By Kelley Lang, Director of Education and Community Programs
At the heart of the mission of Asbury Woods is a commitment to connect all people to nature, but many times we see children who are not as connected to nature as they were in previous generations. We are quick to think of digital devices as the culprit in this disconnect, but there appears to be an additional barrier and it has to do with discomfort in letting children experience risk.
Recent research in child development has brought two things into focus: children of all ages benefit when they have opportunities to challenge themselves and take reasonable risks, and many children are not getting enough exposure to reasonable risks (Brussoni, et al. 2015). A review of 21 studies revealed that risky play in supportive environments benefits children by increasing their physical activity, improving their social skills and emotional health, while reducing aggression and other problematic behaviors.
Adults, caregivers, and educators can be powerful guides in helping children learn about reasonable risks and to avoid unreasonable ones. Asbury Woods is rich with opportunities for children to stretch their wings. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
Start small, build up. Even the youngest children can safely take healthy risks when we encourage unstructured play. Let your little one jump off the stump, balance on the log, or scramble over a boulder. Unstructured play like this is welcome and encouraged at Asbury Woods. Little risks can yield big payoffs for our kids in growing their self-confidence and pride in their abilities. The natural world is full of opportunities to expand a child’s comfort zone and with patience and encouragement, we can help kids experience the thrill of meeting new challenges and let them experiment with healthy risk-taking.
Let your child choose. Going for a walk in the woods is a great way to let your child practice making choices. As adults it is easy to fall into a pattern of making all the decisions. Instead, let your child choose which trails you take on your hike. Letting them choose is an easy way to show that we respect their judgement and their choices. As children get older show them the process of assessing risk, arriving at decisions, and accepting consequences. At times, nature can be unpredictable and therefore is a great way to practice the process of assessing risk. Encourage kids to accept the consequences if the choice does not work out and celebrate positive experiences that come as a result of the choice they made.
Buddy up and branch out. Asbury Woods offers tween programs where children ages 9 -12 are welcome to attend without a parent present. You can drop them off, knowing they are learning something new and expanding their comfort zones. Responsible tweens and teens are also welcome to use the trails and nature center independently. Asbury Woods staff are on hand at the nature center to answer questions, suggest trails for nature exploration, or to point the way to our compass course. We are friendly and approachable and welcome tweens and teens who want an adventure.
If you are interested in learning more about reasonable risk, using it to empower kids, check out the research cited this article by clicking here.