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Risk and Danger in the Great Outdoors

10/03/2014 12:48 ● Published by Sandy Kauten

Getting dirty. Getting lost. Feeling cold. Falling down. Getting wet. Drowning. Yes, it’s true. All of these things can happen when you go outside. However, just like they say on Sesame Street, some of these things are not like the others. Some of these things are RISKS and some are DANGERS.

So what’s the difference? A risk in nature is something obvious that a child can anticipate, evaluate in terms of his or her abilities, and decide whether or not to take. The consequences of taking a risk and “failing” to succeed are minimal. Attempting to cross a small stream on stepping stones, for example, and then slipping and getting wet, is not a big deal. A true danger, on the other hand, is something unseen or unfamiliar that can result in serious injury or worse. A steep drop-off on a mountainside hike, for example, is a huge deal if a child rushes toward it to take a look and falls over the edge. Kids may not recognize or see dangers in the wild outside and at a young age cannot clearly distinguish them from risks.  

We all have our own personal risk-danger meters with respect to the great outdoors. Some from the very beginning are risk takers who revel in edging ever closer to danger. Others start out, and remain, conservative in their tolerance of risk and acutely danger aware. Life experiences, as well, color our perspectives on these two things. How many limbs did YOU break as a child? Did you hike and camp, or did your family spend more time on other activities? Were your parents over-protective? Or did they lean toward the other extreme, and you had few or no boundaries?

Clearly we all want our kids to stay safe and avoid real danger when they adventure outside, but what about taking risks? Are they worth it? Risks mean kids will probably get wet and cold, clothes may get dirty, and knees will get scraped. An occasional wrist might even get broken. But here’s the thing: kids need to take risks. They don’t need to endanger themselves, but they do need to be challenged. When kids take reasonable risks, the benefits they experience are significant. In the words of Ken Finch, president the Green Hearts Institute for Nature in Childhood, “Children need risk. It is a powerful catalyst for growth that helps them develop good judgment, persistence, courage, resiliency, and self-confidence.” Kids who take reasonable risks actually learn better how to stay safe. They learn how to solve problems and make good decisions. And if they learn to recognize the difference between risk and danger when they’re young, they will be better able to make this distinction when they get older and it matters even more.

So how can parents help facilitate beneficial, reasonable risks when they take their kids outside? Certainly, modeling them is a good start. Challenge yourself, have fun, and be adventurous without being irresponsible when you explore outdoors. Then encourage your kids to have age-appropriate nature adventures of their own that stretch them in healthy ways. Start by letting your kids play in the rain, go barefoot in the mud, and dig in the dirt. Dress them appropriately for the weather so you don’t worry so much, and invest in some sturdy play clothes (2nd hand is great!) that you don’t care about getting messy.

Next, let your kids move on to balancing on fallen logs, making forts, and climbing trees. Be there to “spot” them as needed and provide guidelines if necessary, but let them do as much as they can on their own, thus developing their problem-solving and physical skills. (Check out Nearby Nature’s Learnscape outdoor classrooms for examples of fun natural challenges that you can create in your own home space by sinking big “tree cookies” into soil, making balance beams out of logs, and providing natural building materials.)

As they get even older, allow kids time on their own outside, let them climb higher, allow them to paddle further. Teens who get to take reasonable risks while adventuring on their own -- bike riding, canoeing, hiking with friends, and the like – are less likely to feel the need to engage in truly dangerous activities that don’t include adults (think cars, alcohol, driving). In the end, taking risks actually promotes staying safe.

Want to read more on the topic of risk vs. danger in nature? Then check out the books Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv and Let Them Be Eaten by Bears: A Fearless Guide to Taking Our Kids into the Great Outdoors, by Eugene author and high school teacher Peter Brown Hoffmeister. Both authors provide thoughtful advice as well as interesting data on this issue. The organization Children and Nature Network (www.childrenandnature.org/) can also provide recommendations for lots of good information and articles on this topic.

For some "scary" (but not really!) nature fun around Halloween, come to Nearby Nature’s 18th annual Haunted Hike in Alton Baker Park on Saturday, October 25th, from 5:30-9 pm. At this event, folks will go on guided, pumpkin-lit night hikes in the park where they will meet all sorts of costumed creatures of the night, from a giant bat to creepy Grandma Spider. Back at the picnic shelter there will be tricky treats, fun games, and a wonderful raffle of goods and services donated by local businesses. The hike is free for members and $5 per person for non-members. Pre-school through elementary school kids like the hike best, but everyone has fun! Pre-registration is required, so call 541-687-9699 to reserve your hike time today.

 -- Beth Stein is the Program Director for Nearby Nature, a non-profit education group dedicated to fostering appreciation of nature nearby and providing tools for ecological living. The group hosts nature walks, school programs, and summer daycamps in local natural areas. For more information, call 541-687-9699 or see www.nearbynature.org.

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