, but not too far away that you lose your sense of direction to return back to the trail. On the Flatirons Vista Trail, once you arrive at the second cattle fence where the trees begin to get thicker, you can venture south along a clearing the trees where it appears a few vehicles may have traveled in the past. There are relatively flat areas of trees where you can do this activity.

You’ll need at least one other person and some sort of bandana or blindfold, or if you don’t have anything to use as a blindfold, you can go on the “honor system” and just keep your eyes shut tight when it’s your turn.

The “blind” person is led to a tree while blindfolded and introduced to the tree by the seeing partner.

“Tree, meet Bob. Bob, meet your tree.”

Then the blind person is allowed to spend time getting to know the tree. They can touch the tree, smell the tree, and use all of their senses other than sight to get a feeling from the tree. They should not open their eyes or take off the blindfold at this time.

The seeing partner quietly sits and observes, allowing at least 15 minutes of quiet time for the blind person to get acquainted with their tree. Some questions for the blind person to consider privately may include:

What gender is your tree?

How old is your tree?

What mood is it in?

What is the feeling you’re getting from this tree? Happy, sad, angry, depressed?

Is there anything this tree wants you to know?

The seeing partner should ask these questions all at once at the beginning of the 15 minutes of quiet time, allowing the blind partner to formulate their own questions or responses when they’re ready.

At the end of the 15 minutes, the seeing partner gently suggests that the blind partner let them know when they’re ready to be taken away from their tree. Once the blind partner expresses they’re ready, the seeing partner takes them away from the tree, randomly walking in different directions in order to disorient him or her. The blind partner keeps their eyes closed or the blindfold intact during this phase of the game.

When the seeing partner is satisfied with this disorientation task, they can do one of two things, depending on the landscape:

1. Allow the blind partner to open their eyes or take off their blind fold and find their tree.

2. Ask the blind partner to (while still blind) point to the direction where they believe their tree to be, then guide them in that direction so they don’t trip over rocks and twigs. Occasionally stop and have the blind person reassess the direction they feel they need to go.

With either of these options, the seeing partner should affirm or reject the blind person’s choice of tree or direction. In other words, if the blind person is pointing in the wrong direction to walk, let them know. Or if they select the wrong tree, let them know.

When the blind person finds their tree, they should open their eyes or take off their blindfold and touch or embrace the tree to see if its energy has changed in any way. Does seeing the tree change the feeling of being with the tree? How?

When I played this game with my 12-year-old, both she and I found our tree, although we made a least one wrong assessment of the direction we needed to go to find it at first.  The highlight of this game, surprisingly, wasn’t finding the tree, but feeling it’s energy while we were spending time with it. We both felt a resonance to something older, more rooted in the environment, both literally and figuratively.

A Secret World in the Bobcat Ridge Natural Area (Loveland)

bobcat ridge natural area viewLocation: Bobcat Ridge Natural Area, West of Loveland near Masonville

Directions: From I-25, take Hwy. 34 west to Loveland/Estes Park. Turn right (north) on CR27 where the sign indicates Masonville. Go north on CR27 approximately 4.7 miles and turn left (west) on CR32 at the Bobcat Ridge sign. Go another ¼ mile to the parking lot for Bobcat Ridge Natural Area.

Duration: 2- 1/2 – 3 hours

Route: The Valley Loop Trail, a 3.8 mile roundtrip.

Access Notes: Some trails may be closed due to muddy or slick conditions, so check before you go. The parking lot fills up fast, even on a weekday off-season, so arrive early (before 10 a.m.), especially if you want solitude. Dogs are not allowed, but horses and bikes are allowed. There are many flash flood warning signs surrounding the parking lot and access road. Check the weather before you go and be cautious about using this trail during times when heavy thunderstorms are predicted.

