Posts Tagged ‘Resilience’

In 1960, an American psychiatrist, Herbert Hendin, was looking through statistics showing the rates of suicide in various countries. He was surprised to find enormous differences across the three Scandinavian countries, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Of all the countries Hendin surveyed, Denmark had the highest rate (along with Japan) whereas Norway had the lowest. Sweden was also well up the list, much closer to Denmark than to Norway.

Hendin was so intrigued by the contrasting rates that he travelled to Scandinavia to investigate the likelihood that cultural differences lay behind the differences. He spent four years there, learning Swedish and Norwegian in order to undertake his research. Although many factors influence the incidence of suicide, Hendin was able to conclude that differences in childrearing values and practices across the three countries were part of the explanation.

Norwegian child at playIn simple terms, Norwegian children played more freely, enjoyed more independence, had more opportunities to investigate the natural environment and spent more time learning by doing rather than being instructed. In contrast, childhood in Denmark and Sweden was more subject to adult control and expectations concerning education, careers and life goals generally. Under these conditions, Hendrin believed, Danish and Swedish children were more likely to experience failure, to have feelings of inadequacy and diminished self-worth and to develop anxiety and depression as a consequence. Norwegian children, on the other hand, encountered much less external pressure and, through their greater participation in free play, were more likely to develop self-confidence and resilience rather than self-doubt and vulnerability.

These different worlds of childhood reflected the contrasting economic and social environments thatNorway a existed in Scandinavia at the time. The rugged terrain of Norway had fostered small-scale, family-owned farming and fishing activity that kept many Norwegians in close touch with the natural world. For the children this meant that playing in this world was an integral part of life – indeed it was their life to a very large extent. Just as their parents had to exercise independence, self-reliance and resourcefulness, so too did the children. It is no surprise that their fairy-tale folk hero, Ash-lad, was a reflective, nature-savvy and highly enterprising individualist who found all sorts of unconventional ways of coming out on top.

The Ash-lad studying the embers

The Ash-lad studying the embers

Independence and individuality were much less valued elsewhere in Scandinavia. The flatter landscapes of Sweden and Denmark were much more conducive to large-scale and technological farming and to the centralisation of ownership. This gave rise to much less economic and social autonomy at the personal level and the strengthened perception that it was necessary to compete through personal achievement in order to get ahead.

Unlike its neighbours, Norway resisted Germany in World War 11. This strengthened the Ash-lad ideology. Then, the post-war economic boom spurred the rebuilding and development of Norway’s fisheries, farming and industry, a process that was greatly accelerated by a work-force steeped in the Ash-lad ethos. But this transformation ultimately brought Norway into the world of corporate capitalism and international economic competition, to the detriment of small-scale farming and fishing. In this new world, the influence of the Ash-lad is weakening even though his example of learning through, from and in nature continues to shape Norwegian educational values and practice. Norwegian children are now behaving and striving much more like their counterparts in other Western countries. Free play in natural surroundings is much less the norm.

And what of the Norwegian suicide rate at the end of this era of change? It is one of the highest in the world!

Now, the Norwegian story does not conclusively show that a link exists between:

(a) a pressured childhood in which there are fewer opportunities for free play and contact with nature and

(b) heightened anxiety, depression and suicide risk in later life.

But we have to consider the possibility of such a link. There is mounting evidence that outdoor play has long-term benefits for physical, social, emotional and cognitive development. Among other things, it fosters a sense of identity, feelings of autonomy and psychological resilience – all important contributors to a healthy sense of self-worth and a decreased risk of anxiety and depression.    


I found much of the material for this post in Sigmund Kvalϕy-Sӕtereng’s chapter in Nature First: Outdoor Life the Friluftsliv Way.


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Before the “miracle” happened, Michael was a seriously underachieving and troublemaking “rank outsider” at Kambrya College, a Melbourne secondary school. He is featured in a recently telecast documentary about the remarkably successful strategies Kambrya is using to transform its culture, academic performance and community standing.

