For years now I’ve wanted to do a big blog post about our ever-evoloving campsite, which I often talk and share photos of on Facebook, and we all love so dearly, but I’ve never actually posted about here. I thought it was time to tell the story of how this magical space came to be.
The first thing I must tell you is that the land and woods which we call “our” campsite, is not, in fact, ours. We actually live in a townhome at the end of a quiet culdesac in a normal old neighborhood. The beauty of it is that the lawn at the end of our street borders nearly 100 acres of undeveloped woods, owned by a kind-hearted man who doesn’t mind when kids and dog-walkers and woodland-loving folks enjoy his property. There are miles of trails running through the woods, made mostly by a neighbor of ours who has large dogs, but a few trails closer to home were carved out by me and the kids.
And I guess you could say the campsite has been our little project in the past few years.
It went like this: one spring, the kids found this spot just down the hill from the common lawn. They made an opening in the bushes and would slide down the steep bank into this little clearing of sorts, and began going down there to play and pretend as kids do. There were several fallen, moss-covered trees, and lots of random junk tossed over by folks over the years. My kids began using some of these things to build themselves a little fort of sorts, and they’d go down to play house.
They called it The Secret Woods, and it really was this quiet secretive place, off to the side of the main lawn and the trail entrance to the woods, and from the road, no one can see down into it. It was quiet and calm, and pretty. Daffodils and wild onions speckled the ground there in spring and it wasn’t long before they were dragging me down to see their new play area.
I was completely in love. The light and the trees and the mossy logs were magical…but the slope was terrible. You literally had to slide on your tush to get down there, which is fine for kids, but not so much for mommys. 🙂
I, too, was drawn to the space, so soon I had my shovel in hand and was digging out earthen steps to make it a bit more accessible.
The problem was that someone had dumped gravel–like a LOT of gravel–right onto that slope, and I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to dig steps into gravel, but it’s doesn’t work well. Everything kept sliding down and the gravel bank was just a mess.
We put up with this until fall. Then I found some old pavers in our garage and decided to get serious about the steps. Determined to get through the gravel, I kept digging and tossing it into a heap at the bottom of the hill. One by one, I was able to lay the steps down on mostly solid ground.
I always tell people who ask about our campsite that the woods provided most of what we used to decorate. The gravel was a blessing in disguise. The huge pile was spread out to form a path. The kids gathered stones they found lying here and there, and soon, the path was lined.
Where does the path lead?
Well, at first, no where. But the next order of business was to build a fire pit so we could enjoy campfires together as a family. An existing log was left in place to provide seating, and old deck chairs were dragged down too.
Even this happened over weeks and months. The whole area is on a slope, and after one or two campfires with little ones toddling around, we realized how dangerous that was and so we began grading the area. All of this happened slowly…every few days, moving a wheelbarrow full of topsoil from one area of the campsite to the fire-pit area in order to level it out. It still slopes a little, but it’s manageable. This is, after all, western Pennsylvania.
Spring again, and a Cowboys and Indians-themed birthday party for my 2 oldest prompted the building of the Tee-Pee.
To build it, I used stag horn sumac trees (readily available in our area) which are fairly straight, and SUPER easy to cut down with a bow saw as they are not dense. For the teepee covering, I cut apart a large painter’s cloth which I hot-glued, pinned and knotted around the sumacs. This is not a tutorial for teepee building, and I definitely jimmy rigged the whole thing all by myself with some rope and random materials, but guess what? It held up for 2 years.
Eventually, as you can imagine, it got kinda gross. Wet and moldy cloth and all. We lovingly called it the creepy tee-pee, and though no one dared go in it anymore, it looked so rad that we left if up until last fall.
Fast forward to last year when we studied the Middle Ages, and I began dreaming of having our own re-enactments down in the woods and having a real pallisade where we could stage battles with friends, and a castle fortress complete with a castle-keep and multiple rooms.
