A recent UK survey of children’s views on play found that they are enthusiastic about play that is “exciting”. Give them scope for free play in a suitable setting and the chances are that they will choose some kind of vigorous or rough-and-tumble activity that has some element of risk – climbing a tree, rolling down a grassy slope, swinging on a rope, “exploring” hidden places, for example.
This quest to push the envelope, to go beyond the familiar, to move from certainty in order to resolve uncertainty is programmed in their brains. It is the impulse that makes our species the supreme explorers, investigators, innovators and creators. It is the impulse that evolved to enable humans to survive and thrive in a world that was (and will always be) full of uncertainty. Had our ancient forebears not been inveterate risk takers, I doubt that any of us would be here.
What makes an activity “risky” or “adventurous” is uncertainty about its outcome. Climbing a tree, for example, could be risky for children if they are not certain that they will not slip or be able to get back down. Faced with this uncertainty, children have to weigh up the benefits of attempting the climb – the likely thrill, the sense of achievement, the regard of their mates, for example – against possible undesirable consequence including injury and failure.
Learning how to manage risk taking is an essential life skill. Risk is part and parcel of life. Even if with our best efforts to escape obvious threats to safety and well-being, there are no areas of life that are free of uncertainty. That is why assessing and managing risk are essential life skills. They are skills that need to be developed, practised and refined from as early in childhood as possible.
Free play in nature is an ideal context for doing this because it stimulates children to try out new things and to test themselves physically, mentally and socially. Mistakes will be made in the process and there will be bumps and scrapes, but their enjoyment of novelty and adventure enables children to rebound and learn from these negative experiences.
No one wants to see a child injured, of course, but creating an environment that is overly safe creates a different kind of danger for them. Growing up in a risk-averse society, such as we currently have, means children are not able to practise risk-assessment which enables them to match their skills with the demands of the environment. As a result, many children have become very timid and are reluctant to take risks. At the opposite extreme, many have difficulty reading the situations they face and take foolhardy risks, repeatedly landing in trouble.
One of the best things we can do for our children is to equip them for uncertainty. Cocooning them is not the way to do this. Children can discover their capacity to deal with situations that they find novel, uncertain and threatening only if they are permitted to be in such situations – with appropriate supervision and support, of course. Activities in nature are just right for this purpose. They can help children acquire the skills and confidence to cope with situations that are not fully in their control. I am not talking about dangerous or hazardous situations but everyday situations that are threatening or challenging because we are uncertain about our capacity to deal with them. These are situations that place us outside our “comfort zone”. Nature play enables children to create and explore just such situations.
On one of my wilderness trips, I had the pleasure of watching two young boys having “adventures” and growing in assurance in the process. With their parents they had set up their camp near mine. As I was getting to know their parents, the boys were off exploring the nearby creek and cliffs. They were not always within view but their parents remained constantly alert to what the boys were doing. I learned that the kind of outing that they were on was a regular and high-priority feature of their family life. Both parents were long-time enthusiasts for outdoor activities and they were successfully passing their enthusiasm onto the boys. The older boy told me that, compared with sport and his other leisure activities, he enjoyed outdoor activities most because “you can have adventures” like the one he is having in the photo.