The hike

After blasting past the mile markers on I-25 at 75 m.p.h. and then driving through the strip-mall-lined streets of Loveland, the first impression you get when you step out of your car (especially early in the morning) at the Bobcat Ridge parking lot is…silence. Blessed, soothing silence. Sure, once in a while a plane will rip through the sky overhead and rumble its way east or west, but otherwise this long valley nestled between Horsetooth Reservoir and the western foothills is calm and peaceful. To the east of the valley are red-capped cliffs that are reminiscent of extreme western Colorado and Utah canyon country. To the west are rolling hills that bear the scar of a fire that raged through the hills in 2000. Charred tree trunks dot the hills where the fire destroyed the forest, but to the north and south the hills appear untouched and green with pine and spruce.

view of valleyThe valley is lush with native, tall grasses that cover the gently rolling ground. In spring through fall you’ll hear meadowlarks calling out with their distinctive chortling warble, or you may spot one perched atop a thick blade of grass or a shrub. There is a historic cabin along the Valley Loop trail (if you start counterclockwise) as well as a few present-day ranches and small farms that are situated to the north of the parking lot.

The Valley Loop trail cuts across the valley meadow and up into the pines at the base of the burn area, affording you a beautiful and expansive view of the valley below and Horsetooth to the east. If you choose to go on the Ginny Trail further west, you’ll get an even better and higher view of the western mountains as well as the valley. Adding that trail will probably add another hour or two to the total hike.

I did this hike in very late winter, right before the first day of spring, on a day when it was mostly clear and sunny and the high temperature climbed up to a pleasant 65 degrees. This is a good hike for either cloudy summer days, or in the spring and fall, because most of the trail is exposed and I can imagine it can get fairly beastly on a hot summer day. The exposed nature of the trail can also make it a challenging hike on windy days.

A Secret World

deer scatOne of the first things I noticed on the trail was the large amount of deer, elk and coyote scat right there on the trail. It was everywhere! I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much scat without being deep in the woods somewhere west of the foothills. The coyote scat is obvious, since dogs aren’t allowed on the trail and this stuff was full of gray fur from the rodents they’d been eating. I didn’t see one single deer or coyote while hiking, which made me wonder when these animals actually come out to hunt and defecate on the trail. At dusk? In the middle of the night? I realized there’s a secret world that I’m not privy that exists when I leave or sleep at night, and I found myself imagining catching a glimpse of it. There’s a sign at the parking lot that access to this area is only allowed from dawn until dusk, so I doubt very many people have seen the secret world of coyote packs hunting down voles and deer herds foraging in the meadow.

This scat was evidence of beings that were in existence somewhere now, napping or hiding in their dens or foraging in more remote and private areas of the woods during the day. They are just out of reach and out of eyesight. But they exist in this moment in time.

Then there are the creatures that existed in a different moment in time, creatures that I know very little about and have never seen, nor will you or I ever see, alive and in person. Those are the creatures that lived on this ground 28 million years ago, when the Front Range was a different eco-system and the entire region between Kansas and the deserts of Nevada began to rise to form the Rocky Mountains. Volcanoes erupted up and down the Front Range in throughout Colorado. All that remains of the sedimentary blanket that extended west before the Rockies formed are blocks of rock that rise perpendicular to the ground. These rocks can be seen along the trail, some as large as suitcases and some like books, lichen-covered and dusty, sticking straight up or at a 45 degree angle out of the ground.

The burned out trees speak of a moment in time in the past when these hills were burning almost out of control. In February, 2009, the fire burned about 52 acres here. In 2000, a fire burned more than 20,000 acres.

rocks jutting out of groundThe activity

This is a good activity for kids ages 6 and up as well as adults.

Find a place to sit for about fifteen minutes where you can have a good view of something that feels compelling.

Take a few minutes to think about everything you’ve seen and heard that is evidence of a being passing through and living its life in a different time in the past. It could be animal scat from the day before, a dead tree, a sedimentary rock formation millions of years old. What other evidence have you seen that speaks to a secret world, or of creatures that can be thought of or heard, but not seen?

Imagine seeing the past like a slide show. First, 30 millions years ago when this area was much, much flatter and the mountains hadn’t yet formed. What do you see in your mind’s eye? Then the upheaval of the ground and the formation of the Rockies. Ancient horses and mastadoons, then the ice age, then the arrival of humans, all the way up to the present moment. You are sitting here, a snapshot in a moment of time. See it as you see a time-lapse series of photos. See trees grow and decay, snow melt and fall, erosion reshaping the hills.

Imagine what this land may look like in the future, in months, then years then millennia.

How does it feel to see yourself here in such a brief moment in time?

