“You must go on adventures to find out where you truly belong.”Sue Fitzmaurice
I want to share a really simple activity with you. Its simple, but it ticks lots of boxes for mental health and general wellbeing.
Being in nature has been shown to reduce mental health symptoms, as well as the likelihood of mental health problems in the future. It has a whole host of other benefits including improved attention, cognition, self-esteem and creativity. These are the reasons that at Imagine Therapy we love the the great outdoors! Whether your child is struggling with their mental health or not, this is a great activity to do together.
So adventuring is set in nature, which means already it has all these amazing benefits. It also incorporates two important elements: risky plan and being child-led.
Risky play is a term used to describe “thrilling and exciting play where children engage in risk without certainty” (Mariana Brussoni, 2019). Its not about promoting injury or purposefully putting our children into dangerous situations. It is about giving them freedom to experiment, test boundaries and uncertainty. Risky play has been found to have a whole host of benefits. The gold stars for mental health include resiliency, self-efficacy and improved self-regulation. Conversely, not allowing children to take any risks themselves has the potential to increase anxiety in children and reduce their ability to cope with failure.
Child-led play is what it says on the tin. Play that is entirely led by the child. This is an approach that has been shown to benefit children in many ways, by increasing their ability to problem-solve, innovate and create. Child-led play can enable children to work through and manage their emotions better. It can also improve social skills and self-esteem.
Finally, this activity is designed for you and your child to do together. As parents we experience competing demands for our attention and it can genuinely be difficult to spend quality time with our kids. Its so easy to get distracted by life’s stuff – cooking, work, cleaning, social demands. There’s a lot. This is an activity that is not easily shared with a phone, and cannot be done anywhere near the kitchen or office. This activity gives you permission to get away from life’s demands and just enjoy being with your kid. Which means another big benefit – connection. We are social beings, and improving how connected your kid feels to you can bring big benefits. It can increase self esteem, self confidence and improve decision-making. It also opens up conversation and will make family life easier. Adventuring would also be great to do as a family. Let the kids take it in turns to lead.
So these are all the amazing benefits. What is this amazing activity? Adventuring really is very simple. It involves intentionally following your child’s lead in nature, giving them permission to play in ways they may not usually be able to and ultimately, finding a shared adventure.
Prepare by changing into old clothes and shoes. This is really important. Everyone who is taking part needs to be wearing clothes and shoes that don’t need to stay clean. Parents included.
Choose somewhere in nature you can go off the trail. A small wooded area is ideal. It cold be in your back yard if you have one, or might be at a provincial park or forest.
Before you enter the setting explain to your child what you are going to do. Explain that adventuring means finding an adventure together. These are the rules: You can decide where we go – you’re in charge, I will follow you. You can take some risks. This might mean jumping, climbing, rolling or balancing. You can decide what to try. You can explore through touching, digging or lifting. You can use your imagination. Lets create an adventure together.
Encourage your child to lead you into the woods. Follow their lead. Copy what they do where you can and comment on the adventure that they are creating, “wow, look at that massive log you balanced on”, “what an amazing view you brought us to”. Encourage them to challenge themselves and be inventive with their play. Be playful yourself to show you mean business. Think of yourself as a cross between enthusiastic commentator and keen playmate. Aim to increase the connection to nature by commenting on the sensory aspects, “can you see the colours in that tree?”, “what does the bark feel like?”, “the soil is soft here”. If your child makes it into a game, join in. If they create a story, play along.
Your role is to be ‘with’ your child. For this activity try not to discourage your child to take some risks. Aim not to advise them to ‘be careful’. Having said that, you know your child best and this activity is not intended to lead into danger. If they are naturally a risk-taker then consider adding in some more boundaries at the beginning. And while you are there, if you do see them taking risks that are unsafe, then of course, you need to intervene. But choose your words. Instead of telling your child to be careful, or directing them to leave what they are doing, if possible ask them to wait and consider the risk. Try to encourage them to make their own decision about whether it is safe or not. If need be, show them what you see, ‘just wait there a second buddy, what do you think about this? Is it safe to try that? By enabling them to make the decision you are helping them to learn to assess situations and balance risk. And the connection between you is strengthened, as you continue to show trust in their lead.
I recently went adventuring with my son and we ended up very muddy as we were snapped at by crocodiles and chased by coyotes. The experience has stuck in my mind, as it felt good to get in his world, especially in such a sensory rich environment. Too often his time with me is shared with my phone or some chore to be completed. As we crouched quietly, waiting for the imaginary coyotes to pass, I felt especially connected both to him and to the environment. A gift for me as well as him. So here’s to the next adventure!