Keep Parental Adrenalin In Check

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.

Enjoying nature from the root of a tree.

Enjoying nature from the root of a tree.

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.
  • I can jump farther this time!  I'm sure of it!!!

    I can jump farther this time! I’m sure of it!!!

    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.

References

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

Teaching Stillness

Listen. What do you hear?  
Look.  What do you see?  
Breathe.  What do you smell?  
Touch.  What do you feel?

Discovery of a leaf shaped like a heart trapped in the ice!

Discovery of a leaf shaped like a heart trapped in the ice!

I continually ask my daughter to take a moment.  To hold still.  Now, for those who don’t know my daughter, and her natural state of continuous motion, this is not an easy thing to ask.  But, every once in awhile, I am given the gift of that moment and, miraculously, she becomes still.  I see her listen, look, breathe, and stretch her fingers outward.  Her busy brain calms, focuses, and revels in that elusive element that all brains need.  Time.  Time to process.  Time to connect.  Time to understand.  Time to remember.  Time to learn.  And, time to fall in love with nature.

Human beings, young and old, have a need for nature.  We are connected to nature in so many ways.  We evolved with everything outside our windows.  Everything growing, crawling, running, flying.  We need the nourishment of the sunlight and the wonder of the moonlight.  Our species needs nature and this generation must fall in love with nature.  Otherwise, there will be no one left to realize our interdependence and to protect it for future generations.

The 21st Century is a busy time and, nowadays, children need to be taught to slow down.  They have school, homework, sports, music lessons, computers, iPads, iPhones, and Kindles.  They need to keep up with texting, tweets and Facebook.  When I was teaching I had my students use their cell phones to track their screen time, type and duration.  The project came about when I realized each of my kiddos had a cell phone but not all of them were sure where the sun rises and sets.  So, I had a project that I could use to teach various standards, an opportunity for students to see how they were spending their time, and a jumping board for future projects that dealt with the outside world.  Win. Win. And win.

When we graphed our results the students in my class spent an average of 8 hours a day in front of a screen (television, tablets, computers, cell phones).  I was positive our numbers were off until I did a little research.  Our numbers were accurate.  According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey cited by the American Academy of Pediatrics, American 8- to 18-year-olds spend more than 7 hours per day with media (Screen time and children, 2011).  This will add up to 7 to 10 years by the time they reach 70!  I am certainly not advocating against technology and media but there needs to be a balance.  And, more importantly, there needs to be a balance with nature.

So, my first blog is to offer an idea that is simple, easy and quick.  Teaching stillness. And if my energetic little girl can do it, anyone can do it!  You can do it in your backyard or a nearby open space.  Step outside with your child and hold still.  Close your eyes and focus on what you can feel.  The sunlight hitting your face.  Is the wind a gentle breeze or are the gusts bringing in a storm?  What do you hear?  Birds calling to one another?  Water gurgling over winter ice?  Only the blasts of a strong wind?  The silence that comes with a snowfall?  Open your eyes and take a moment to really look around you.  Do you see the winter robins (not all of them migrate!)?  Are the clouds moving quickly or slowly?  Is the grass bowing with the wind?  Walk around and touch a few things, it doesn’t really matter what.  The bark of a tree.  The surface of a boulder.  The blades of the dry grass.  The smoothness of backyard ice.

If you do this with your child often they will begin to do it independently.  My daughter will randomly mention the color of the mountains or yell for me when the sun is setting.  My son is always watching to see if the clouds are moving.  We must stop 50 times on bike rides to look at all of the bugs they see crawling on the sidewalk.

The first step to learning about and loving nature is to simply notice that it is there.

Connecting Nature and Education!

Start a sense journal!

Depending on the age of your kiddos you can have them draw pictures about what they noticed, write about their experience outside, or take pictures to print off and glue into the journal.

Try observing the same location for a set duration and at the same time each day.  Then, change the time but keep the location the same.  Notice similarities and differences.  For example, go into your backyard at 6pm each night, Sunday through Saturday.  The following week go into your backyard at 6am, Sunday through Saturday.  Spend a minimum of 5-minutes (about 1 minute per sense depending on if you are going to try to incorporate taste).  Record observations in your journal.

Choose various locations but keep the time of day the same.  For instance, each day at 6pm for one week spend time observing, with your senses, different locations.  Your backyard, a friends backyard, a local park, a local open space, a state park.  Record your observations in your journal and discuss the similarities and differences.

For those of you who have family or friends spread around the globe do the experiments together!  Each group observes their individual locations but at the same time.  It could be each of your porches or an area that is unique to your region.  Use Skype to share what your senses picked up.  Children can draw pictures of what they saw and show them on Skype or simply talk about it.  Excellent for developing speaking and listening skills.  If your child is older you could do this via email.  It would be wonderful practice for their typing, writing and communication skills!

Or, simply go outside as a family.  Take 5-minutes to enjoy and notice what your senses pick-up and then chat about it with each other.  It’s amazing what my children notice that I do not.  It’s fulfilling watching them get excited about their discoveries.  And, it’s nice having a short amount of time where all of our attention is on the moment, nature and each other.

Screen time and children. (2011, 7 1). Retrieved January 13, 2014, from MedlinePlus: Trusted Health Information for You:http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/patientinstructions/000355.htm