The Big Epic

Connect with Nature - One Adventure at a Time

Tag: Kids

Let’s Raise Brave Kids (and forget “risky play”)

I want my children to enjoy adventure and be brave enough to try new things and explore new places. How about you?! This post is Part III in a series about raising brave kids and getting our kids outside. Don’t miss Part I and Part II.)

“Risky Play” versus “Brave Kids” – who cares which words we use? Is there some reason one of these phrases is better than the other? Isn’t this just a matter of personal opinion? I argue that we should all stop using the currently common phrase “risky play.” Words matter – they often invoke significant positive or negative emotional responses. Parents and “experts” around the world are discussing the importance of outdoor play for children. (See bottom of post for list of countries talking this topic.) Let’s explore how our words and actions can support our adventurous kids to better enjoy being outside.

joy in being outside

Let’s start by defining what we mean by “Brave Kids.” The words “risky play” imply danger and a need to protect our kids. Obviously, we are not eager to support dangerous behavior. On the other hand, we DO want our children to enjoy adventures, using curiosity and experimentation to explore the world around them. Although this type of discovery-based-learning has the potential for physical injury, it is also a natural and necessary part of children’s play which helps develop many significant skills and attributes.

brave kids jump glacier run-off

That’s a fine definition, but let’s go beyond the dictionary. Here are some examples of helpful activities to build adventurous brave kids. Most of us want our children to learn to walk, ride a bicycle, and swim. These are seen as important developmental milestones in our culture even though they involve risks of physical injury. Generally, we accept activities such as climbing, swinging, sliding, balancing, jumping, and hanging, especially if these things are done on a “safe” playground. It’s rarer for parents to encourage making fires, using a knife, or practicing the above behaviors in wild nature places. We need to let our kids roll down hills, climb trees, swing on vines, slide down rocks, balance on logs, jump off boulders and hang upside-down from branches! And we need to teach them how to safely make fires and use a knife.

brave kids climb rocks

But why should we allow “risky play” when it makes us anxious? What are the benefits of raising “Brave Kids”? I discussed this in more detail in Part I of this series (found HERE). In addition to the many physical, emotional, social, and academic benefits of encouraging outside time for our children, raising kids who enjoy adventure helps them appropriately judge risks, learn to try new things, and strengthens their self-confidence. It may be counter-intuitive but allowing our children to engage in exploratory play can even reduce their risk of injury!

That’s nice…but I don’t want my son or daughter to get hurt! How can I raise brave kids but still keep them safe? Like many aspects of parenting, this is a balancing act. We need to determine what is actually “dangerous” versus things that have an acceptable level of manageable risk. Then we need to train our children in how to make these judgements for themselves.

First, we need to look at ourselves. What are our own fears? What activities did we grow up doing? What things were we stopped from doing when we were kids? All of this plays into what we consider to be “dangerous.”

teen skiing at Killington VT

Here’s an example of how our own childhoods affect our beliefs and actions: my family grew up snow skiing in Vermont every year. We loved this special time together (and, of course, did not consider it to be dangerous.) In the summers, we sometimes went canoeing. That, too, was considered safe, but ONLY if we knew how to swim and wore effective life jackets. And then we grew up. My brother-in-law eventually joined us on family ski trips. We were quite surprised to find out that his family considered downhill skiing to be quite dangerous. After all, celebrities had died on the slopes! On the other hand, he and his dad and brothers went fishing in Canada each year—out on the water with no life vests even though they didn’t know how to swim. Now THAT was dangerous (in our opinion!)

brave kids and grandma hiking on the AT

Once we clearly see who we are and how our own upbringing has shaped us, we need to take time to consider the individual personalities of each of our children. This one is a risk taker, that one hates to try anything new. This one seems to always get hurt, that one is very aware of what her body can do. This one loves to be outdoors, that one hates the bugs and the cold or the hot sun. This one thrives on experiential learning, the other one prefers to learn from books or to watch others for awhile before trying things for himself.

