There's plenty of things we can do to help our children grow into creative, happy and resilient adults. There’s after-school tutoring, music lessons and a suite of extra-curricular activities. But one of the best things we can do is let them play in the natural world. Let them climb trees, jump in puddles and walk along logs.
Our children need to take risks.
The term ‘risk-taking’ often has negative connotations in our risk-averse society. But, age-appropriate outdoor risk-taking plays an important role in childhood development. It helps children find their limits and develop confidence, resilience and creativity.
Our children need to fall, pick themselves up and be able to recognise why they fell.
“Small risks taken early [and the natural world is a good place to take those risks] can prepare children to avoid more onerous risks later in life.” Richard Louv.
Natural spaces are a great place for risky play.
Natural spaces are more complex and calming than the plastic primary-coloured playgrounds popular these days. It’s almost impossible to take risks in those predictable playgrounds. Every risk has been carefully designed out.
The natural world comes with other benefits. Time in nature improves children’s ability to learn, reduces stress and improves concentration.
Increasing opportunities for nature-based play
Play in natural environments and risk-taking used to happen automatically. Climbing trees and spending the whole day outdoors exploring nature was common only one or two generations ago. I spent much of my childhood roaming local bushland, building cubbies and playing in the local creek. I’m guessing your childhood was similar. Today, children are more likely to be indoors, busy with structured activities, or confined to the safety of their backyard.
School holidays offer the perfect chance to catch up on wild time.
There’s an increasing number of nature-based adventure playgrounds and school-holiday programs that give children the space and time to be a little wild. Little Eco and I visited two of them these school holidays.
First, we visited Newcastle Treetops Adventure Park. This adventure playground lets children move from tree to tree on suspension bridges and fly through the air on flying foxes.
Kids can push their boundaries and take risks – all from the safety of a continuous belay system that keeps them harnessed in at all times.
Little Eco and her friends loved this place. What surprised me most was how calm they were. Being in the treetops had them mesmerised. They made their way quietly around the course again and again – concentrating on the challenge.
There was barefoot bushwalking, tree climbing, swimming in the creek, fire-starting and spear making. All these risky activities were safely supervised by guides Nikki and Sam.
Parents can tag along for the day or drop their children off and treat it as a vacation care program. I joined in and learnt almost as much as my daughter.
The kids started the camp tentatively, tiptoeing and squealing at the leeches. By the end of the camp they were confidently and mindfully striding through the bush and playing with leeches.
The children’s interaction with leeches demonstrates the transformation that happened. It’s easy to fear something you don’t know. At first there was panic each time a leech attached to someone’s leg. But as the children learnt how to remove the leeches, the fear slipped away and was replaced by wonderment. At one point they were wrestling over a leech. "Mine. Mine!"
Treetops Adventure Park and Wildcraft Kids Camp are going to become school holiday traditions for us.
Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 19th January 2015.