In the real world, life is full of risk, challenge, and discomfort, so it’s no surprise that we want to protect our children. But our good intentions may be backfiring. Overprotecting our children leaves them unprepared for the realities of the adult world. What’s the antidote? A consistent diet of wilderness, danger, and dirt.
Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, supposedly once said: “Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man.” His point is a good one—shaping a mind early is crucial in the formation of an individual.
I'm inclined to agree with Loyola. For this reason, I take it as obvious that we should pay special attention to how exactly we raise our kids, particularly early on when play is a central component on the learning process.
But here’s the issue: Over the past few decades, our children’s relationship with play, particularly outdoor play, has changed dramatically.
I don’t usually like to generalize about generations, but this shift has me a little worried.
When we used to talk about play, it was almost exclusively an activity. Now it’s just as likely that we are talking about an app. Play used to be improvised in backyards and parks. Now it’s a manufactured “date." Kids used to make up their own games. Now the games play them.
"When we used to talk about play, it was almost exclusively an activity. Now it’s just as likely that we are talking about an app."
All of this happened gradually, subtly. But looking back, there were warning signs all along that I should have seen. First, the teeter-totters vanished. Then went the swings. Next we started signing up for things like Soccer-tots and we paid to go bouncing in indoor trampoline parks. The list goes on and on. Just the other day, at my son’s grade school, the last straw: A rule against climbing trees.
Has it really come to this? No swinging on swings? No climbing trees?
It’s probably a mistake to sentimentalize too much. I know this. But I still can’t resist wondering: In our desire to guide and protect our kids, have we unwittingly eliminated the very experiences that our kids need most?
"In our desire to guide and protect our kids, have we unwittingly eliminated the very experiences that our kids need most?"
The Case for Wild Experiences
The wild—whether it’s a swiftly flowing river, an ocean wave, or even an undeveloped acre of woods—affects children in ways that other experiences cannot.
I’m not talking here about the usual laundry list of beneficial effects that are often associated with nature—reduced stress, reduced blood pressure, and so on—though these reasons are important too.
I’m talking about something less tangible but possibly even more meaningful: Nature’s ability to trigger wonder and awe.
Awe is particularly important for children.
We feed our children a steady diet of rules, data, and facts. We shuffle them off to school to learn mathematics and spelling and geography. Shouldn’t we also want them to have a taste of the sublime, to consider what the ancients called the Good, the True, and the Beautiful?
The sense of awe that is stirred when children encounters nature in its rawest is incomparable to anything they encounter elsewhere in their everyday lives.
Transcendental experiences cannot can be listed on resumes, transcripts, or college applications. But they are just as essential as more quantifiable metrics.
Awe moves children beyond their normal, comfortable thinking patters. It invites unpredictable ideas. It takes them beyond binary thinking, detaches them from their everyday, mundane concerns, and makes them conscious of something greater than themselves. Awe quiets children but it also compels them to ask questions. Awe makes them aware of their humanness.
"Awe quiets children but it also compels them to ask questions. Awe makes them aware of their humanness."
The Case for Dangerous Play
The primary goal of exposing children to danger is, somewhat paradoxically, to teach them how to be safe.
"The primary goal of exposing children to danger is, somewhat paradoxically, to teach them how to be safe."
But this isn’t easy. Parents are hard-wired to protect their children and caution, of course, has its place.
So parents need to know where to draw the line. Sometimes parents need to tell that cautious voice inside their head that safety is good, but risk can be good too.
It’s helpful if parents remind themselves that risk can be a powerful teacher. Exposure to reasonable risk, particularly physical risk, allows a child to learn how to cope with fear and discern the strengths and limitations of his or her body.
This much is certain: Whatever it is that our children do later in life, a risk-adverse mindset will not serve them well.
A good starting point is to look for simple and appropriate ways to give kids thrilling doses of “danger” without putting them in real danger.
Let them climb trees, let them scramble over rocks, let them ride their bikes a little too fast. Most importantly, let them explore.
Numerous studies have found that the most instructional “dangerous” experience we can give our children is the opportunity for independent exploration.
We all want to raise empowered and confident kids and yet most of us have a pernicious compulsion of preventing them from doing the one thing most likely to teach independence: Getting lost.
Parents need to actively invite moments (in the backyard, at a park, in the woods) in which a child is free to roam and play with a sense of complete freedom.
Any form of play that invites a child to “disappear” and “get lost” on his or her volition initiates a necessary and healthy process of self-discovery and independence.
There are few things more frightening from a parent’s perspective than a lost child, so it’s reasonable to keep a tight leash. But too tight a leash can create unwanted consequences. It all boils down to meaningful and instructional experiences. As the saying goes, there is only one thing more painful than learning from experience—not learning from experience.
The Case for More Dirt
As counterintuitive as it may sound, a growing body of evidence suggests that dirt can make us healthier and possibly happier.
Numerous studies have found that dirt contains beneficial bacteriums that help regulate mood and reduces inflammation. In other words, playing in the mud can be calming and healing in very real ways.
In addition, and perhaps even more interesting, is an idea called the Hygiene Hypothesis, which was put forth in the eighties by British Professor David P. Strachan. According to Strachan, early exposure to bacteria (including the bacteria in dirt) decreases a child’s chance of developing allergies and strengthens immunity.
Your kid doesn’t need to go feral to enjoy the benefits of dirt. Common sense still applies. But the evidence suggests that obsessing over cleanliness is unnecessary and possibly detrimental. Keep washing hands and taking baths, but balance traditional common-sense cleanliness with some puddle romping and some mud pies.
The case for more wilderness, danger, and dirt ultimately comes down to character.
Character building isn’t easy and it’s never a passive activity—it demands an active engagement with the world, which can often be a dirty, wild, and risky.
Think of danger as a teacher, think of nature as a catalyst, and think of grass stains and dirt smudges as badges of honor.
"Think of danger as a teacher, think of nature as a catalyst, and think of grass stains and dirt smudges as badges of honor."
Play is an escape, this is true enough, but it’s also a training ground for many of the skills that allow kids to one day navigate the adult world.