What is our role as caregivers? We start by affirming our responsibilities as parents. Our job in all arenas of life is to give our children freedom to pursue their interests and build needed skills for healthy adulthood. This requires our support, encouragement and training/discipline to help them learn new things, make good decisions and manage risks and difficulties. As parents, we, of course, must protect our children from dangerous things which are genuine threats to their health and safety while still teaching them how to manage appropriate risks.

We need to find a balance in raising adventurous brave kids—not being overprotective nor negligent; not limiting necessary exploration nor pushing children into things they aren’t ready for; not making them fearful nor allowing them to be in genuine danger. This is where we need to remember what we learned about our tendencies and about our children’s personalities. Like most other areas of parenting, how we best support our children varies depending on individual strengths, fears, and personal preferences (theirs and ours!)

child wading in a stream

We also need to remember that getting bumps, bruises or scratches is not imminent danger. Nor is getting dirty or wet something to be avoided at all costs. When we head outdoors, we can plan ahead and bring a change of clothes, some towels, and a small first-aid kit. Learning to overcome small difficulties builds resilience to handle bigger challenges later in life!

 

Now that we know ourselves, and we know our kids, we can find the best ways to support each child in trying new adventures!

As stated at the beginning, words matter! Let’s guard our tongues and limit phrases such as “Stop!” “That’s dangerous!” or “Be careful!” These statements might make us feel better, but they are too general to actually teach our children safe practices. In addition, when we express our anxiety, we teach our children that we do not trust them, that they can’t handle challenges, or that we are the only ones capable of making good decisions. Instead, we need to use positive language to help our children consider what might happen next. (This article gives excellent suggestions of specific phrases and questions which help build confident kids.)   

Instead of hovering over our children (which exhausts us and them), we can build their skills and their confidence by offering our help without being pushy. As they demonstrate good decision-making and appropriate actions, we gradually give them more freedom. To support them as adventurous explorers, we can:

  • Model behaviors/attitudes about being outdoors and trying new things
  • Teach skills incrementally with supervision and grant greater freedoms gradually
  • Stay close enough to monitor their behavior but only step in if necessary
  • When we are uncomfortable with what our children are doing, take a 17 second pause to determine if this activity is an immediate danger or has manageable risks
  • Choose skill-building words (as discussed above) to support our kids

teen at a campfire

Let’s close with a step-by-step example: even though I’m terrified of simply lighting a match, my daughter Andowen became an expert campfire-maker while we were on our first long backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail. Her mentor was a fellow hiker named “Blaze.” Each evening when we met up at a shelter, Blaze took Andowen with him to find appropriate tinder, kindling, and larger fuel in the surrounding woods. He had her sort it into piles near the fire-pit. He showed her how to stack the wood and how to light it without firestarters. Eventually, he had her try it under his supervision. And, of course, he taught her about keeping a safe distance from open flames and how to fully dowse the embers at the end of the evening. After many days of practicing with Blaze, the time came that we were alone at a shelter. Andowen was quite proud when she made us a campfire all by herself. (I quietly kept a close eye on her safety from a few feet away.) We took a photo of that fire, and when we showed it to Blaze later, he dubbed her the “Mistress of the Flame.” I’m still fearful of lighting birthday candles, but my daughter has the skills, confidence, and good judgment to make campfires for everyone to enjoy!

Now it’s your turn! What will you try from this post as you work to raise your own “Brave Kids” who pursue adventures?

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(Read about why I make sure to take my child in the woods…)

(When I did research for this post, I found significant discussion from multiple countries about how to support children while they safely and independently explore the outdoors. Articles were posted from Australia, Canada, Germany, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, UK, and the USA. Books about similar parenting choices include “There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather”  in Sweden, and “Achtung Baby”  in Germany.)

How to Get Your Kids Outside

I want my children to enjoy adventure and be brave enough to try new things and explore new places. How about you?! This post is Part II in a series about raising brave kids and getting our kids outside. Don’t miss Part I and Part III.)