Michael with a Kambrya assistant principal

Michael with a Kambrya assistant principal

We meet Michael first as a member of Darrabi, a class formed to cater for year 9 boys with serious behavioural and learning issues. Like most of his classmates, Michael joined Darrabi with negative attitudes about himself, learning and the school. Despite the best efforts of his class teacher, he along with most of his classmates failed to respond to the Darrabi program, despite its laudable emphasis on one-on-one attention, respect, expectation raising and confidence building. Academic performance actually went backwards and a couple of serious behavioural meltdowns, one being a classroom break-in involving Michael, finally compelled the teacher and one of the school’s assistant principals to devise a relatively radical remedial strategy.

Although few if any of boys had done any bushwalking, the two staff members elected to take them on a four-day full-pack (20kg) hike in Wilson’s Promontory, a very beautiful coastal wilderness area.

Michael was not at all excited by the prospect. “At the time they told us, I said, ‘No damn way’ ”, he laterwilsonspromb reported. “I had never walked further than going to the shops or going to my mate’s house – that’s two kilometres”, he also recalled.

The 62.5 km walk challenged the boys mentally as well as physically. They had to dig very deep at times, arriving at the campsite after dark on one occasion. There were blistered feet and fatigued muscles in abundance but also displays of endurance and helpfulness. Around the campfire at the end of each day the teachers were able genuinely to commend the boys for their efforts, resilience and support of one another.

The physical and mental challenges of the walk, the immersion in nature, the camaraderie that developed and the patient encouragement and counselling from the teachers had an astonishing impact on the boys. They finished the four days with a new and more positive image of themselves and their capabilities. This is what Michael had to say about the experience:

Physically it [the four-day walk]sucks, but I feel so proud of myself

If you can get to do a 62.5 km hike without crying, you can do anything.

 These are the remarks of a boy who had grown in self-respect, confidence and resilience. Indeed, for Michael, the experience was life changing. He returned to the regular Darrabi program with a commitment that brought not only academic success but also made him a “better person” (his own words). Such was his transformation that he wanted to share it for the benefit of others. In his speech marking his graduation from the program, he said, “I want to show other kids how Darrabi has helped me”.

But there is more to his metamorphosis. The boy, who was once called a rank outsider, who once broke into a classroom, who once was a menace to himself and others, was selected for the prestigious leadership position of Sub-school Captain. It is hard to find the words to describe Michael’s delight on learning of his election.

Michael and his classmates had received and benefited from “wilderness adventure therapy”, even though the teachers responsible may not have used that particular label for the experience. But the experience had all the hallmarks of an adventure for the boys – perceived by them as risky (even though the actual level of risk was very low), physically and mentally challenging and an unfamiliar outdoor location. The walk took the boys on the archetypical hero’s journey that is re-told in countless legends – a venture into a novel world, valiant struggles against mental and physical challenges and a fulfilling reward at the end.

All manner of nature activities can draw out the hero in people. A day-walk along a wide bush track can be a hero’s journey for one person as much as a full-pack trek in trackless terrain could be for another. What matters is not the activity as such but its meaning to the individual.

As the story of Michael and the other Darrabi boys illustrates, outdoor adventures can have positive, powerful and enduring effects. Studies of formal and informal wilderness programs including Outward Bound have consistently found that wilderness activities, especially ones of longer duration (two to three weeks), produce noticeable improvements in independence, self-esteem, personal sense of control and other personal attributes that strengthen self-belief and confidence. Interestingly, there is evidence that such benefits are likely to be greater for adults than for young people.

It is my conviction that one of the best things we can do for ourselves is to have a “wilderness adventure” or two in our lifetimes. There are plenty of organisations that can help you do this. Outward Bound immediately comes to mind of course, but there are other options including joining a group or club that is engaged in engaged in outdoor activities such as bushwalking, canoeing and canyoning. And, if you are prepared to spend a little time getting yourself walking fit, why not think about a supported walking or trekking holiday in Nepal, India, New Zealand, Canada or Patagonia? You may

Why not put yourself in a picture like this?

Why not put yourself in a picture like this?

find that the wilderness adventure you have will do for you what an Outward Bound program did for the woman who made this remark:

It [the program] gave me the opportunity to take a risk. It strengthened my sense of self. It gave me a feeling of purposefulness, self-respect, and strength that I never had before. When you are confident in yourself, it affects every aspect of your life.


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When it came to writing an introduction to my book, Claim Your Wildness, I sought an effective and catchy way of explaining what “claiming our wildness” means so that potential readers could understand immediately what the book is about.

