Chapter 9: Attachment and Desire

The children navigate a mountain stream, crossing en route to warmer lands.

The children navigate a mountain stream, crossing en route to warmer lands.

9:23 AM. Silas stands, staring at the group of older children who have climbed 20 or 30 feet up the sharply angled snow-drenched mountain. He is only three years old, and still loses his footing every now and then, so I wonder if allowing him to continue this journey is appropriate. The other older children scrambled up easily and perch on fallen logs, boulders, and the steep slope. As Silas climbs higher and higher, I fight back the growing urges to rush up there and spot him. He’s a Scorpio, so approaching him would likely draw screams of “I can do it!” Yet my mind conjures up visions of him tumbling and hitting his head on granite rocks, or rolling into a broken evergreen bough. Thinking about all the research I’ve seen on how risky play is healthy, I somehow resist my desire to help. Some minutes later, he makes it all the way up. But how will he get down? What have I done? A beat later, he turns, sits on his bum, and slides down the snowy hill, making a parade of joy as he goes. He’s very, very happy. My heart swells.

Minutes later, the pack of children have made their way to the edge of a pool of water with a collection of fallen logs that make a crossing over the mountain stream. We are deep in this frozen canyon, pushing towards a faraway goal. One after another, the children navigate the logs, delicately balancing as they make their way to the south-facing slope that presents the spots of sunshine. We’re hoping to reach the warmer patches soon to warm our bodies up, but fording the creek introduces risk of the children dipping their feet and legs into the alpine waters. Our events consistently present opportunities for children to test their limits, and the limits of their parents trailing close behind. We’ve grown comfortable with allowing risk-taking, and it has produced amazing personal growth for the children.

Being attached to outcomes and the desire to protect your kids is at odds with giving them opportunities to be independent and build character, confidence, and strength. It requires letting go of control and focusing on allowing your events to be child-led as much as possible. With a few basic rules of thumb, this can be easily achieved.

How to Lead Child-Led Events

Inherently, child-led events are not adult-guided, so your role as a leader and parent is to ensure the children have the space and support they need to successfully “guide” themselves. In many ways, this is the basics of being a Hummingbird Parent. While not every family nature club event will be wholly child-led—like an educational or skill-building event, hiking, or other more goal-oriented outings—you can still maintain a sense of being child-led with a few simple steps.

Here are the six steps:

Maintain a safe environment by understanding the risks associated with the activity and location. This includes having the right clothing, equipment, and skills, and keeping a watchful eye on what’s happening so you can anticipate problems before they happen. Once at a certain age, children are adept at managing their own risks of what they understand. Cuts, bruises, and broken bones may be acceptable risk, but being sure to help children navigate risk that carries greater consequence is vital. For example, children are capable of climbing rocks much higher than would be safe to fall from. Likewise, they may be eager to walk across ice that could result in very dangerous situations if it cracked. Learning to use knives and fires, boating, and exploring the ocean are examples of where you need to be involved to ensure a safe environment and experience.

Providing prompts for exploratory, imaginative, and creative experience is easy and fun for adults. Simply find things that you think the children will find novel, interesting, or engaging, and call their attention to them. You can introduce things in a variety of ways, such as naming a bird, plant, or rock, telling a brief story of the animal that may have left a track, or talking about tree rings and other landscape or geological features. I frequently bring binoculars, field guides, and tools like hatchets and pocketknives as invitations for the children. Focusing on small details is a great way to spur children’s imaginations.

Allow children to follow their own agendas, and don’t force your own agenda on them. This is probably the biggest challenge in our very goal-oriented culture. It is useful to explain this idea to the parents and other adults in your group before (such as in your event descriptions) and at the start of the outing. Even when the event includes an educational or skill-building aspect, it’s important to combine it with some free play or unstructured play, which gives children the chance to be independent. The practice of allowing children to follow their own agendas is not unlike meditation—you need to be quiet and avoid interrupting their play.

Observing from a distance is a balancing act, taking into consideration your role of maintaining a safe environment. At times, you’ll need to be within arm’s reach of children, like if you’re crossing a raging river or climbing high. But generally, you should back away from the gaggle of children to give them the space they need to move about physically on their own. This gives them the freedom to explore, follow their agendas, and have their own experiences with the other children.

Acting (upon request) as a character in children’s role-playing can be really fun! Be prepared and willing to get down on your hands and knees in the dirt, mud, and water! Be silly! Channel your inner child. This is your chance to be an honorary child, and if you do it right, you will be greatly rewarded. But stay in character! To be successful, bear in mind that your role is to support and facilitate their experience. Allow children to be the leaders, and you their humble servant. This is a bit of a role reversal from the typical adult-child relationship, and really enhances their play. Simply wait for an invitation.

Introduce new ideas through questions or briefly modeling behavior by observing the activities of the tribe of children. Each child plays differently, and some environments and activities will work better for some children than others. In some cases, a muddy pool will provide an opportunity for one child to master a new skill, whereas other children may quickly grow bored. It’s helpful to be aware of the overall engagement of the group. If it starts to wane, that’s the point at which you can model behavior to redirect the energy of the children. I often will model behavior to direct children up a stream or trail, or to a new location by simply moving them myself with an announcement that I just found something cool to look at. Likewise, if you start examining something and asking questions about it, you will find children magnetized by your interest.

Jason’s Picks

Before every outing, I think about what kind of experiences the children may find engaging, and then I think about what will help support their interests. During the outing, I constantly keep an eye out for safety, and interact with the children in an ebb and flow sort of way, with a focus on a few general questions:

  • Where and what should we explore?
  • What animal and plant life are around that would be fun to think about?
  • What skills could we be trying or learning?
  • What is novel here that we should examine?
  • Who could be having more fun, and what can I do to help them engage?
  • What imaginary play is possible here?
  • Would the group enjoy moving or staying put?

What You’ve Learned

In this chapter, you’ve learned how to lead child-led events for your family nature club.

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