By now, you’ve heard all the reasons you should get your kids outside on a regular basis. (If you need more convincing, read my recent blog post about the many benefits of nature connection for children.) You want to do things that are good for your family, but you might have no clue how to make it fun for your kids. Some of us loved being outdoors in our own childhood, but the complete freedom to wander that we experienced doesn’t feel possible today. Others may never have been comfortable outside. So how in the world can you begin to add enjoyable nature time to the life of your family?

Let’s start with a little humor. Take a moment and read the infographic in this blog post to learn how to Work Hard to Avoid Nature Connection! (Shhh! Don’t let your kids read this one. It might give them ammo for their arguments to just stay inside…) Your first steps to getting kids outside can be simply to do the OPPOSITE of everything listed in that chart! Haha!

yoga poses, balance on rocksLet your children have time to FREE PLAY outside. No worries! This idea doesn’t require skill or (much) planning. Simply find a local park, forest trail, or nature area and let your kids play freely with what they discover. More and more parks are including a “natural playground” area with logs to build with and rocks to climb. Stay near them if you are worried for their safety; but try to resist a constant chorus of “oh be careful!” “Johnny, stop that!” “Suzie, you might get hurt!” Let them climb on rocks, splash in a shallow stream, jump in a mud puddle, pick up sticks, and use their imagination in an outdoor setting. (To allow more freedom, you might want to bring towels and a change of clothes and shoes for when they are finished playing!) 

kids outside, running on dirt pathAll of you might enjoy the opportunity to EXPLORE NEW TRAILS. Ask around and find a local park that has walking trail(s). Bonus points for no pavement! Ask your kids to stay within your eyesight, even when the route is fairly even and flat. Often, they will be more excited about exploring if they can be in the lead. This might be less worrisome for you if you find a simple loop trail with no intersections that might be confusing. (You and your kids might enjoy joining our Lego Tiny-Mes as they explore the woods and go on a bear hunt!)

 

 

girl by tree, in the woodsConsider whether or not you and your kids would find it fun to LEARN about NATURE. For some of us, more information is a good thing. For others, simply being free to experience the outdoor setting is more enticing. There are many resources for identifying trees, wildflowers, and animals/tracks. If you want broader background knowledge of the outdoors, consider one of the many free Jr. Ranger booklets from the National Park Service. (I’ve written about our daughter’s quest to collect Jr. Ranger badges HERE. This post also includes links and resources for this program. It’s fun to visit the parks in person. But many general booklets are available to download online. Plus most parks will mail you a booklet if you request one. Your child can mail the completed book back to the park to receive a shiny badge!)

Would you like to know about the Hidden Life of Trees? Did you know that they communicate, they have a “wood-wide-web” and they take care of their children and their elders? (I know! Crazy…right?! Read more about this HERE.) A brand new book I just discovered (and love) is “Can You Hear the Trees Talking?. The author explains secrets of forests with simple language and beautiful illustrations. In addition, he offers fun activities to try when you have your kids outside in the woods. (Link to book on Amazon HERE. Even better, buy it from your local book seller.)

kids outside, peering into hole in treeFor fun and games outside, challenge your kids to a SCAVENGER HUNT. You can search for fairies or other imaginary creatures. (Read about our long-term quest of “Finding Fairy Houses” on my blog.) Look for a certain color or search for animal tracks if the trail is soft. Take along a favorite small toy. The toy(s) can go on an imaginary adventure (like our lego Tiny-Mes did in this post) or you can hide the toy(s) for your child(ren) to find. (Check out my Instagram account @legotinyadventures to see all the wonderful places our lego Tiny-Mes have wandered!) WARNINGS: If you wander off the edge of the trail, please be aware of poison ivy or bramble bushes. And if your child might be upset when their favorite toy gets dirty, choose a different toy to hide.

girl sitting on a rockFinally, when you get your kids outside, have everyone USE THEIR SENSES to connect more deeply with nature. Find a place where everyone can relax. If possible, close eyes (our usual sense through which we process the world.) What can you hear? How does the air feel against your skin or in your hair? What can you smell? Is there any direction that is “calling” you? Open your eyes again and notice what new things you see. (For more ideas or “invitations” to use your senses outside or from a window, check out my nature Instagram @jecolorfulheart_thebigepic.) Consider returning to the same place every week or two and notice what is different! This can be interesting to do even in your own backyard or from a balcony at home! (Returning to sit quietly in the same place over and over is called “Sit Spot.” I’ve written more about this practice HERE.)

