Anichka, a five-year-old, smiles sweetly and grabs my frozen hand, leading me toward a tiny house heated by a wood-fire. Before I open the small door, another child named Fafa hands me a soft broom and points to Anichka’s—and his own—dirt-and snow-caked clothes. My stiff hands grasp ahold of the broom and they both giggle as I brush the snow and dirt off of their snowsuits. A few mild tears spill out Anichka’s wide eyes as her face begins to thaw out from winter’s chill. We just spent the whole morning playing in the forest.

Other than for a warm lunch meal, naps, and an occasional local children’s theater performance, the students at Marianka Forest School in the southeastern Czech Republic spend their days playing and learning in the forest—year-round. As a weekly volunteer during the spring of 2016, they welcomed me into their world and taught me far more than I expected to learn from four-and five-year-olds who didn’t speak the same language as I did. My role as a volunteer was to come from 9-10 am on Tuesday mornings to open up conversations, songs, and games in the English language to the little ones. Each week, I stayed past lunchtime—during my short stay in the Czech Republic, this tiny community became like home.

In forest school—rain, snow, hail, or sunshine—the kiddos play outside, and they play hard. They run up big hills, climb around trees, and slide down frozen dirt chutes with a running start. They learn about navigation, they use their imaginations, they become students of life—and teachers. In a natural environment, children learn more about themselves and their bodies, their relationships with others, and life then in any school I’ve ever attended. Here are some of the lessons the forest school taught me:

If we give kids responsibilities, they can learn how to be responsible.

On my first day at forest school, I walked past zlatá brána—the “golden gate” that marks the entrance to the school—and saw three children playing as they cleared the snow from the little walkway with their mini shovels. They were happy and playful in their task to help make their place a little better. It was such a small task, but their smiles told of their big feelings of accomplishment.

These young people aren’t helpless—they’re full of help! Kids love to feel needed and appreciated. When we give them little tasks and the tools to do the tasks, they learn how to take care of themselves. Even though it takes some up-front work and supervision, delegating responsibility is the key to educating and empowering others.

There is a universal language.

Even though few teachers or students spoke English, we felt the same sun radiate through the forest trees, we felt the same dirt beneath our feet, we played the same games, and we all shared the fresh air. I did learn some Czech language and they learned some English words and songs, but mostly we communicated through smiles, snacks, and snowballs. Rather than focusing on all our differences, we focused on all the amazing human things we had in common.

When the sun comes out, sometimes you just need to run around in the forest with your buns out.

On the first warm day in a while, we all couldn’t get enough sunshine. Since trees weren’t yet in bloom, most of the group played as the sun radiated down through the branches. The three girls in the group wandered off toward a sunnier area. From a small distance away, I saw them taking off their snow-pants. Giggling, they ran between the trees and danced in the warmth.

When we stay present in our environment, we become more sensitive to all the changes happening. When we’ve been cold, we feel early-summer warmth deeper in our bones. When we’ve been present in sadness, we notice when joy returns. While most people can find something to complain about in any situation—these children are paying attention to their internal and outside environments and making the most out of any weather.

Small hills are as important as the mountains.

On a race up a small hill in April, four kids ran as fast as they could, all barely making it to the finish because of all the spring mud. The youngest child of the group kept sliding down to the start. She tried many times and became upset. She was very small and the task seemed too impossible. I walked behind her and encouraged her on. Determined and slow, she made it to the top by her strength.

The little victories teach us about our capabilities and help us discover the courage to do big things in life. Each struggle we face, no matter what size, can strengthen us.

Breaking some branches and picking flowers in nature is much less damaging to our environment than never experiencing it.

I’ve been too many places where I see a parent scolding their child for playing in dirt or picking a flower. Yes, a flower will continue to grow better if left with its roots, but what’s the harm in trying to capture a bit of beauty? If kids fear touching nature and getting dirty, the activities and things they will use to entertain themselves with will be far less enriching and potentially far more damaging to their lives and our natural environment.

Slow down.

One sunny winter day I saw a child named Honza staring deeply into the skeleton of a leaf. When he saw my curiosity, he quickly invited me over. This little explorer revealed the perfect similarities between the leaf and the palm of my hand by placing the leaf in it and tracing the lines in both. He showed me that we are all connected, and some unstructured time during our day gives us the freedom to explore the mystery of it all. We can discover all the little treasures surrounding us when we receive the gift of time and slow down.