How does contemplating all the beings that were here before you, even only minutes ago all the way up to hundreds of millions of years ago, make you feel about being here now?

Does imagining all the things that have lived and died here make you feel more like a part of the Earth or less? What is your part in the story?

Author, philosopher and anthropologist Loren Eisley once pondered what human or non-human creatures a million years from now or longer would think if they came upon his bones in the sediment. Here he was, examining ancient bones in the desert, wondering who would examine his bones in the future.

Almost everything that has ever existed, still exists in some form on Earth. Decaying plants and animals break down into chemicals in the rock or nutrients in the soil, which then get absorbed into new beings like trees and insects. The Earth takes in sunlight energy and a few random rocks and dust from space, and churns out new forms of life every day. If you were to view the Earth from space in a time-elapsed series of photos, you’d see the face of it swirling, shifting, moving underneath the constantly moving clouds. Landmasses pulled apart and stacked back together in different arrangements. Ice encroaching and receding over mountains and oceans. Water moving like blood, circulating from the air to the land and back out to sea.

The Earth is in constant state of change, from the molecular to the global level. The arrow of time never changes direction as far as we know.

What evidence of its existence do you think modern Industrial Civilization will leave behind in the landscape?

Winter Hiking with Children

Bear Canyon Trail
Skye pauses along the Bear Canyon Trail

My daughter’s winter break is winding down and the day after tomorrow she’s going back to school for the last half of sixth grade. It was a beautiful winter day today, sunny and mostly clear, calm, with temperatures in the mid-40s. I took her on a one-hour walk along the Bear Canyon trail, directly south of NCAR in south Boulder.

I started thinking about what kinds of contemplative activities we could do together along this hike that I would recommend later for parents and their kids on similar winter days. The most obvious ideas came first—asking her to tell me what she thought the animals and insects were doing this time of year. She’s 12, so her answers came easily and with a lot more sophistication than I expected. She named a burrowing insect that hibernates in winter, and described what prairie dogs might be doing when it’s cold out and the ground is covered in snow (“mostly hanging out in their deep burrows, coming out occasionally to try to find grass”). We saw birds flittering about, but not as many as there are in the spring and summer. Even though we didn’t hear any insects, she did spy one lone grasshopper warming himself on a large boulder.

Everything is quieter on a winter hike. The snow muffles much of the ambient sound anyway, but the silence is mostly due to the low population of birds and insects this time of year. The sound of the water trickling through the half-frozen creek underscored the quiet and felt soothing, like listening to a fountain.

Up ahead, only minutes after we started on the trail, Skye pointed out the two cone-shaped hills below NCAR and asked if we could climb to the top of the tallest one.

“It’s bigger than it looks. It’s also harder to walk up there than it seems.” I warned.

bear canyon hill
Skye summits the first hill south of NCAR

She didn’t believe me until we were much closer and she realized that the hills were quite steep and quite tall. But she wanted to try, so I stepped back and watched her as she trudged upwards. She made it as far as the first summit, looked around, then beckoned me.

“Come up here, mama!”

No thanks, I said. I’m not in the mood to suck air on that steep walk up. I’ll just stay down here and take photos…

This gave me an idea for hikes with older children such as Skye. They already have an idea of what animals are doing in winter and may find the activity of talking about that a little anticlimactic, but Skye’s desire to scale the hill was interesting. I asked her why she felt she wanted to get to the top, and how she felt when she was there.

She said she wanted to see all the way around, and when she got up there, she felt tall with achievement. It reminded me of the scene in the movie “Into the Wild” when Alexander Supertramp scaled the rocky hill above his campsite near the Salton Sea.

animal tracks in snow
Animal tracks are easily seen in snow

When she returned to the trail I asked her to look around and tell me where she would love to explore, if she could. She pointed up at a north-facing slope on the other side of the creek, where animal tracks led into the trees.

“I want to go there, because it looks mysterious. I want to know what’s on the other side of that hill.”

We couldn’t go there because we couldn’t cross the creek, and neither could any other hikers, so we knew that the tracks crossing the slope could only be wild animal tracks—most likely deer or fox tracks, maybe coyote. The tracks were everywhere. That’s one of the features of hiking in snow that’s fun for kids—seeing where animals roam around in the fields and forest when no one is looking.

