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A letter to Parents, Teachers, and Playground Rule Committees Everywhere

Updated: Apr 21, 2019

Every Tuesday, I take a group of kids out to trails and wild spaces and we spend two hours doing something we like to call a Nature Hike. They show up, water bottles in hand, and start creating their nature journals, where we write down the flora and fauna that we will be looking for on that day’s scavenger hunt. We may write Willow, Plantain, and Cattails, or Oak, Pine, and Mustard...the list goes on and on. We leave space for the drawings that will fill the pages once we find these treasures, and then we write on the next page.

This next page is something I have added to my most recent Nature Hike class, and it is what I like to call our “Curiosity Quest” for the day. This is my attempt at intertwining purposeful challenges into our hike, rather than just documenting what we see around us. If these kids are truly going to get a complete outdoor education, they need to not only observe, but to take part. A Curiosity Quest should be just as it sounds-- a quest or search for something to trigger our curiosity.

The first day, the Curiosity Quest was simply, “Turn over a rock.” It was a fun little adventure that included finding millipedes and crumbly dirt and insect eggs and moldy plant roots. The kids quite enjoyed finding the largest rock to turn over, and then worked together to be able to maneuver it out of its place on the side of the hill. We’ll call it a practice in communication, cooperation, gross motor skills, and strategy.

The next week the Curiosity Quest was simple again. “Climb a tree.”

I was shocked at the responses:

“I can’t”

“No, I don’t do that.”

“I don’t know how!”

I calmly contradicted them, saying that everyone would be climbing a tree during that hike, but I let them know that each person might have a different ability and idea of what climbing a tree might mean. It would also be based on individual comfort levels.

Now don’t get me wrong-- I have been teaching kids for almost a decade, and I’m not about to preach that growth comes from comfort zones. That just isn’t true. However, when they understood that I wouldn’t be expecting them to climb 100 feet into the nearest oak, they were a little more comfortable with the whole idea, and I knew that they would be more willing to push themselves to new heights on their own.

We started on our hike, and found a sturdy pine with solid low branches that looked like a good spot for them to get a successful first “climb” in. They each tried it out, and their successes were spread out across a wide spectrum. One climbed up several times his height, while another took his time trying to navigate between the branches, and still another had a big success just getting underneath all of the boughs and holding one of the branches.

The next tree we found was a huge oak that had split into five different trees at its base. This gave the perfect spot for my least comfortable climber to get in the tree without leaving the ground more that about 6 inches, and it gave the others a chance to explore all of the different trees at varying levels.

They soon were shouting, “Ms. Brown come look at this red moss thing! What is it??” and “Ooooh, look how high I am!!”

I congratulated them on their findings and their height, and encouraged them to continue their climbing and observing. It was exactly what I had been looking for: a space for them to prove their original opinions on climbing trees to be false, and to expand beyond their original comfort zones without the push coming from an adult.

These were all beautiful things to see in action during such a short period of time, but it also made me more aware of a few themes that weren’t so exciting. For one, the fact that I had a group of young boys that were uneasy at the thought of climbing a tree in the first place was a little disheartening. This is not a poor review of their parents or their families, but rather a reflection of how our society as a whole operates in regards to “risky” behaviors such as climbing trees.

Secondly, because they had so little experience with climbing trees, their perception of which branches were large enough to step on and which weren’t was a little skewed. This is to be expected, just how any beginner might be, but again, a little disheartening.

These two themes go hand in hand, however. They are both the products of restricting natural kid activities. If kids are discouraged from behaviors that may cause harm (ex. tag, swings, climbing trees, wrestling around, jumping off levels higher than parents may like to watch), they are never given the opportunity to explore and push boundaries that will teach them lessons that are paramount for a successful life. If they do not scrape their knees after tripping on their shoelaces, they will never truly know why we say, “Tie your shoes so you don’t fall.” If they don’t jump off a wall and roll their ankle a bit, they will never understand how high is too high and how high is perfectly fine. If they do not climb a tree and feel a branch snap under their foot, they will never know which branches will support their weight.

From my observations, the more we coddle and restrict these kids at school, at home, at daycare, at the park, in sports, etc, the less they believe in their own capabilities. If they have been told for years that something is dangerous and that they aren’t allowed to do it, one of two things will happen. One, they will be even more determined to do that activity and end up doing it unsafely and most likely without anyone around to help them if they get hurt. Or two, they will hear those rules so often that they start to believe that they are completely incapable. And that, folks, is how we as a society have created a false sense of self confidence in the next generation. We tell them constantly that they can do anything they put their mind to, while simultaneously restricting them from anything we deem “too dangerous.” This teaches them that we do not trust them, and that they actually aren’t capable of anything they put their mind to, whether we tell them that a million times or not.

Bottom line is this: if we do not let kids try risky activities and fail from time to time, we are actually causing more harm for them in the long run. If we try to keep all possible hurts away from them while they are young, they will grow up with a shrunken perspective of their abilities and no first-hand experience to back up the lessons we try to teach them.

To teachers, parents, and playground rule committees everywhere-- LET THE KIDS YOU CARE FOR BE KIDS, so that they can grow up to be the coordinated, successful, resilient, and experienced adults that we hope they become. Just make sure to keep a first aid kit handy.

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