This was a problem to begin with, but when I received this photo of my young friend, Pippa, I knew I had the answer.rotherham-girls-and-echidna-3

Though only a toddler when the photo was taken, Pippa’s encounter with the echidna provides a compelling image of the experience I call claiming our wildness. Pippa was obviously captivated by the creature as it used its powerful front feet to burrow away from her friendly but unwelcome attention. The intensity of her interest, excitement and wonder were clearly displayed in her face and posture.

She was claiming her wildness simply by watching the echidna. Since then, Pippa has had countless opportunities to claim her wildness in all sorts of other ways including playing in a stream near her home.

Pippa and dog

The natural world in Pippa’s playground and the fun she has in it is obvious even from just this photo.

What an advantaged little girl she is – advantaged not only because nature is her playground but, more importantly, because of the many short and long-term benefits she gains from her nature play. For example:

  • She is at reduced risk of myopia or short-sightedness (natural light stimulates healthy eyeball maturation).
  • Regular exposure to sky-blue light enhances her sleeping, hormonal and chemical rhythms, moods and alertness.
  • She is receiving the colour, depth and motion stimulation needed for the development of full visual powers.
  • She is constantly developing and fine-tuning the fundamental movement skills that form the basis of an active lifestyle and a reduced risk of obesity.
  • Her rich sensory engagement with the natural world stimulates brain chemicals that activate curiosity and improve learning efficiency.
  • She is constantly challenging, exploring and finding confidence in her physical capabilities (just note the poise and assurance that is displayed in the photo of her running through the water).
  • She regularly gets the chance to build self-esteem, confidence and resilience by doing things that are “adventurous”.
  • Her exposure to the beauty and wonder of nature is laying the foundation of life-long interests and a commitment to the welfare of the natural environment.
  • Her empathy is being cultivated through her interactions with native creatures as well as her pets.
  • She is constantly gathering first-hand knowledge about the natural world and learning how to be part of it.
  • There is no risk that she will be fearful of nature and contemptuous of whatever is not “man-made, managed or air-conditioned”.

It is worth saying that every item in this list is validated by reliable research findings. Just as science tells us that children need love to thrive, it is now saying they also need nature. Pippa and her equally fortunate siblings have both in abundance. Advantaged and fortunate children indeed!

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I have just seen the film, Wild, based on Cheryl Strayed’s  account of her 1700 km hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from Mexico to Canada. As someone who has trained over 500 people for backpacking and camping activities, I cringed watching the scenes showing how unprepared Cheryl was for the venture and the initial difficulties she had as a result. I had to remind myself that her grieving and despairing state of mind left little room for thoughtful and thorough preparation and planning.

In the film, the part of Cheryl Strayed is played by Reese Reese Witherspoon in WildWitherspoon. In a Sydney Morning Herald  Spectrum article about the role, Reese explains that the director insisted that she came to the making of the film as much a novice about extended wilderness hiking as was Cheryl Strayed in the early days of the actual walk. This meant that Reese actually experienced some of the mental and physical hardships that Cheryl endured.

It also meant that she had the opportunity to experience the special joy and satisfaction that comes from meeting challenges in the natural world. This is how she recalls one particular challenge, that of starting a fire without matches or a lighter:

One day, when I set up camp off the trail, I rubbed sticks, made fire and started screaming. (There is no scene of her actually doing this in the film)

I was in the middle of the woods screaming, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” at the top of my lungs. I was jumping up and down for joy. If you saw me in that moment, you would have thought that I’d lost my mind”.

Why did this sophisticated young woman find lighting a fire without modern aids so exhilarating?  The exuberance of her reaction suggests her success meant more to her than simply getting a fire started.

I know from first-hand experience that lighting a fire with sticks, even using the bow and drill method, can be something of a physicalStart-a-Fire-With-a-Bow-Drill and technical challenge.

There is also an element of mental challenge about it, especially for people like us who are beneficiaries of the conveniences and comforts of living in WIERD societies (western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic). It requires us to do something that is totally or largely unaffected by civilisation – something that is “primitive” in other words.