We were just about ready to turn back when the trail narrowed and was enveloped in shadow. Skye wanted to keep going because she said she loves darkness. I asked her why and to describe the kind of darkness she’s referring to. She said she likes dark woods, small rooms, or going outside after sunset. I kept asking her how it makes her feel and what it reminds her of, and why it soothing to her.

This could be a question you might ask your older child on a hike. Ask them to look around, especially if you’re in a location where you can see far down valley or up at the mountains. Where would they like to explore, assuming there could easily get there or fly up there? Why? How does it make them feel to look at it?

When I’m taking a walk or jogging in the morning and see a dark, misty cloud cover the Front Range mountains I’m drawn to them the same way Skye was drawn to the shadowed hills on the other side of the creek.  I want to be there. I want to explore that mystery, to be in the middle of that gray darkness, to feel what it must feel like to be surrounded by shrouded peaks. There’s something comforting and thrilling about it that compels me to stare at it until I feel it in my bones.

Our walk today was brief. Just enough time to breathe in some fresh air and see what nature is up to this Monday in January. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about hiking with my child it’s this: keep it relatively short. Have a reward at the end. Today, it was lunch at Subway.

Contemplative Outdoor Activities for Children

Richard Louv states in his book, Last Child in the Woods, “The shift in our relationship to the natural world is startling, even in settings that one would assume are devoted to nature. Not that long ago, summer camp was a place where you camped, hiked in the woods, learned about plants and animals, or told firelight stories about ghosts or mountain lions. As likely as not today, “summer camp” is a weight-loss camp, or a computer camp. For a new generation, nature is more abstraction than reality. Increasingly, nature is something to watch, to consume, to wear —to ignore. A recent television ad depicts a four-wheel-drive SUV racing along a breathtakingly beautiful mountain stream—while in the backseat two children watch a movie on a flip-down video screen, oblivious to the landscape and water beyond the windows.”

If children don’t feel a connection to nature, and don’t see the importance of conserving the integrity of the natural world, where will the Earth’s future environmental stewards come from?

Teaching children that all life is connected is important, so that when they become adults they understand the importance of careful research and planning when it comes to technology and development, so that we don’t lose species. They’ll know that we cannot survive without a thriving and healthy ecosystem, and that an ecosystem consists of everything from clean water to healthy soil to insects and birds. Many critics of conservation and proponents of things like drilling ANWAR and the Gulf of Mexico say that environmentalists care more about polar bears and reindeer than they do about people.

That statement implies that we don’t need polar bears, or caribou, or any other animal for our survival on Earth. What these critics don’t consider is that when you lose a keystone species such as the caribou, or you obliterate pests in agriculture you also threaten needed pollinators, you are directly affecting what happens to humans.

We need to teach children how to enjoy and respect nature, so they’ll be able to make the right decisions for their future.

These are a few no-cost or low-cost ways of enjoying time outdoors with children.

What Animal Are You?

This is an activity for children ages 6-10 that can be done while walking in a wilderness area or trail. This activity will help a child realize that animals need hiding areas and appropriate habitat to live.

Talk to the child about the kind of animals that may live in the area you’re walking. Ask them to describe what animals they imagine might live there. Then ask them to pick an animal they like the most out of the list you came up with together, or the animal that’s most like them. Ask them to imagine what they would do to find food. Where would they go? What would they eat? What would it taste like? Then ask them where they might go to rest and sleep when they felt tired. Help the child by pointing out possible places—rock outcroppings, under logs, burrows, in a thicket. Have the child tell you what they would be looking for if they were that animal and needed to find a place to rest or sleep so they weren’t disturbed by humans and predators.

Smell a Tree, Touch a Flower

This is an activity for younger children, perhaps 2-6 years old, as well as for older kids up to age 11. It can be done in the backyard, in a park, or along a trail. This expands the child’s awareness of it’s surroundings beyond the cliché or the obvious.

Ask the child to smell a nearby tree bark. Some trees, like ponderosa pine, smell like vanilla. Ask the child to tell you what they think of the smell. Then ask them to touch some flowers and tell you which one feels softest, or the most delicate.

Ask the child to look closely at the leaves of a tree and see if they can find evidence that an animal or insect visited that leaf.

