Over the river and through the woods: a family discovers the joy of simply walking together

My daughter calls it Treasure Time. It's the three hours between 9 a.m. and noon every day when I take my three kids--a baby, a toddler, and a preschooler --and disappear into the woods for a hike. It's the time when I drop everything and become a train conductor, chugging hillside chanting "I think I can, I think I can' with the caboose; or a beautiful mermaid dancing along the ocean shore, Swaying gently to the sounds Of the crashing waves. It's my children's time, and there's nothing in the world they'd rather do than walk three miles on a wooded path with their mom. It's the time when I dedicate my attention solely to them and envelop myself in their games.

There is so much to play out on the trail, and there are no toys, friends, or imagination robbers. I take no gear, gadgets, or strollers--we become whatever their will desires. The older kids walk the whole way, and the baby rides in a cloth wraparound carrier, so I can have close skin contact with her at all times. We take breaks whenever the kids need them, and at these times the baby gets to crawl along the path. We bring water and the very important Treasure Snacks a combination of nuts and dried fruit that I give them only on our hikes. Most times we're barefoot, so we can wiggle our toes in the dirt; but when it's too rocky, our sneakers are close at hand.

It wasn't always this way. I had to fight hard to get to this point. It was only three months ago that we began this ritual, which at first was a bribed half-mile walk to the supermarket and back, to get a treat. But slowly, our Treasure Time grew to a mile, then two.

It wasn't easy for me, either. There are so many other things that need to get done in a day--laundry, for example. It was hard to let go of three hours of prime daylight working time to do "nothing" at all. But I disciplined myself to let everything go. Now I turn down play dates and appointments to keep my own dates with my children.

And it's worked. All our whining and complaining got us to the point where we now wouldn't go a day without our hike. We plan our days around them. We get all our morning chores and homeschool work done by 9 a.m., and then we're off. We have the good fortune of living in Seattle, Washington, where any day hike is no more than 45 minutes away. My driving time is spent planning our adventure--will it be hide-and-seek, follow-the-leader, or race train? The kids get giddy anticipating the games we'll play.

Some days my children run ahead, leaving marks on the path for me to find and follow. Some days it's a happy-face monster who every 20 yards or so leaves his signature for me to find and wonder about aloud. Some days a monster slug leaves a smooth trail that I must follow if I want some snacks. Sometimes a baby dirt monster crawls over to a tree hole, and we explore some animals home and guess at what the creature might be doing. We've talked to seagulls, squirrels, chipmunks, and woodpeckers and have followed ants, worms, slugs (not very far), and butterflies.

These hikes have bonded us together and made us aware of the natural beauty that surrounds us. We have come to appreciate the simple wonder of a tree and a dirt path. Sometimes we have clean-up parties, bringing trash bags to collect trash treasure for Garbage the Hungry Mouth. According to the kids, Garbage likes to munch on litter, and we like how the trail looks when it's free of cans, boxes, and bottles.

One of our favorite things has been to hunt and gather our lunch. Joshua, three years old, will hunt out blackberry bushes, and Sara, five, will gather the berries. The baby gobbles up the goods. With some ingenuity, we have come up with a complete lunch. We have feasted not only on blackberries but also on huckleberries, plums, apples, lamb's-quarters, and dandelions.

When we emerge from our adventure we are rested, rejuvenated, and positively energized. I am refreshed and ready for my work--it's amazing what I can accomplish after one of these hikes. My kids have had enough of me for the day, and they toddle off and play together happily on their own. They're too tired to fight, too fulfilled to bicker. When we're done, we feel that we've had a complete day. I don't feel that nagging guilt that used to accompany me day in and day out.

We have now expanded our outdoors experience to include an overnighter with Daddy one night a week. And because Seattle's mild winters open up new wonders, we plan to continue hiking well past the fall. All in all, Treasure Time has been the best time for us.

A native of the Caribbean, Aymee Webb lives in Seattle with her husband, Michael, and their three children: Sara (6), Joshua (4), and Kayleigh (1). Aymee is a freelance writer and a dedicated homeschooler, but most days you can find her and her children outside, hiking backpacking, car camping, or just plain admiring the weather.