How To Raise A Wild Child & The 6 Reasons You Want To
There is a certain magic to a childhood adventure: It stems from the rush that comes with movement, the wonder that lives in nature, and the vast possibilities found in creative play. But between the creeping call of screen time and the pressure to do more, schedule more, and achieve more—there's a risk of losing this young freedom. Many experts fear, too, that its loss will come at a cost.
"This isn't just talk about the 'good old days,' but there is actual research that shows raising your kid with these priorities in mind is beneficial," says licensed physiologist Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D., CNS. "Kids need nature, they need unstructured time, and they need play. It may seem like this is just 'fun,' but we know from research that this is how they grow."
1. Nature has real, physiological benefits for people of all ages.
"I think it's just important for humans to be outdoors in general," says Aliza Pressman, Ph.D., the cofounding director and director of clinical programming for the Mount Sinai Parenting Center. "Not just for a sense of adventure but for being present, slowing down mentally, and understanding the world around you."
Author and parenting coach Caroline Maguire, PCC, M.Ed., agrees: "We know that the research shows being outside improves our mood, reduces stress, boosts self-esteem, and so much more. Kids should learn the benefits of this early on."
2. Physical activity is critical in brain development.
"There is significant research that shows how important physical activity is for brain development and mental health," says Beurkens. "And especially with younger kids, their brains grow and develop through movement. And even older kids, when they get into school, the research shows that kids who are active perform better academically."
Essentially, the brain's sensory processing systems develop as you encounter the world around you, and that cannot happen if you don't have enough movement. Frighteningly, says Beurkens, we're even seeing kids who are entering school lacking a lot of the growth motor foundations and brain connections that are needed for things like handwriting or being able to sit still for long periods of time. "That's rooted in not having these early years of movement—being able to go out and climb trees, swing, hanging upside down," she says. "These things provide critical input to the brain that allows it to develop a foundation for higher level learning."
3. Kids need to learn to prioritize downtime.
We all—adults and kids—need unstructured time to unwind and recharge. It's what helps us perform better when we come back to school or work. And when kids' days are too regimented and packed with playdates and extracurricular activities, they internalize the fact that downtime isn't important and you don't need to make room for it.
And in adults, we know burnout is real and happens when we don't take enough breaks to regroup. Well, kids need to learn this lesson too. And you, as a mindful parent, might try to stress to your kids that work-life balance is important to your overall health, but unless you show them early on how to have regular unstructured time, you might be sending them mixed signals. "You can tell your kids all you want that it's really important to take time for themselves," says Pressman. "But if you don't give yourself and your child the opportunity to be calm and have unstructured time, you are just showing them that it actually shouldn't be a priority and you should put it after everything else."
And as Beurkens notes, she sees this issue bubbling up with the kids she regularly works with. "I have teens saying things like 'I don't want to grow up because from what I can tell, it's just work, work, work, and no balance,'" she says. "We're teaching them this by always loading on more activities, more pressure, more things to do."
4. Adventures let them learn creative thinking and problem-solving.
"This helps kids develop higher thinking skills and understand the world around them," says Beurkens. "This is how kids become resilient: Try something and if it doesn't work, try it another way until you figure it out."
Parents might have the best of intentions when they step in to help kids, but letting your kids struggle is what makes them problem-solvers. It's especially important to do this while your kids are young, while the stakes are low. For example, figuring out how to work with their friends to build a fort in your backyard has few consequences, but it will let them practice working in groups, which will be valuable later in life.
One of the best ways to develop problem-solving skills, too, is making mistakes. The way we learn how to do something right is by doing it wrong a few times first. "Dealing with challenges is a vital thing to learn as you grow up, and it's hard to learn when you are older," says Beurkens. "Kids who are not given the opportunity to make mistakes and deal with those mistakes, don't know how to confront them later in life. They start to internalize struggles as tragic, personal failings, not as something you just need to fix and learn from."
5. Play shows them boundaries and self-regulation.
Boundaries and freedom might seem like opposite lessons, but they are actually just two sides of the same coin. When you are constantly setting parameters of what sort of play is considered OK, you're not letting them learn their own limits.
Kids are supposed to jump on and off things, run around, and roughhouse. Sure, maybe this means they might trip or scrape a few things, but then they understand later how to control their bodies so they don't bang and bump themselves. "Of course, this is all within limits; I'm not suggesting you let your kid engage in stupid, unsafe behavior," says Pressman. But, she notes, if it's something like easy roughhousing, you should let your kid explore their physical boundaries.
They'll be much better off if they learn about what is safe through thought-out risks. "Kids who have everything dictated for them can't make a choice about what might be safe for them on their own; they never learn those lessons, so they don't know when to stop," she says. "The kids who know how to self-regulate know when to stop before they hurt someone."
6. Independence makes them confident.
"A kid who goes out and does something on their own, for themselves, is a kid who grows up with the knowledge of, Hey I can handle things and take care of myself," says Beurkens.
And this confidence, teacher and author Esther Wojcicki, once told us, comes from earning and having your trust. Just think about your own behavior when someone does the same to you: "Have you ever had someone in your life that you've looked up to, loved, respected, and trusted?" she says. "And then all of a sudden they show you trust in return? It changes the view of yourself—all of a sudden you can believe in yourself."
It also, says Pressman, comes from the play itself. "You cannot promote confidence without letting kids take risks," says Pressman. "They can learn so much more about being a competent adult by going through the obstacle course of being outdoors and wild play."
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