A pile of abandoned pallets in the woods did the trick. The kids and I literally dragged them from their spot farther in the woods over to where we wanted to build, and then I had to once more, do some leveling of the slope in order to make the fort. I got some good exercise shoveling earth for a few days and stepping the castle area to form two “rooms.” Then my husband and I dug a rough 3-6in. trench around the perimeter, and placed one pallet at a time into the trench so it would stay upright. From there, we tied each pallet to the trees nearest them, or to the pallet next to it using rope. Back-supports were added here and there and eventually, we had a pretty stable fort. Where we wanted a back door or front door, we simply left a space between the pallets.
The kitchen was probably the most fun to make.
To make the kitchen-counter/cooking area, we used a couple of stumps topped with an old wooden deck step that we also found in the woods. The table and chairs are more stumps, and were added over time, as I would drive past places that advertised free firewood and the like- I would simply stop and ask if I could have a few stumps for our campsite.
For the pots and pans, we always keep our eyes open at goodwill and when we go visit my grandpa’s scrapyard, and little by little, we had a while kitchen full of treasures.
My own children and all the neighbor kids who play down here spend quite a bit of time making all sorts of nature concoctions in this kitchen.
The only rule we have is to tidy up and leave the place looking orderly. I added several nails to the pallets so the pots and utensils can be hung when not in use.
An old stainless steel mixing bowl acts as a sink, and a grilling plate given by a neighbor functions as our “stovetop.”
Old brown curtains were added at some point to the kitchen / back door area. They are simply hung on a branch, and I leave them up spring-fall and take them down and give them a washing before I pack them away for winter.
The last time I visited my grandparents (who operate a scrapyard), I brought home an old corded wall-phone and I added a screw and hung it in our castle fort. Lots of calls are made on that thing.
One day, a neighbor who was ripping out their patio approached me and asked if I had any use for the cement blocks they needed to get rid of. I had no idea exactly HOW we could use them, but of course I said yes, we’ll take them. Eventually, these became our pretend fireplace in the main room of our castle-fort.
Three swings supply the kids with hours of fun each day. The hammock has been a wonderful spot for me or my hunny to snuggle up on. Everyone loves piling onto it and occasionally I will sneak out there with my girl to star-gaze on warm summer nights.
While we have now “developed” much of this area, one thing I love is that there is still ample area surrounding our campsite for the kids to continue to explore and build their own secret hideouts~plenty of room for more trails to be added. It is healthy to allow our children to have the time and freedom to create their own natural play-spaces~ones that we keep our hands off because they are theirs, not ours. My kids are always blazing new trails in our woods, and finding new secret places, each one more exciting than the last.
A couple years ago, I couldn’t resist planting a few dozen bulbs down there. Seems silly since it’s not our property, but what a wonderful thing to make an investment into an area where you spend so much time–it was well worth it in spring when happy crocuses and daffodils and tulips graced the earth around the fort.
The past two years, we have hosted a mother-daughter harvest party in our Secret Woods.
We spend hours and days leading up to it decorating with pumpkins and corn stalks and hay bales, hanging fresh flag bunting and outdoor lights.
When dusk settles in and the lights are turned on, it’s truly something right out of a fairy tale.
This space is a gift that keeps on giving. During the early afternoon hours, it’s all ours and we are thankful. It’s also the first place neighbor kids run to at the end of their school day, and there are many nights when we adults sit down there under the stars and trees and enjoy campfires long into the evening.
It started small, and it’s wonderful to look back and see how it’s changed and improved.
Most recently, we added a zipline to the area.
The Secret Woods has become one of the dearest, most treasured places for all of us–our own little slice of heaven here in suburbia–and very much part of our home. When we moved here I never would have imagined this wooded wonderland and what a gift it would be to our lives. If ever we move, it is what we will all miss most.
I always encourage moms to help their kids along in developing little magical spaces. The hours will slip by and your children will enter into that sweet realm of outdoor imaginative play that every child should get to experience and soak up and treasure as their very own.
In this time of extraordinary pressure, educational and social, perhaps a mother’s first duty to her children is to secure for them a quiet growing time, a full six years of passive receptive life, the waking part of it spent for the most part out in the fresh air. ~Charlotte Mason