I have been inspired by a mom on our Forest Friday Facebook post, where readers can share their recent family outdoor adventures. This mom talked about how fun it was that her son walked across a river, given that the first time they visited the spot he didn't want to approach the rocks or the water. I was struck by how special that was - not only that this child grew in his comfortability to explore, but that he was given the space and the freedom to approach those challenges when he was ready.
For this - the idea that it takes some kids a while to warm up to different types of adventure and outdoor play - is very common. Let's be honest, it is for many of us adults too and it can be for folks of all ages with plenty of new experiences. When we talk about outdoor exploration the conversation seems to focus on other equally important and exciting dynamics, but this part can often be skimmed right over. So, let's shed a little more light on this really important developmental process.
You Are Not Alone
As you watch the child in your life explore the great big outdoors, does she cling to your side? Does he want to explore but ask you to join him wherever he goes? Does she stay in one spot, uninterested in exploring all the many other things you'd think would be equally exciting? You are not alone. For many children, this is exactly how they warm up to playing in the woods. Even for little extroverts a new and incredibly large space, like the great outdoors, can make them reach for something familiar and comforting - you! This is normal. This is natural. This is often how outdoor play begins.
But it's also temporary. I've heard plenty of parents - myself included - say, "I thought my child was going to just take off exploring," or "I hope my kids run around and play like the other kids do." It will come, but it may take some time and it may take some growth on their part.
Giving Children Time
The first time we went to a forest playgroup, my daughter was clinging to my side. My independent, outgoing, social child was my shadow. For hours. My first thought? "Oh, too bad. I was really hoping this would be something she'd enjoy." I thought that was it. And then in the last 15 minutes of the time the group was scheduled to be there, she saw a little girl picking wildflowers. My daughter joined this little girl, who would turn out to become one of her best friends, and together they spent hours picking dried flowers and planning their florist shop. It was a complete turn around.
So the following week, when we arrived, I thought she'd run and play just like we'd ended the prior playgroup. Wrong. She needed my comfort as she familiarized herself with the space and with the experience, with the people and with branching out, all over again. By the fourth week, her transition time from being with me to running off and playing in the woods with new friends or her own was hardly noticeable at all. But that was a long time, in our experience, for her to warm up to something. And her approach to different elements within the woods each took their own time unfolding, some shorter, some longer, some still not yet, some maybe not at all.
Had my daughter told me she was uninterested or simply didn't like being in the woods, this might have been a different consideration, but that wasn't the case. She was taking it all in. She was working her way up to doing it on her own. She just needed time.
In talking with other parents, this is a common experience. Each child warms up at a different pace. Some are ready from the beginning, but others take months. For some it depends on their personality, for others their age. Eventually, they find their groove and off they go.
Watching Children Grow
In that time, where kids are watching and testing things out from a comfortable space, lots of growth is happening, even if it doesn't seem like it on the surface. Children are finding their confidence to explore this new space. There is so much to discover in a natural setting. It's like they are peeling back the layers one at a time. For instance they may eventually get to the point where they are ready to climb a fallen tree, but it's possible that first they need to feel comfortable with all the things that lead up to that - feeling the dirt, snapping fallen branches, climbing and balancing on logs. Each of those natural elements introduces a whole new set of things to learn and be challenged by. They involve processing and mastering new skills - within themselves, as well as socially, if you're play involves other families. It's no wonder some kids need time to warm up. There is so much to digest. But with more exposure from a safe and comfortable perch, which may very well be you or something they've already warmed up to, their growth is happening bit by bit.
Not everyone needs time to warm up to outdoor play, but many children (and many of us adults) do. With the time and freedom to explore nature at our own natural pace, and with comfort nearby, we can grow to become explorers. We can grow to love being in nature and to find all those benefits that outdoor play can bring about. And you too, might find that you and your children are smiling at something you didn't think was once possible, like walking across that river, because your child was now ready. The accomplishment may feel that much more satisfying because you gave it the time it needed. You watched it unfold, however long that took.
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