“Mommy, I’m sad.”

Me: “Honey, why do you feel sad?”

Him: “Just because… I just can’t make my body feel happy.” 

This was a conversation I had with my son Xander numerous times over the past 24 months. The pandemic began just as he turned two years old. It seemed that within just a few weeks of being locked up at home with his family, with no access to parks or other kids or a jungle gym, he started to tell me about his feelings more and more often. 

Seven months into the pandemic, it was time to send him to a new daycare. We had just moved, and we did ample amounts of research. But we were not allowed to tour the facility or meet the teachers. COVID protocols. So, on the first day of daycare, we were met by a woman in a mask, face shield and gloves holding a clipboard. After running through her checklist of symptoms, she just took his little body out of our arms—kicking and screaming—and carried him inside.

It was a quick and painful interaction. I felt sick to my stomach about it. But I was scared that we couldn’t handle another seven months of having two kids home while trying to work full time. He needed full-time care, but this decision gutted me.

Over the months ahead, we noticed our son repeatedly telling us how sad he was. He often cried and sobbed, begging us not to take him to daycare in the morning. Finally, after promising stickers and prizes and then attempting to work with the daycare to understand what we could do, we opted to try a different school in the area.

But the same process repeated. We couldn’t tour the facility during regular hours. We could only converse with teachers covered in protective gear, in the parking lot. Children couldn’t bring in their toys or stuffies, or favourite blankets for comfort. We would rip Xander’s favourite Batman figure out of his hand and turn him over to the women in the parking lot, covered in protective gear, each morning as he cried.

This fall, his sadness turned to anger. He’d come home after preschool, and we noticed he’d say, “I’m angry.” And we would watch the expression on his face turn. 

Although we had tried everything we could to help him feel more loved and process his emotions, it was early December, and I was losing sleep. I knew in my gut this was all wrong. 

I reached out to our family doctor and begged for some urgent help. We were waitlisted. The doctor explained that we are having a children’s mental health crisis right now, and there are genuinely not enough caregivers to go around – it could be six months or more. (Sidenote: We finally got a call back from one of many child therapists, and we are now scheduled for July—seven months after we called for an appointment.)

My husband and I went back to researching schools again, but my concern was this; my son, now almost four years old, wasn’t forming emotional connections with adults or kids at school. I wondered: if every face he saw was masked or distanced, was he struggling to connect emotionally? Did he feel safe? Was he looking for social cues to guide him, but they weren’t there? Did the world beyond the walls of his home feel scary to him?

I decided this winter had to be different for him.

We kicked around ideas like keeping him home versus hiring a nanny. But I wanted him to interact with society outside the walls of our home. I wanted him to build trust and confidence outside of our house. I wanted him to connect with new adults. I wanted him to create friendships with kids. I insisted that he needed to see faces to do so.

We headed north to a small weekend spot we have for the holidays. I reached out to the “Blue Mountains Wild School” in Kimberly, Ontario, and arranged a visit on a whim. The school’s founder was quick to respond. We were soon on a call having an incredible discussion about children, the importance of learning outdoors, the importance of community and how critical it is to teach children leadership at a very young age. I learned that WILD stands for “Wilderness Integrated Leadership Development.”

Given that I’ve spent my career teaching, coaching, and mentoring leaders, this man was speaking my language! Our beliefs were so aligned, but his organization supports children, whereas mine supports professional adults and leaders. It was a eureka moment for me.

After a family huddle, we quickly decided to put both of our children in this Wild School. They would begin after the holidays. The Omicron variant brought the school new challenges. But pretty soon, both kids were learning how to put on their base layers (always Merino wool, “cotton is rotten” they are being taught), mid-layers, and full-body snowsuits to head to school in the winter wilderness.

Even in the coldest weather—somehow—these kids are not just surviving; they are thriving. Some days they are sledding. Other days they are cross country skiing, snowshoeing, or identifying and tracing animal tracks. They talk about “good packing snow.”

Each day they begin with the students and teachers in one big circle outside, in the forest – snowy trees as far as the eye can see. They discuss their intentions, talk about mindset, and celebrate successes in the circle.

My daughter says they also do a long walk or hike immediately following their circle time. And although they come inside for paper and pencil learning activities, bathrooms, and lunchtime, a significant portion of the day is spent using the outdoors and the children’s natural curiosity as their classroom.

When I ask my son each night how wild school was, he says, “it was AMAZING!” or “it was AWESOME!”. To our surprise, he doesn’t say he’s sad anymore, and he doesn’t say he’s angry.

He also loves his newfound responsibilities. After school, he comes right into the house to take his wet boots off and set them by the fire. And take his wet mitts off. Or put away his backpack. I’m watching the challenges of wild school push him to grow, bringing him more personal satisfaction and self-confidence.

And when we drop him off in the morning, his teacher is often standing outside waiting for the children with a big smile. Kids in snowsuits surround her, and they race up to her for a big padded hug, almost knocking her down. The last time we dropped our son off, he too was barreling up to her waiting for his big puffy hug.

The other day at dinner, out of the corner of my eye I noticed he was examining my face. He said, “Mommy, are you happy?” I guess my mind had drifted, and my expression looked serious. I smiled at him and said, “I’m very happy buddy. Super happy.”

Please note I’m not sharing this story to make a political statement. I am sharing this story because it’s simply what happened in our house, and I feel many others may gain comfort or insight from hearing another person’s story.

I’m also sharing this story because it made me realize that for years I’ve been advocating for great leaders and healthy workplaces in the business world. But maybe it’s time to expand my thinking; to be a strong advocate for great leadership and mental wellness in every environment. Maybe after reading my story, you’ll join me.

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