Stepping Into the Stream With My Shoes On
~This poignant and heartfelt piece was written by Outdoor Kids OT, Elisabeth Meikle, and we are so happy to share it with you here.~
As often happens in my Con-T-GO Kids OT group, the most meaningful moments are not those that I plan and prepare for. In fact, despite my best attempts, I don't think I could ever plan and prepare for many of the beautiful, challenging and transformational moments that happen in our group in the great outdoors. If we are open, opportunities for growth present themselves time and time and time again as nature invites us to get our hands dirty, literally and figuratively. This past fall and winter, we have encountered epic moments involving coyotes, rain and hail storms, and giant forts. There have also been quiet but significant moments where seeds of confidence or kindness sprout and grow. Most of my favorite days have involved unplanned events that cause us to wonder at the beauty of nature and challenge us (myself included) in new ways.
One of the most meaningful moments from today's group happened unexpectedly towards the very end. A child had accidentally dropped a ball we'd been playing with into the stream 6 feet below, and it was situated in a way that seemed near impossible to access without walking into the stream. I told him it was time to hike out and I'd have to come back later and figure out a way to get it. However, he immediately climbed down to the river bank downstream where we often play and started to explore whether he might be able to navigate upstream to get the ball. As he began climbing along the river bank, stepping onto low branches and holding on to vines, roots and branches above, the two volunteers and I watched him with curiosity. As he continued, our curiosity turned into amazement as he deftly planned and executed his movements, nimbly moving from branch to branch without falling into the stream below. It wasn't easy, but he was purposeful, focused, aware of his body and his surroundings, coordinated, taking safe risks, and showing incredible motivation and determination - not to mention demonstrating personal responsibility and helpfulness... practically ALL of the qualities we work to facilitate in this group. So, I thought - who was I to stop him? (Although, I must admit that he was defying my expectations of his gross motor skills and I also just wanted to see what he could do!)
Once he got about two-thirds of the way there, his foot slipped and he fell into the water, getting most of his legs and the bottom of his backpack wet, but he caught hold of a vine which saved him from completely falling in. He continued on and the same thing happened again. He broke down crying and exclaimed "I keep falling in! I just keep falling in!". I tried to validate his feelings and how tricky this challenge was that he'd taken on. One of the volunteers on the river bank above offered to pull him up, but when we asked him whether he wanted to be pulled up or get the ball, through his tears he said he wanted to get the ball. I quickly thought through some options... get the ball for him? (and take away his victory?) Try to climb along the bank to help him? Take my shoes off and wade in to help him?
This child was stuck - stuck on a branch along the river bank, and stuck between determination and disappointment. Rescuing him or getting the ball for him would only discredit his efforts, but there was only one way he was going to be able to get the ball, and that was walking in the stream. Since he still had his shoes on I wanted to meet him where he was at, and I decided to wade into the stream with him, socks and shoes on and all. "Look!" I said. "It's okay to get your shoes wet. You can just walk in the water like this." He immediately calmed down (possibly out of sheer wonder as to what his crazy OT was doing) and watched me walk towards him, knee-deep in the stream. Then he slowly lowered himself into the stream and we made our way upstream to retrieve the ball. As he walked back down the stream carrying the ball, he was quiet, but we could all sense his relief, satisfaction and pride in accomplishing his goal and retrieving our equipment. We climbed back up the river bank, he placed the ball back in my bag, and we hiked out of the woods with the others, squishy socks and water-logged shoes leading the way.
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I find this story meaningful and worth sharing for many reasons. This is a child who I never would have guessed could have navigated the river bank so skillfully and be so resilient in this situation. Changes in routine and new sensory experiences are particularly challenging for him. Just moments before this happened he was throwing sticks toward his peers while they played a game, possibly because he wanted to play with them and didn’t know how, possibly to get attention, or possibly for some other reason. Regardless of these factors, this story illustrates the process of problem-solving and building resilience, both for him and for me. THIS is what it’s all about - to have an idea, try, learn, fail, learn some more, and grow. This experience reiterated to me that learning happens in the stream, so to speak - in falling in, in failing, and in wading into that space with one another.
Problem-solving is at the root of everything we do in Outdoor Kids OT, and it’s moments like this where I’m grateful that I get to learn problem-solving right there along with my clients. I’m often amazed at the ways in which the children, our volunteers and I rise to the challenges we encounter and learn just how capable we really are. Don’t get me wrong, there have also been moments of frustration and failure in our group, and we have learned a lot from those moments as well. The benefit of doing OT in nature is that it is not a controlled environment and our groups mimic real life, for better or worse. Along the way we have built problem-solving skills and resilience, and I couldn’t be more proud of the ways we’ve all grown these past 6 months.
This story also highlights how undesirable outcomes like getting one’s shoes wet aren’t really that big of a deal after all. So often we avoid getting dirty or wet… why? For what reason, really? If we wear the right shoes and clothes, these material things don’t have to be a barrier to interacting with nature. I admit, this wasn’t easy for me at first! I’m especially thankful to another child in our group whose Mom doesn’t mind that he walks straight into the stream in his hiking boots literally any chance he gets. Each time they let his boots dry and he comes back the next week ready to get them wet again (and yes, rain boots would also be an option, but that’s besides the point!). Our shoes will all dry over the next few days and we’ll all be back out in the woods next week - although next time we’ll probably go barefoot in the stream… even better!