When Nature is Not Natural: Supporting Children Who are Uncomfortable with Outdoor Play 

Not all kids are born loving the great outdoors. For some, “nature” is synonymous with dirty, scary, and unpleasant. How can we help these children change their associations with the natural world and learn to see it as an exciting, fun, and comforting place?

A few years ago I had a student (I’ll call her Tanya) who absolutely hated Forest Fridays because she didn’t want to get her clothes dirty–until she did. Fast forward to the last day of school when we went to the beach and Tanya had a meltdown at the end of the day because she did not want to put her shoes back on after being in the sand and water virtually all day. I considered this meltdown a sign of a successful transformation from a nature-fearing to a nature-loving child.

The key to Tanya’s transformation was quite simple: I mostly ignored her. I know I know, I’m a terribly negligent teacher. But hear me out. The first few days in the forest I tried everything I could think of to encourage Tanya to participate and get comfortable being in the dirt. For every argument I made in favor of why it was OK for her to sit on the ground, she was prepared with six counterarguments. While 21 children sat, Tanya stood. When it came time to play and explore, Tanya held back and tried to convince her friends to draw with her or do anything that didn’t involve actually touching dirt or bugs. They guiltily told her thanks but no thanks.

Eventually I gave up trying to persuade Tanya to do things my way, and I just let her sit back and watch everyone else have fun. I stopped fighting her and let her stand instead of sit. (This was a hard one for me, because I am a firm believer in everyone following the “group plan.”) Slowly but surely, Tanya found her way into the group.

The real turning point came with the first rain. As I have mentioned in previous posts, our forest site has a natural swamp that forms once a significant amount of rain falls. It is a scientific fact that no child (and most adults) cannot resist the temptation to jump in a mud puddle. Sure enough, one day I watched with amazement as Tanya dipped first just a toe, then a whole foot, into the swamp. Next thing I knew she was knee-deep in the mucky, squishy mud and squealing with delight.

In the weeks that followed, Tanya was spotted painting her face with charcoal, bushwhacking her way through thick bramble to reach a secret hideout, and, most notably, letting a garter snake slither over her hands. I could hardly believe this was the same child who, only months earlier, had steadfastly refused to let her her clothes come in contact with dirt.

Not all kids who are hesitant about playing in nature will undergo such thorough transformations as Tanya did, and that’s OK. Meet them where they are. Let them take the lead. Never force a child to do something that scares them or makes them uncomfortable, for that is the fastest way to ensure they will never do it again. Be their guide on the side and their biggest chearleader. Encourage, comfort, and engage. Above all, lead by example.

 

This Too Shall Pass: How a Little Pain Will Offer Students a Lot of Gain

I hated hiking as a kid. It was hot, it was dusty, and it was always a forced family activity that I was required to complete. Fast forward a few decades, and hiking is now one of my favorite pastimes. I am grateful to my parents for ignoring my complaints and guiding me to push through the “pain” all those years, because once I was ready to embrace hiking on my own, I immediately fell back on all the lessons I had learned from family trips about my personal limitations and the tremendous rewards of spending time outdoors. 

It can be hard for teachers and parents to tolerate seeing their students and children uncomfortable or upset. The instinct is to immediately jump in and fix whatever is not going smoothly and to relieve the child of any pain or suffering. My advice? Let them struggle (within reason). Barring life-threatening situations or extreme danger, it’s healthy and good for kids to face challenges, and the benefits of letting them muddle through are immense. Here are just a few of the many ways that the saying no pain, no gain pans out in natural play. 

They will learn to tolerate a bit of discomfort. I once had a student who refused to sit on the ground for fear of getting her clothes dirty. One Forest Friday in September, she was blissfully running next to a creek when she lost her footing and SPLASH! she fell on her bottom into the water. The tantrum that ensued scared off all the wildlife for miles, and once it became clear that she was not physically hurt, she switched her attention to being upset about how wet and muddy her clothes were. I assured her that this too shall pass, but no amount of reassurance from me would appease her. Fortunately we had planned ahead and all the students kept a change of clothes back at school. I figured she would stay away from the creek from then on, but the next week, and every week after, she was the first one to jump into the creek. I never heard another complaint from her about her clothes.

They will learn their physical limits. Tree-climbing is a favorite activity at Forest Fridays, and I am careful to never set a limit on how high they can climb. Have I had to climb up into a tree to help an ambitious student who has climbed too high? Yes. Have I ever had to help that same child again? No. 

They will increase their endurance. The first walk back from the forest is always the same. “Are we there yet?” “I’m hot!” and “I wish we could fly back!” are a constant refrain. The next week a bit of the complaining is replaced with gushing about the awesome millipede we uncovered. With each ensuing week, the joyful chatter about the day’s discoveries gradually drowns out the whining about the hike. You’ll always have a few kids who can’t help but mention how long the walk feels, but for the majority, the trek becomes easier with each walk and seems a small price to pay for the chance to spend an afternoon in nature. 

They will venture out of their comfort zone more often (including in the classroom). Learning occurs when we brush up against things we are uncomfortable and unfamiliar with. We put children in this position of confronting their discomfort all day long in the classroom. We tell them, “I know this math problem looks hard, but we’re going to break it down and solve it together.” We say, “Yes this is a word you’ve never seen before, but we’ll look at the parts of the word and that will help us figure out what it means.” It’s no different in the outdoor classroom. When children are pushed to do unfamiliar activities, such as tasting a wild edible plant, or letting a garter snake run over their hand, they learn from that experience. Perhaps the most important lesson they learn is that they can do things they’ve never tried before, and they just might enjoy it.