By Emily Haugh
In October 2017 during the “Holding Nature in Mind” event held by the Contemplative Sciences Center at UVA, Carolyn Schuyler, a woman with a calming presence and passionate eyes, talked to the Charlottesville community about ecotherapy. Ecotherapy is a term used to describe ways in which we can improve our mental and physical wellbeing through outdoor activities in nature. After her talk, attendees met in the gardens of the University of Virginia and meditated with the plants, air, earth, and each other. From the bright green of a youthful grass shoot to the humbling energy of a thirty-foot tall tree, attendees witnessed the stresses of everyday life melt away to make room for the compassionate reality of nature. Eighty-year-olds giggled with twenty-somethings. Eyes twinkled. Bliss radiated. Carolyn made the space for this tender moment to happen.
Carolyn founded Wildrock, a newly formed and growing nonprofit with a mission to promote nature play for health and happiness. Wildrock, located in Crozet, Virginia, addresses the loss of nature connection in family life. Shocked by the statistic that today’s children spend only seven minutes a day in outdoor play and seven hours in front of a screen, Carolyn felt compelled to open a 28-acre playscape for a generation that has little experience with nature. Growing up, Carolyn spent her days playing in the 18-mile stream and woods near her home in Hamburg, New York. Nature held a sort of magic for Carolyn. After witnessing her own daughter playing in a stream, she wanted to ensure that more children would know the joy of playing in nature.
At Wildrock, children and even adults get their hands dirty and develop a “heart connection,” a term Carolyn passionately uses, to nature. This connection is fostered through activities such as stream wading, fort building, digging and creating in sand, climbing logs, mud-pie making, and playing house. Carolyn explained, “I wanted to create a place that would give families joyful experiences playing in nature and that would help raise awareness about the heavy price our children pay when they are deprived of nature connection and time for free, imaginative play. The best way to raise awareness is to let people discover for themselves how good it feels to be outside exploring and playing imaginatively.”
Despite all the demands that running a nonprofit entails, Carolyn still has a knack for getting on the kid’s level. She can effortlessly tap into her inner child in order to promote imaginative play. For instance, one of Wildrock’s employees, Leah Gerber, was struck by how gracefully Carolyn led young children to build fairy houses. Passing around a bushel of lavender, Carolyn encouraged the children to smell it and shared the whimsical secret that, “Lavender is a fairy’s favorite smell.” Soon young girls and boys alike were excitedly exploring nature, their noses stuck inside flowers and sprinkling lavender in the fairy houses. Leah commented, “throughout my summer working at Wildrock, I never once observed bullying or exclusivity or any evidence of a social hierarchy among the children on the playscape. There is something special that happens when children are taken away from technology and are exploring, creating, and playing in organic ways. Every person, adult or child, who comes to Wildrock leaves happier and seemingly kinder than when they arrived. This is all possible thanks to Carolyn.”
Carolyn firmly believes that we need spaces that help us unplug from our daily stress, places where we can foster feelings of gentleness, kindness, and joy. Fear, hardship, and trauma can blind us to the reality of love and positivity that surrounds us all the time. From her time spent as a psychotherapist, Carolyn knows intimately that possessing a reservoir of positive emotions contributes to emotional resiliency. Wildrock births kindness in its visitors, allowing them to sprinkle it like lavender in their daily lives.
Carolyn is creating true change-making magic at Wildrock. Not only do visitors’ moods brighten while playing, but they remember the way playing in nature makes them feel. This means that “Wildrockers” are more likely to return to and rely on nature to lift their spirits. The memories themselves are powerful, serving as mental spaces for emotional resilience during times of despair, boredom, and loss. Through a beautiful act of kindness inspired by nature, the creation of Wildrock, Carolyn inspires kindness in people young and old alike through opening their eyes to the positive power of nature. This compounding effect has drastic effects for individuals, the local community, and the future generation. Through helping children and inner children alike to play, create, and explore, Carolyn is shedding light all around her.
If you are inspired by Carolyn Schuyler's work, please donate below to help her create joyful experiences in nature.