Whether they’re examining a leaf or a bug, playing red-light-green-light, picking wildflowers, sliding down hills, drawing a map of our surroundings, gathering sticks for firewood, or managing a fight with a friend—these kids were connected to the gift of the present at each moment I was blessed to spend with them. Under the forest trees we grew from the dirt, together, as the seasons changed before our eyes.

-E

Outside, the summer wind breathes through the lush and bursting forest, and inside, a cold breeze chills even safely-buried roots. Overgrown stinging nettle stings my legs with each step, stabs my tongue with each word. I am left speechless in my own skin.

What happened to the good stories? Life weaving braids of gratitude and adventure and optimism, fresh breath of air stories. Mountain summit other-side of addiction adolescence pain rivers roaring stories. Long lovely days Milky Way laughter warmth of fire passion ablaze. Legends now.

A sea swells within me. Falling, crashing, and ebbing. Roots entirely washed away by a swollen ocean. Bones both cleansed and battered as I let go. 

Mother-love growing roots expanding waves. Delicate baby girl waves. Teeny baby boy waves. Momma Mary watching Jesus Christ nails in the flesh over broken bones son of God almighty forsaken and limitless waves. Darkness covers my eyes falling deeper Frida Kahlo broken daughter bleeding artist lo que el agua me dio waves. Waves of woman sisters in the depths, crashing, crashing, cresting. Floating. Quiet floods that will never be painted in beautiful colors on the body for others to see. Writing, dear old friend, I give you my heart, howling with grief and dripping with blood. I shatter onto this page.

These days brighten and wane like whole seasons. Red raspberry wisdom, huckleberry finger stains, sunshine sweat and naps in the shade, cold river runoff dances around my toes, warmth of loved ones and chocolate chip cookie days—outside really is your best side kind of days. But every single one of these passing seasons earth rotations are part of the story. Can’t just tear out some pages or whole chapters and leave the lovely ones to enjoy with a grande cup of lukewarm coffee with extra room for “I’m fine.”

Honestly, alive feels so good, but it hurts too badly sometimes. For now I’m just growing through the cracks of being. Trying to embody the forgiven joys as fully as the guilt-aches. The rising tides crushed, and left shattered what’s true. I just need some time to pick up all the pieces. And then maybe someday, all these pages will dance in the wind like summer again.

–E

Once

hardened by hatred
weighed down by salt.
the splendor of stillness
once foreign to me
now runs through my veins.

words will cleanse
ink will detoxify what’s left
of lives lost to the doubts of having nothing to say.

out of fear of imperfection,
I didn’t write a word
not even a single letter.
these pages are messy now,
no longer blank.

this surface isn’t meant to be silent
out of fear of ruining it.
this must be colorful and real and messy and true.

have only a fear of never beginning.
enter the cracks on the surface
and burst through
all that tells you that you can’t
all who says that you have nothing to say.

the first letter
dances
barefoot on summer soil.

your mind is a lovely place,
your body filled with wisdom.
just once
tell your story true
no matter how messy it looks.

–E

mountains roar, rising and falling
snow melts and water flows through another revolution
the earth does not confine these rivers to the shape that soil desires
but with a great velocity, the waters shape their path

humans too must surrender to an uncommon course
carving away, releasing burdens too heavy
carrying life towards the sea
where pasts and futures collide

nature opens up its hungry jaws
as you do to the world in judgment
it spits you out, raw
leaving the flesh and blood behind and burying your bones

until you see the earth as a mirror
everything as a reflection of yourself
it is a terrifying and death-ridden place
with nowhere to hide but behind fear

that light that you’ve been protecting with all you have
it longs to dance with the wind
and will come back to you
more complete than before if you just allow it to soar

release your light and hold on to love
then let it go
and embrace it again
and then free it further

you are already whole
just let go of your precious heart, it is safe here
the fortress you’ve built around it only keeps it from healing
and becoming a full vessel, overflowing

darling, you contain all the love that exists
if you allow it to exist in you
nature longs to engrave not more pain on your heart,
but to embed purpose into this fractured world of men

let pass this melting into your path, don’t fight it
with great force, move, and take on your own shape
let the dark soil be your canvas
for new life

–E