Lighting a fire with materials and “tools” gathered from the forest brings the fire-lighter and nature very close together. Success depends on being able to collaborate with nature on nature’s terms. You have to have suitable materials, appropriate sticks and the “right” technique. If you don’t meet nature’s terms and conditions, you don’t have a fire.

Fire-lighting and other primitive activities require an intimate connection with nature. For many of us making such a connection is novel and inherently challenging. It requires us to venture into an unfamiliar and uncertain space, but making that journey successfully can be very satisfying. I believe that a large part of Reese Witherspoon’s elation was an expression of just this kind of satisfaction.

Making Wild, gave her many other opportunities to undertake FOX_9534.psd“primitive” activities, including wading streams, scrambling rocks, and plodding through knee deep snow. Even some of the hiking she had to do on location would have involved some degree of primitiveness, especially as she was carrying a massive backpack, sometimes over steep and rough terrain.

I do not find it at all surprising that Reese found the challenges and hardships of filming Wild “transformative”.

It was so liberating, so freeing, she said. It was all about, “Yes, I can survive this, so maybe I can survive anything”.

Reese was not actually in real-life survival situations in the way that Cheryl Strayed often was. Nevertheless, she was genuinely challenged at times and genuinely immersed in primitive activities. As a result, nature was able to place positive and healthy demands on her.

That is how it is with most nature activities. To varying degrees, they extend us physically and/or mentally and provide us with opportunities to enter more fully into conversation with the wild outside and the wild within, as Claire Dunn (author of My Year Without Matches) so aptly puts it.

The conversation with “the wild outside” does not have to be in the context of high adventure or radical withdrawal from everyday life. Cheryl Strayed’s example is not one that we need or should necessarily aspire to follow.

There are many simple and accessible nature activities that can spark the conversation. Some examples are:

  • taking a short walk (mindfully) along a bush track or beach
  • wading a shallow stream,
  • walking barefoot over grass, moss, leaf litter or sand,
  • scrambling up a gently sloping rock face

Rock scrambling cropped

  • making a campfire (with or without matches)
  • climbing a tree (part way will do)
  • stepping across a creek on stones
  • building a cubby (kids) or a shelter (adults)


Kids in a cubby






  • gazing at the night sky from a wilderness vantage point
  • sitting in a rock overhang

These are all activities I have done alone and with others. I never cease to tire of them and they never cease to be satisfying and “re-creating”. They all help me to maintain an intimate relationship with the natural world. Through them I experience nature not as a distant cousin (to borrow again the words of Claire Dunn) but a good friend whose presence is palpable.

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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.Risk taking

risk taking d

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.


(A little too much uncertainty!)

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. Deep Pass Oct 06 026 re-sized

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What is going on in these photos?

Chasings a

The world is ful of problems to solve

Object play

Kids in a cubby

Who needs playground eqiupment

Pretty obviously they are photos of kids playing and having fun. But there is much, much more happening beyond the obvious.

Who is in charge of the play in each case? Again it is fairly obvious – the kids themselves are. This makes what they are doing free or unstructured play. The absence of adults or older children is a strong pointer to this. But this does not mean that adults cannot be involved in free play, Not at all. Who’s in charge is what matters; if it’s the kids, then its free play.

It’s unstructured play of this kind, especially if it is in nature, that I place at the core of an authentic childhood.

Stay with me as I probe deeper into the play activities in the photos to see why.

Perhaps the simplest activity is the game of chasings in the top photo. This is an example of what is called rough-and-tumble or locomotor play. Simple it may look, the game is actually quite complex. Think about the skills involved. There are motor skills such as running, turning, ducking under and climbing over obstacles and the social skills needed to organise the game in the first place. Dr Madeline Levine suggests that “Kids can learn more from a game of chase than from a week of leadership camp”. They certainly learn valuable lessons about their physical capabilities, about themselves more generally and about the fun to be had from exercising those capabilities.

The girl fishing for tadpoles (or whatever) in the second photo is engaged in what is technically called object play. The object in this case, the fishing net, is enabling her to engage the environment in a way that is enormously beneficial. The attending and exploring she is doing are stimulating chemicals in her brain that activate curiosity and improve learning efficiency. Beyond simply having “fun”, the youngster is actually making herself smarter.

