Give me some dirt, or snow, or sticks to glue them together.
My boys, ages 7 and 10, are at a critical juncture in how they relate to each other. The 10-year-old sometimes shuts his little brother out of his room—which reminds me of this scene in Disney’s Frozen. (Sorry for getting that song in your head.) And though my 10-year-old isn’t turning his bedroom walls to ice, he isn’t as easily lured to play Legos or “pretend toy store” with his little brother as he used to be. My 7-year-old, on the flip side, wants nothing more than to play with his big bro.
I find myself wanting to stop time.
And then I think back to last summer, where we traveled as a family unit to Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Glacier National Parks. The two of them had just each other (and us) to play with for 15 days.
It’s not just that they only had each other. They became closer on that trip because they were playing together in the outdoors. According to a 2017 study published in the Children, Youth, and Environments journal, spending time in nature improves “dyadic cohesion,” or, relationships between two people.
On our summer trip, the four of us hiked, canoed, and explored together. But there was a lot of downtime in campsites where the two boys played just together. They’d make up little games, and their play got increasingly creative as the trip went on.
On Jenny Lake in Grand Teton, I watched as the older helped the younger climb out to a rock in the water that was easier for him to get to with his longer legs. I overheard them talking about pretending to be in some sort of ninja competition.
On Lake McDonald in Glacier, the two of them played on the shore behind our campsite. They’d whittle down sticks and try to “sell” them to each other. They called their makeshift operation “Stick’s Sporting Goods.”
Of course, there were times on that trip where they fought. But they also pooled their money to buy and share a woodland creatures stuffy collection—small stuffed animals that all fit in a soft, toy tree. And they traded off who played with which animal and had a whole storyline to go along with taking care of them.
The preciousness might have been partly because my boys were younger then. My oldest hadn’t yet entered fifth grade, the year of being the oldest in elementary school—and sniffing middle school and the independence that comes with it.
But I know it was also thanks to Mother Nature. Aside from the four, eight-hour car rides we had on the road trip, we stripped away electronics. The boys played with rocks, sticks, water, and dirt. They relied on nature, and on each other, for fun.
Yes, I know things will change as they get older. But I know nature will continue to bond my two boys as it’s done in the past, and as it does with all of us on some level. I’ll be thrilled when they go deep in creative play again, both on day-trip adventures this winter and camping trips in the spring and summer. Who knows what kind of nature-inspired games they’ll make up?
I can’t wait to find out.
Get more tips, trips, and stories about family outdoor adventures on BACKPACKER’s Families Gone Wild.