Draw What You Feel

This is an activity for children ages 4-11. It can be done anywhere outdoors, including a backyard or a park, especially where there are a lot of trees, flowers or animals. You’ll need some paper and crayons or drawing tools to give to the child. This activity builds an empathetic connection between the child’s emotions and what they observe in nature.

Ask the child to look around and draw what they see that makes them feel three different ways: 1) peaceful or happy, 2) worried or unhappy, and 3) curious or confused. They may end up drawing such things as flowers for happiness, or maybe a piece of trash or a dead plant for the unhappy emotion. Give the child ample time to complete the exericise. Then ask them to talk about what they drew and why.

Field Guide Trip

This is an activity for children ages 6-12. It can be done anywhere outdoors, but is best done in a park, open space or wilderness where there are many birds, insects or wildflowers present. You will need a field guide from your region, which you can check out of your local library. Pick any of the following types of guides: wildflowers, trees, animals, birds, or weeds.

Bring the field guide along on a walk or hike and challenge the child to find as many plants or animals as possible that match what they see in the field guide. Read the descriptions of the animal and plant and why what they’re observing is what they see in the book (does it have the same colors? Does it live in the area where it is described?). Ask the following questions about the plant or animal:
1. Is it native to the local area?
2. Does it live here year-round?
3. Where does it go or migrate when it’s not here?
4. What happens to this plant or animal in the winter?

Discuss what you find and then make plans to visit the same area in a month or two to see if different plants or animals appear there.

Contemplative Fishing

This is an activity for children ages 4-12 and involves fishing. If you enjoy fishing, it’s a wonderful way to teach a child about ecology if you bring them along. Learning ecology helps a child understand the interconnectedness of all life.

Ask the child to tell you what they see and hear at the pond, stream or lake where you’re fishing. Do they hear frogs? Do they see reeds and plants near the water? How clear is the water?

A good way to know that fish are actively feeding is to watch for risers. Explain to the child what a riser is (a circular disturbance on the surface of the water that indicates a fish has surfaced its mouth) and what the fish may be trying to catch and eat. Explain why you’re using certain bait. If you’re bass fishing, you may be trying different colorful lures because bass have great memories – and if they got caught and released once with a pink lure, they may be leery of anything pink in the future. If you’re trout fishing, explain that trout enjoy very cold water but they don’t enjoy water that rushes quickly, like in a stream. Ask the child where they see areas that a fish may want to rest or hang out, and that’s a good place to cast the fly.

This is also a great opportunity to talk about the food chain. The insects are necessary for fish to eat. The small fish are eaten by the larger fish, and the larger fish are eaten by ducks, pelicans or other predators like cranes or herons (or humans). The sophistication of your your explanation depends on the age of the child.

Neighborhood Pride

This is an activity to do with your child from toddler all the way to their teenaged years. You take a walk in your neighborhood with a trash bag and pick up trash and debris. You teach the child the value of serving the community, not littering, and having pride in where they live. Smaller children can hold the trash bag, while older children can wear gloves to pick up debris.

Discuss how it felt to do this activity. Was it embarassing? Did it feel good to clean things up? Did the child feel angry about the people who littered? How does it make them feel about taking care of the Earth?

Children’s Garden

You need not have a backyard in order to help your child plant and grow something. This is an activity for children of all ages and can be done indoors on a sunny windowsill, or outdoors in a sunny location. If done indoors, you will need a small pot, some good potting soil and some seeds that your child selects. You can plant beans, flowers or vegetables, but for beginner gardeners such plants as peas and beans do very well and grow quickly with the proper care. If done outdoors in a garden, you can help the child plant the seeds in a tilled, enriched soil and let the child weed and water the area throughout the season.

Children take a lot of pride in growing their own food, as evidenced from my own 10-year old daughter, who loves to pull out beets and carrots that she planted and eat them raw, right on the spot! (after a good rinsing, of course.) This is also a good way to teach children about the importance of good, appropriate weather for growing certain kinds of food, and the importance of enough sunlight and moisture. Tomatoes don’t do well when it’s too wet or too cool. Peas and lettuces wilt in weather that’s too hot. Children also learn what plants look like and where their food comes from, as well as gaining a culinary appreciation for vegetables.