I hope these ideas help you to let go of the dreaded “shoulds” of getting your kids outside and help you actually get out there and have FUN together! I would love to hear about other ways you and your family enjoy nature together. Please share your ideas in the comments…

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A few additional resources you might find useful:

This website has free activity ideas and printables. There is also an active facebook group. https://wilderchild.com

I absolutely love Susan, a friend I discovered online who is passionate about helping families get their kids outside. She offers free monthly challenges on her website https://mountainmomandtots.com And as one of her patreon supporters, I have won some really cool things in her monthly gear giveaways.

Finally, this article gives more ideas on how to get your kids outside: https://childmind.org/article/ideas-for-getting-your-kids-into-nature

Why in the World Should We Raise “Nature Kids”?

I want my children to enjoy adventure and be brave enough to try new things and explore new places. How about you?! This post is Part I in a series about raising brave kids and getting our kids outside. Don’t miss Part II and Part III.)

In today’s culture, there are few “Nature Kids” to be found. (This is a big change from past generations. Read about my informal poll of favorite childhood activities HERE.) Most families today have busy schedules. We participate in school and work, lessons and sports, family gatherings and community groups. We pursue connection, entertainment, and knowledge through our electronic screens, often while we are on the go. We feel like we have no time to add anything else to our hectic to-do lists. When we add fears about safety and being uncomfortable with the unknowns of being outdoors (in ourselves or in our kids), it can be a hassle (or even an all-out  battle) to get our kids outside. Why in the world should we bother?

too many screens, stop electronics use

The NEGATIVES: Study after study in the past decades show this indoor, hectic lifestyle is not merely neutral. Our children are actually harmed by the lack of being “Nature Kids.” In his ground-breaking book “Last Child in the Woods,” (written in 2005) author Richard Louv challenged that the exploding rates of ADHD are actually symptoms of “Nature-Deficit-Disorder.” The same can be said for the current rise in sensory processing disorders, delays in the development of fine and gross motor skills, childhood obesity, and even pediatric mental health diagnoses. (There are an overwhelming number of articles and studies online which discuss this problem. Here are two I recommend: “Why Kids Need to Spend Time in Nature” and “Less Outdoor Play is Causing More Harm than Good.”)

The POSITIVES: Okay, so those are the negative ways that too much inside time might harm our children. But why should we actively fight to help our children be “Nature Kids”? I have summarized the benefits of spending regular time outdoors in the following infographic:

infographics, benefits for kids in nature

Since childhood I have always preferred to get outside as often as possible. Once we had a family, because our kids were (mostly) homeschooled, we had plenty of opportunity for them to experience being “Nature Kids.” I admit that some of my now adult children prefer to spend most of their time indoors—but they still occasionally go for walks or drive to a park or a beach for some outdoor time. A few of my adult kids get outside regularly. And in the past five years, we have realized that our youngest daughter NEEDS extended nature time to be healthy. (Read more about this in “Outdoor Girl” and “Child in the Woods.”)

 

dragon trainer, nature kids

“To benefit your family, you do NOT need to commit to big adventures in the wilderness!”

The GOOD NEWS: With further research and through my training to become a certified Forest Therapy Guide, I found some good news for all of us. The many benefits of connecting with nature do not require large sacrifices in our normal schedules. Yes, my daughter and I enjoy living in the woods for weeks at a time as we backpack on the Appalachian Trail. BUT—you do not need to commit to big adventures in the wilderness! Studies show that even just 30 minutes of outside time each week bring long-lasting benefits. Surely, we can find that much time to improve our families’ health and well-being!

nature kids, family outside

Let’s head outdoors and begin to raise “Nature Kids.” Will you join me?

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