A rogue gust capsized the small sailboat, sending the Farley-McSorley family tumbling into the chilly Vermont waters of Lake Fairlee. As their life jackets bobbed them back to the surface, 10-year-old Madison took charge.
“Mom, Dad, are you OK?”
Satisfied that they were, Madison quickly and confidently guided her parents through the task of righting the capsized boat and they headed back to camp to dry out. Safe on shore, Anne and Brian gazed in amazement at their daughter, who had been a shy and retiring 5th grader when they dropped her off at Vermont’s Aloha Hive Camp a few weeks before.
Anne’s face broke into a grin. “This is great!” she thought.
The family’s experience is emblematic of a growing school of thought amongst parents and childhood development experts: that creating a childhood that is completely safe – that is to say, free from risk – is to rob children of vital growth opportunities. The self-confidence Madison showed as she led her parents through righting the boat and returning to shore was the result of learning to master a situation that contained real consequences.
Growing up in a risk-free environment may lead to behavioral or mental health problems. Veteran youth counselor Michael Ungar says, “A whole swath of our youth is feeling lost amid the sanitized, prescribed, regimented order of their too safe upbringings. These children tell me they have everything but what they need: opportunities to experience some measure of risk and responsibility, responsibility both for themselves and others.”
According to Tim Gill, author of No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society, a child’s appetite for risk requires judicious feeding through outdoor activities involving mastery of physical and technical challenges. “We need to support parents so they feel able to give their children back some of the freedoms that they enjoyed when they were young,” Gill says. “Perhaps most important of all, we need to accept that it is natural and healthy for children to explore, take risks, make mistakes, seek out adventure and test boundaries.” Read more about the backlash of over-parenting.
Examples of programs using this approach can be found at every level of education, from preschool to college and beyond. Outdoor nurseries, or “forest kindergartens” which originated in Scandinavia and gained popularity in Europe, offer young children a woodland learning environment, where, under supervision, kids as young as three climb trees, investigate bugs and wildlife and learn to build campfires. Studies show that the developmental outcomes are very positive, and that these programs often have better safety records than comparable indoor kindergartens.
For older youth, organizations such as the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), Outward Bound and Vermont’s Hulbert Outdoor Center take expeditions far into the wilderness where students learn to assess the hazards and dangers of the backcountry. Seasoned instructors teach the skills necessary to scale mountain passes, ford swift rivers, and survive in all weather. They then gradually back off and let students take responsibility, until by the end of the journey the students are working through the hazards by themselves.
Deb Williams of the Hulbert Outdoor Center sought to foster this kind of development for her daughters as they approached adulthood. “I wanted to raise daughters who were brave, assertive and willing to stand up for themselves. I knew I couldn’t do that without exposing them to risk. But I wanted to do it in a structured way: I wanted to know that someone experienced and responsible was guiding the process. That’s what drew me to the outdoor adventure programs.”
Adventures in the real world bring real risks. Liz Tuohy, Senior Risk Management Consultant for NOLS, describes the balance that such organizations strive to achieve: “Risk can bring great reward, and we run programs in outdoor education that change people’s lives (for the better) in a way that nothing else can. And at the same time, nothing we do is worth harm to one of the young people that we educate. And that’s a paradox.”
That challenge mirrors the paradox of parenthood: on one hand, we want to keep our children safe. On the other hand, we know that if we shield them from all risk in childhood we may fail to help them prepare to meet an uncertain world as adults. Outdoor adventure programs and summer camps help parents introduce elements of healthy risk into their child’s development.
Reflecting on the sailboat capsizing at Aloha Hive Camp, Anne McSorley says:
“When we visited Madison at camp and she wanted to take us out on the sailboat, I was nervous: it was a windy day, and the lake was very choppy. And sure enough, we flipped the boat. But when I saw my daughter react by showing strength and leadership in a dangerous situation, I knew right then we had made the right choice to send her there. I saw her using some impressive skills she’d gained in a few short weeks. It was a scary situation, and she was in control. It wasn’t something I could have given her, not with any amount of ‘atta girl’ cheering at the soccer field.
It changed everything.”
Director, Hulbert Outdoor Center