Winter break: Exploring the wilds of your own neighborhood

North Carolina, the 9th biggest state in the country with 9.2 million residents, is unusual because even if you live in one of its urban centers — Charlotte, the Triad, the Triangle, Asheville, Wilmington — there’s likely a wooded area within walking distance. Maybe not a national forest or a state park, but at least a corridor of wild that for any number of reasons has eluded development. For instance, we live in the heart of Cary (we call it Historic Cary because the houses date all the way back to the 1970s) between two malls (Cary Town Centre and Crossroads Plaza), yet we can walk out the end of our cul-de-sac along a storm drainage easement and within minutes be at the headwaters of Walnut Creek. This proximity to the wild comes in handy when you have a houseful of kids on winter break.

“C’mon everyone, gear up!” I yelled early last Thursday afternoon. “We’re going exploring.”

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Concrete storm drain access or child's canvas?

As Richard Louv notes in 2008’s “Last Child in the Woods,” a look at how our children are becoming increasingly detached from the outside world and the ramifications of this “nature deficit disorder,” kids, especially younger ones, instinctively would rather be outside than indoors fiddling with a joystick. It’s been my experience that whenever I issue the call to head out, the kids are quick to deploy. And so it was Thursday.

This comes naturally in our house. I write about the outdoors, the kids are natural-born explorers. I know this isn’t the case in every household, however, so here’s a quick how-to on exploring your neighborhood wilderness.

What to wear
First, what not to wear: Anything you got for Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Festivus. Rather, wear whatever you — and more importantly the kids — don’t mind getting trashed. It’ll likely be wet out there. And muddy. Tree limbs are likely to poke holes through your sweater, briars may rip at your pant legs (oh yeah, be sure to wear long pants). And be sure to dress for the weather, taking layers for those moments when you may be standing around studying a particularly fascinating — to your 8-year-old, at least — mud hole.

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A gorgeous beech cove bumps up to the back of our development.

What to take
Take a daypack with the following: drinks (juice boxes or water bottles), snacks (the fun fades quickly once they start running low on fuel), a small first-aid kit (even just some Band-Aids, Neosporin and some wet wipes tossed into a Ziplock bag), the aforementioned layers (sweatshirt, hoodie, etc.), gloves, hat, camera, compass and a cell phone in case the trip goes awry. Those are mandatory. In addition, consider a field guide (birding, local flora, animal tracks), binoculars, a journal and colored pencils and a sketch pad.

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Oh, deer!

Ground rules
Before heading out, establish the ground rules for your expedition. These vary from expedition to expedition, but a good overall rule for any trip into the wild with kids: Never lose eyesight with others in the group. That’ll keep people from getting lost and from getting into trouble without help immediately available. Also: Enforce the No Whine Zone rule. Ardent couch potatoes may be prone to kvetching at first, but that likely will face when they discover their first computer laptop in the woods (this happened to us once; in fact, we found two).

Let the kids have fun
Uber alles, let the kids be kids and don’t get in the way of their fun. They’re going to get dirty, accept that from the get-go. Don’t freak if Johnny sinks into mud a foot deep (unless it looks like he’s going to keep on sinking) or if Suzy walks through the creek rather than taking the dryer rock bridge option. (Though regarding the latter, let the kids know that on a cold day you’ll be heading back early if they get excessively wet; hypothermia is no fun.) Let the kids climb trees (unless poison ivy is snaking up the trunk), let them climb on rocks. A few scrapes and bruises are signs of a successful trip into the wild. Let them explore. A kid’s imagination can go wild outdoors, especially if such an outing is a rarity.

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Almost had to call in backup for extraction from this mud hole.

Use that camera
Take pictures of the kids at play, for two reasons. We like to do a computer slide show that evening, our way of reliving a great day. More importantly, the next time you propose a neighborhood expedition and the kids balk, you’ll have evidence to the contrary. “Oh, yeah,” they’ll be forced to acknowledge, “I guess we did have fun, didn’t we.”

Plan on an early bedtime
For you and the kids.

And plan on being pestered into taking a hike in the hood the next time the kids have a day off from school.

For previous suggestions on what to do with the kids on winter break, go here and here.

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