Let’s get it out there first: I am a risk-taker. Not in the adrenaline junkie sense—I’m no skydiver—but I stray from the beaten path, sometimes quite far from any path. I’ve spent days tailing a transmitter-fitted rhino through the African bush, been four days from civilization in the Peruvian Amazon, and camped alone without sight of humanity for more than a week…before cell phones. But I’m a field biologist, and not the average American parent. But when my kids enter the equation, everything changes. I may not be the typical parent, but when it comes to fears about our children, I get it. Having kids is game changing. As parents, one of the most important decisions we make is how to deal with parental fears.
Personally, I don’t let those fears cause me to lock up my kids. True, I don’t let them roam the woods alone like I did in my childhood, but I do get them out there, and try to give them as long a leash as I can. I push my comfort zone, and my wife’s. That’s what this essay is about—stretching our comfort zones. It’s in our kids’ best interests. We all have different comfort zones, and that’s okay.
As parents, we need to ask ourselves, “what are my barriers to allowing my children have fulfilling and relatively safe nature experiences?” When my wife and I take our kids out, we acknowledge that nature outings are not risk-free. There are rattlesnakes. Spiders, Scorpions. Poison oak. Boulders and trees to fall from. Mountain lions. Getting lost. Heat stroke. Hypothermia. But, statistically these risks are low and the ride home in the car is probably more dangerous. The risk of staying home and stagnating, mentally and physically, is greater.
Sometimes it’s societal pressure. There is no greater shame than being accused of poor parenting, and these comments are powerful de-motivators for nature play. My wife and I get remonstrated for letting our boys play in the chaparral across the street from our house. When we let our kids get too far ahead on the trail or scramble around some boulders, some well-intentioned hikers will remind us that this is rattlesnake country. At times our friends ask, “Why do you choose such remote campgrounds? What if something happens out there?” I have to admit that the prospect of carrying out an injured child is daunting. But, life must have some risk…and it’s the slight element of risk that makes it that much more interesting, both to parents and children.
Mother Nature offers many rewards that far outweigh these risks. The mantra of the movement to reconnect children to nature is “healthier, happier, smarter.” Research shows this to be true. Who wouldn’t want this for their child? Another one is decision-making and risk mediation. I operate under the theory that “helicoptor parenting” will keep kids safe until they reach teenage years and then end up wrapping the car around a telephone pole. Kids need to take risks and suffer the consequences, if they are going to learn how to make good decisions on their own. And the biggest reward stemming from time spent in nature with your children? Quality time and bonding. No place is better than nature at letting parent and child co-experience the world and play, learn and grow together. So, just get out there—you owe it to yourself!
We are not going to revert to “the way it was” but we can’t afford to keep our kids cooped up inside. If you agree that you and your child or children could benefit from more nature play and exploration, then what’s your plan? How will you get nature back on your calendar? Some of us are good at self-motivating, but others will need more encouragement. Family nature clubs, a growing national movement, might be the right solution for you. Joining a group of like-minded families for your nature explorations may address those fears, real and imagined (and exaggerated). Safety in numbers: it’s in our DNA. Engaging nature in a group creates a safe(r) environment for your child to explore and s/he may benefit from other children modeling how to explore more boldly and with greater joy. And, you may well stretch your boundaries by observing other parents’ greater tolerance for dirt, mud, and, yes, risk.
When I take my kids out to the Canadian Rockies, it's not spiders, snakes and scorpions, or even poison oak that we need to be mindful of. In the summer it's black and grizzly bears, cougars, and grumpy bull moose. In the winter, hypothermia and avalanches. In short, when we reach the trailhead and step out of the car we re-enter the food chain. In all seasons, there are cliffs to fall off, rivers to drown in, and falling rocks to dodge. But is it safer to not expose your children to these and other risks, or to teach them how to identify the risks and manage them?
I survived the mountains when there were more grizzlies and no one had bear spray. I learned to identify avalanche terrain, assess conditions and make good choices. I drank out of alpine streams without a filter and without getting beaver fever. Now, my kids are also learning and doing these things. Regardless of where kids live, there is more risk associated with a sedentary lifestyle than there is with getting out in nature.
A couple years ago, I started leading family hikes for my outdoor group. This summer, I'll be launching a new group, Mountain Youth Experience, to get families and kids out into the mountains in a safe and enjoyable way. Although I need the adventure and risk that things like AT skiing and glacier mountaineering provide, I find that I get the most satisfaction from the look of wonder on kids' faces as they discover themselves in the outdoors.
Thanks for these comments, Ken. Couldn't agree more. Sounds like you are making some great contributions to the movement in Canada, with your own kids and with your group. You are fortunate to live in such an amazing part of the country! Can't wait to get my family back up to your neck of the woods for nature exploration.
Great photos! Happy kids! Any good I may be doing is purely out of self-interest. When I take my kids hiking alone, the complaining starts within five minutes. When I take them out as part of a group of kids, they run down the trail and all I hear is laughing.