The toddler in the third photo is doing much the same as he investigates the leaves, sticks and rocks encountered on his walk. Both children may well be on the way to discovering areas of interest that may someday blossom into passions. In the ranks of great scientists, there are many who trace their achievements to interests born in childhood nature play. Joseph Banks, one of world’s foremost botanists, is a case in point. He attributed his passion for plants to his wildflower rambles as a child.

I hope the fourth photo takes you back to your childhood and memories of building and playing in cubbies. The children in the photo are taking part in a mixture of social and pretend play – both absolutely essential for healthy development. They are learning how to work together, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts and to advocate for themselves. They are creating and exploring a world they can master and very likely practising adult roles.

The powerful contribution of pretend play to children’s development is well documented. It fosters creative thinking and imaginative reasoning and is associated with the enrichment of both receptive and expressive language.

The fifth picture reminds us that risk-taking is part of play. Apart from exercising his balance and co-ordinatioin skills, the boy is learning about challenges and his ability to meet them. He is exploring physical and mental boundaries, conquering fears perhaps, building confidence and developing resilience in the process.

Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist and leading investigator of play, has found that deprivation of free play in childhood is associated later in life with lack of empathy, mental rigidity, diminished curiosity, workaholism, addictions, joylessness, anxiety and “smouldering” depression. Even more alarming is his observation that a common feature of the early lives of the hundreds of serial killers and murderers he has studied was few opportunities for free play and combined sometimes with perverted and cruel forms of play.

Another important point that Brown constantly emphasises is that human beings are one of the few species that are playful throughout the lifecycle. This means that adults and children can participate in play together. What a happy thought – families can engage in nature play together! If you want ideas about how to engage in nature play with children in your life, you might like to see what I have to say about this in my books, Claim Your Wildness and A Day in the Bush

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Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney have been studying resilience for many years and have written a book about it, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges. To begin with, they thought that resilience was rare and resilient people were somehow special, perhaps genetically gifted. But they found they were wrong – resilience is common and can be witnessed all around us. Even better, they learned that everyone can learn and train to be more resilient.

Dennis Charney has come up with a “resilience prescription” comprising 10 strategies we can use to cultivate resilience. These strategies change pathways in our brain that enable us to approach life with

  • the conviction that we have the resources within ourselves and our social networks to deal with life’s problems, stressors and setbacks ( “can do” attitude), and
  • a sense that our life has purpose and significance.

Many nature activities like bushwalking, backpacking and canoeing can help us on both counts. As far as developing a “can do” attitude is concerned, they do this by allowing us to be “heroes” to ourselves – to meet challenges that we thought were beyond us and to discover strengths and capabilities that we otherwise would not know we had.

A resilience building situation

A resilience building situation

Outdoor education programs like Outward Bound are designed to give people just this kind of opportunity. Evidence from many studies shows that nature activities, especially ones of longer duration (two to three weeks), produce noticeable improvements in independence, self-esteem, personal sense of control and other personal attributes that strengthen self-belief and confidence. These improvements are displayed by adolescents as well as adults and are maintained, and may even grow, over time. As one Outward Bound graduate said of her experience,

It gave me the opportunity to take a risk. It strengthened my sense of self. It gave me a feeling of purposefulness, self-respect, and strength that I never had before. When you are confident in yourself, it affects every aspect of your life.

Activities in nature deliver another very important opportunity – to develop a tolerance of uncertainty.  We yearn for certainty in our lives but this is a reasonable but ultimately an unrealistic aspiration because events that are beyond our control are bound to happen. Nature activities always contain elements of uncertainty and unpredictability simply because these attributes are part-and-parcel of the natural world. For this reason, participating in such activities helps us to discover that we can survive vulnerability and not fear it. Helping children make this discovery is very important for their development and general well-being.

Nature’s potential to provide people with a sense of purpose resides primarily in its capacity to inspire journeys of the mind and heart – journeys of intellectual discovery, creativity, spiritual exploration and the conservation of nature, for example. All such journeys are inherently purposeful and guided by values and ideals that emerge on the way. My book, Claim Your Wildness, features the story of Miles Dunphy.

Myles Dunphy

Myles Dunphy

He was so moved by the beauty of the Blue Mountains of New South Wales that he made exploring, mapping and preserving the region his life’s work. There are countless such stories of people finding in nature the inspiration and purpose that guided and energised their lives.

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