Sound faded away as my heart stopped. I sucked in a breath so I could frantically yell, “Get down! What are you doing?!” My precious little boy was precariously balancing on a tree root, probably only millimeters thick. This tiny root holding my 2-year-old was jutting out over angry water that was certainly miles deep and so cold hypothermia would set in instantaneously. Is that gale force wind I feel? Surely the next gust would cause my son to lose his already perilous balance!
Then, the oxygen that I gasped into my lungs. The oxygen that was going to give me the power to scream for my son to get to safety, instead, cleared my initial spurt of adrenalin. Ahh, the wonders of oxygen. Let’s take a second gander. One that is not viewed through an adrenalin hazed lens. Perhaps, just maybe, my initial assessment of the situation was a tad exaggerated due to said adrenalin.
I still wanted to yell for my little boy to get down but I bit my tongue. He had climbed onto a tree root, one where he could put his feet side-by-side and still have room for another friend. The solid root was holding him about a foot above the shallow water. The water itself was calmly lapping at the shore. And, while the water was chilly, if he took that short tumble I’m fairly confident I’d be dealing with a cold and unhappy kiddo and not one going into hypothermic shock. He wasn’t trying to climb higher, jump or even do the disco on this tree root. He was calmly standing, with a hand braced against the tree trunk, leisurely looking out over the water.
I slowly walked over to him. As I peeked over his shoulder I was met with a brilliant smile. He was so proud of himself! Stopping myself from yelling ensured I didn’t undermine his developing self-confidence and decision making skills. My silence communicated my own faith in his ability. Climbing out over the water on this low-hanging root had given him a gift. The gift of confidence and empowerment born out of testing himself. The gift of health and happiness that comes when using your body and mind. He challenged himself and discovered new limits. He used gross and fine motor skills. He saw his world from a different perspective and stimulated his 5 senses. And, he fell a little bit more in love with nature.
Every parent wants their child to grow into a happy and healthy adult. We want our kids to be resilient, confident, and creative. We want them to be risk-takers, to stretch themselves and reach for things just beyond their fingertips. Because, without these ventures they will never know their full potential. Without these risks they will never stumble, perhaps a little bloody and out of breath, and look back only to be amazed at what they are capable of accomplishing. Nature provides opportunities to develop each and every one of these qualities. But, sometimes, these opportunities require you to hold your breath, cross your fingers and hope that you won’t be kicking yourself for allowing these little adventures, or misadventures, 5 minutes from now.
Today risk has become akin to danger. There is no allowance for the existence of positive, and necessary, risk. Many western societies have become obsessed with keeping children safe. But how safe is too safe? For a week I listened to parents and I reflected on my own assertions, those I actually made and those I bit back. I was startled by all of the yells to, “Be careful!” The disgusted, “Don’t step there!” The frantic, “Too high!” And, one of the most surprising, “Stay out of the dirt!” Wait, what?
Positive risk is nature’s way of helping us test ourselves and grow into mature, confident and capable adults. Taking risks help us ascertain how our bodies move and work, what they are capable of doing. Risk teaches us decision making, to weigh danger against reward and understand cause and effect. When we stop children from taking those natural positive risks, no matter how well intentioned, we unwittingly encourage inactivity which can lead to obesity. This is certainly a cause for significant concern. The Committee on Obesity Prevention Policies for Young Children (2011) stated that by the time children enter school 20% of them are overweight and obese. Inactivity due to fear of injury is causing serious, long-term consequences.
When you’re out with children take a deep breath and truly assess the situation prior to yelling for them to be careful or stopping them completely. As a parent it is our job to determine true dangers and sometimes we see dangers that are not actually present. Wait just a moment, let your child think, and you will often be surprised at how attuned they are to identifying what is too risky and what isn’t. Constant protection or continuous exposure to dull and ultra-safe environments seems to have negative consequences. According to the Department of Media and Sport (2004), when environments lack stimulation and opportunities of “real” risks children may place themselves in situations where their risk of injury is greater and the play is more violent then if they were able to explore an environment where risk was naturally present. It can be difficult, and you might feel yourself go faint not realizing how long you’ve been holding your breath, but the physical and psychological rewards for your children will be enormously worthwhile.
Ideas for Encouraging Positive Risk Taking
- Trees are natures jungle gyms. If your kiddos see a tree and want to climb it, encourage them! My daughter LOVES climbing trees but when she first started out she wouldn’t climb very high at all. In fact, I’m fairly certain when she initially “climbed” as high as she was comfortable she was actually higher when she was simply standing. She slowly went higher, over a period of weeks and months, and now she can confidently climb well above my head.
- Boulders? Natures balance beams. Whether there is one lone boulder your child wants to climb on and jump off or you stumble upon a field of boulders, let them go play. I’ve watched our kiddos light up when they see boulders! If you’re uncomfortable with letting them go explore then go with them. I know my husband and I have had just as much fun jumping and climbing from boulder to boulder as the kids. Plus, it allowed us to teach them about safety and to point out some of the hidden treasures that you can find in a field of boulders.
- Since we’re not always out in nature and stumbling into boulder fields consider some opportunities on neighborhood walks. We live in an area where there are retaining walls. All kids love balancing on retaining walls! If one side makes you nervous casually walk next to your kiddo as they try to balance. What about steep hills? We have a couple spots where the hills can be pretty steep. Encourage the kids to run up and down the hill, building muscles and balance as they struggle up and stumble down. What about those drains along the sidewalk for water run off? Talk to your kids about what is underneath them, teach them how to explore those areas safely and they will forever be fascinated by watching the water disappear and listening to rocks bounce off the bottoms.
Lastly, let’s look at our own homes. If you live in a home with a yard, big or small, you can create an environment that will stimulate your kids imaginations while providing some opportunities for risk. We were lucky enough to landscape our backyard instead of inheriting the previous owners design. Or, we lived with a jungle of weeds for 2 years (sometimes they grew as high as my husbands waist!) and completely avoided eye contact with neighbors before we could afford to landscape. But, when we were able to landscape we created a retaining wall out of moss rocks. Best. Idea. Ever. Our kiddos have crawled, climbed, walked, sprinted, danced and jumped all over these rocks. My daughter, who can and will go everywhere barefoot, will scale these things shoeless right after she wakes up. She also enjoys launching herself off of them trying to land farther than she has ever landed before. She has tumbled and scraped her knees but she spends more time on those rocks than anywhere else in the yard. And, she’s learned a great deal about herself and her body while crawling and falling on giant moss rocks. They have been castles, fairy lands, and prisons. They’ve been clouds and canyons, mountains and deserts. So, if you are able. Add something to your backyard to encourage creativity and free play while requiring physical activity. Boulders. Tree stumps. Stepping stones. Random logs. The possibilities are endless.
Committee on Obesity Prevention Policies for Young Children. Early Childhood Obesity Prevention Policies. Washington, D.C.: National Academies, 2011. Print.
Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) (2004). Getting serious about play: A review of children’s play. London: Author. Retrieved 17 February 2014, http://www.culture.gov.uk/NR/rdonlyres/21762951-E07E-4439-8BA3-04C6ECE510A3/0/ReviewofChidlrensPlay.pdf
Niehues, A., Bundy, A., Broom, A., Tranter, P., Ragen, J., & Engelen, L. (2013). Everyday uncertainties: Reframing perceptions of risk in outdoor free play. Journal Of Adventure Education And Outdoor Learning, 13(3), 223-237. doi:10.1080/14729679.2013.798588