Having the Canadian Rockies as your backyard is truly amazing for those who take advantage of it. I'm finding that lots of parents would like to get their kids out hiking, or would even just like to go hiking themselves, but have no idea of how to go about. As a society we've become so alienated from nature that it at once draws us to it and fills us with terror. People are sure that if they aren't eaten by a bear, they'll somehow drink giardia infested water and immediately suffer from explosive diarrhea. Or that the inquisitive marmots coming to check us out are going to gnaw off someone's leg. The U.S. is so far ahead of Canada in terms of recognizing the benefits of getting kids and people in general back to nature, and helping them actually get out. This summer, my family is going to a camp on Catalina Island that the Ocean Futures Society puts on. I looked for similar stuff happening in Canada, and only found a handful of events that didn't really compare.
Well said Ron! Another strong argument for joining up with like-minded parents!
Responsible kids + playing in nature = future leaders + stewards of our planet.
Fantastic post! I love your honesty and applaud your courage to address fears and societal pressure by spending such memorable times in the wild with your kids in spite, and because of the risks! Acknowledging that the car ride home actually carries the most risk really puts things into perspective. We too are pushing comfort zones with our families at Sunflower Creative Arts with a blog series on balancing risk and safety so I am especially thrilled that I can share your piece with them this week! Many thanks to a kindred spirit. I look forward to hearing more about risky adventures with your kids. The photos are awesome and you give some excellent suggestions for families. How our South Florida beach kids would adore climbing those rocks!
Great feedback from everyone! You're hitting on all the reasons why nature clubs are a good idea. Ken points out how having other kids along motivates sometimes-reluctant hikers (think of it as a play date on a trail). Sylvia points out that the future of environmental stewardship depends on connecting today's kids to nature. And Susan validates that kids actually need risks.
Thanks all and keep this good discussion momentum coming!
My brother lives in Australia, and my kids want to go see their cousins but they don't want to go camping there. They and I agree that we'd much rather go where there are bears and avalanches than where there are poisonous snakes and spiders. I think it has to do with knowing how to mitigate the risks that bears and avalanches present, and not knowing how to mitigate the risks of snakes and spiders or even knowing what the risks are. If this is the case, and not just an aversion to creepy crawlies finding their way into your sleeping bag at night, my boys are learning how to transfer their ability to identify risks in the mountains to other parts of their lives. Ergo, exposing them to risks in a "safe" manner actually makes them safer.
On the kid's hikes I lead, I try to make sure I find time with just me and my kids. Luckily, there are usually two or three other parents with lots of mountain experience, so it's easy for me to hang out on the trail with my boys or find 10 or 15 minutes at the destination to skip rocks in a lake with them or chase marmots or whatever. But for the most part, they want to run with the other kids, and that's okay. For me, spending time as a family doesn't have to mean being together on the trail all the time. Although sometimes I do take them out with just us, and those are definitely golden days.
My philosophy is that if I focus on making the hikes fun for the kids, eventually the kids will push their limits on their own. For the most part it works. I've switched from easy interpretive trails to "real" trails that have adult-size challenges, and the kids blast down them like pros. Kids that are scared or tentative see the others having fun, overcome their apprehensions and amaze themselves with what they can do.
Jessica, Ken! So nice to read your posts! I have been part of Ron's family nature club for two years leading a bi-weekly adventure for toddlers, and I often feel that I do not have time to bond with my two children in nature, since we are often surrounded by other families. I think it is important to find that balance, and do things with just your own family regularly as well. Something I've observed with my younger daughter who is 3 1/2 is that she takes more risks in nature when we are on our own, because she doesn't enjoy being in a big group and is easily startled and intimidated by older or more rambunctious kids. She tends not to feel comfortable around strangers, and so it has been a challenge hosting groups where we often meet and spend time with new members. However, my older daughter is emboldened and curious when surrounded with other kids, and will take those risks with others, as she is now 5 and more confident socially...I am trying to embrace the fact that my children are more or less comfortable in different situations (both social and natural) and make sure to provide those opportunities in nature with simply our own family, as well as time with groups of friends and other kids.
We have experienced exactly what you are saying. The club outings are very rewarding for other reasons, but especially as a leader, you have less quality bonding time with your own kids. It's even a little stressful to be the one in charge and have people depending on you. You feel if something goes wrong or they're not enjoying it, it is your responsibility. But our kids definitely enjoy running wild with the pack! But I have to have time out with them alone, so I can enjoy them and enjoy nature in a different, less social setting. Pros and cons to both ways of experiencing nature.
We hike without our club at least as much as we do with the club, more if you include camping--most of our camping trips are just us, or sometimes we invite some friends along. You just need to find the right balance for you. And, as Ken says, I think you should try to make a conscious effort to make a little time with your kids even when you're leading the group.
I've also seen some kids like Sylvia's little one who seem to withdraw when out in a group setting. This is especially true for younger kids or new kids to the group--they sometimes hide behind parents. But usually this melts away during all the fun the kids are having. Our boys almost always love being out with the group and usually emerge in explorer leadership roles (particularly our eldest who is very bold in nature), which they seem to relish. But they love equally being out just with the family.
These are great comments and really impresses on me that we all need to find the right balance that works for us and our families. As group leaders we need to ensure that we and our kids are having fun! Otherwise we will burn out.