Kids need adventure. It is, in fact, fundamental to their development. It’s not that babies and toddlers need to be taken hang gliding over the Himalayas. But they do need to have access to new experiences, as their brains are forming and growing and changing every minute.
“There are billions of receptors in a baby’s brain, and new ones every single minute,” says Ann Pleshette Murphy, the author of The Secret of Play, and former editor-in-chief of Parents Magazine. “The process of developmentally growing up is all about the pruning that takes place in the brain, and that happens based on experience and reinforcement. So if in an extreme situation, a baby is institutionalized and not allowed to run around, they can never make up for those early years of being held back. It’s not just physical restrictions that you see later,” Murphy says. Kids need to be encouraged to learn from new experiences. Limiting them will only harm them.
Why Raising Adventurous Kids Matters
Adventure is not only crucial to children’s overall brain development but also taps into their innate curiosity and lets them understand the world. “Kids are natural scientists,” says Murphy, “They’re constantly experimenting with their environment. If you’re constantly saying ‘No, no, don’t touch that,’ then there’s something wrong with the environment, not with the kid.”
All children have the urge to explore; especially during the toddler years. Sometimes, per Murphy, kids need to learn the hard way about their limits and that they can survive after pushing them. Letting kids experience ‘adventures’ in micro teaches them about the world around them — what’s dangerous, that there are consequences to their actions, and they’ll also learn what parents mean when they say “No, don’t touch that. That’s hot.”
When to Teach Adventurousness
The truth is that most parents are dealing with little adventure-seekers as soon as their kids can walk, says Murphy.
“Most parents spend the first five years of their kids lives hoping they won’t go off a cliff. The bottom line is that kids don’t need much. They’re naturally curious. That’s why we baby proof a house, because they don’t mean to stick a pin in the light socket, but they will, because it looks interesting. In the beginning of their lives, I don’t think there’s much of a need to push them to be courageous,” says Murphy. Instead, creating an environment where kids can safely explore — and parents limiting their interventions when their kids fall and skin their knees — can help kids naturally foster a sense of adventure. As for the age when kids understand that their explorations of the world around them can have consequences?
“By two and a half, or three years old, kids can understand not to do things that will hurt them,” says Murphy.
How to Model Adventurousness
While kids naturally explore, parents can do their best to help them understand that a sense of adventure is a positive thing to have — or at the very least, something not to be discouraged. Here’s how to model behaviors that lead to adventurous kids:
Let Kids Explore
By the time kids are around two they hear the word ‘no” about every seven minutes. That, per Murphy, takes a toll on kids. Parents should foster a child’s sense of wonder at the world, and actively encourage them to explore the environment around them — assuming that environment is as baby-proofed as possible. Kids shouldn’t have free rein, of course, but being more conscious of the “nos” and letting kids try new things will help them feel independent and learn more about the world around them.
Don’t Rush to Them When They Skin Their Knees
Part of letting go of kids as they play is recognizing that they will get hurt sometimes. Falling off the jungle gym, scraping knees, tripping down a hill: these are all very normal injuries for kids who are testing their boundaries and going on adventures. The goal is to not rush in the moment you see a skinned knee or a dramatic fall, says Murphy.“Unless your child is really hurt, don’t overreact,” says Murphy. ‘You can just say, ‘Oh, whoops,’ and get them up and running around again. And you’ll see this all the time: children will fall down and look over to their parents too see whether they should be upset. And then, if mom is upset, the pain hits.”
Remember That There’s Social Adventurousness, And Physical
Not all adventurous kids are the first to get on the monkey bars or roll down the hill at the playground or swing high on the swing. Other kids are adventurous in the social sense. The kid who is outgoing and willing to engage in the classroom and meet new friends is just as adventurous as the kid who is the first down the slide. Just as kids have different temperaments, the ways in which they seek out new experiences should be noted and encouraged, notes Murphy. After all, most physical play is limited to childhood, and socially adventurous kids will become outgoing adults.
Introduce Them Slowly to Things That Scare Them
It’s important that parents provide a safe environment for kids to encounter things that might freak them out a little bit. Some kids, for example, are scared of big animals. That doesn’t mean that parents should immediately take their kids to an exotic petting zoo. But it could mean that a trip to the local pet shelter is in store, and that parents can introduce their children to small, fuzzy animals (puppies!) to show them that animals are not dangerous, and that kids can handle doing things that scare them or give them butterflies in their tummies. This will help kids conquer their fears, expand their worldview, and ultimately instill a sense of belief that they can handle scary things, says Murphy.
What Does Teaching Adventurousness Look Like in Practice
Here’s an example: If your child is shy and is invited to a birthday party, and doesn’t want to go because they have a lot of trouble interacting with other kids, take them. If parents are hanging around, stay, so that your kid knows that you’re there, but encourage them to go play with others. Give them a time limit. Tell them to go play for 15 minutes, and then after that, they are free to go. Or to stay until cake. Helping your kid experience things that scare them while also being there for them will help them feel supported and safe as they go on an adventure in miniature. As they grow older, they’ll know that with any risk they take, they’ll have support systems that will be there for them the whole way there. This is the type of stuff, Murphy says, that helps kids who grow older deal with uncomfortable situations.
“Kids need to know we all have tough times and that we can handle that.” She likens it to kids going on hikes when they’re older and getting lost. Kids who can handle that sense of discomfort — and even view it as an opportunity to grow and learn — aren’t the ones who whine and complain the whole time on the hike.
Don’t Let Your Kids Become Reckless
Parents know their kids better than anyone, and sometimes, kids who are natural risk-takers take it too far. That’s when Murphy says that parents need to step in and make sure that kids are thinking through their actions, and the consequences of them, before they do anything drastic. And Murphy stresses that for all the differences there seem to be between toddlers and adolescents, risk-taking behaviors look awfully similar.
“Both the toddler years and teen years are tough times for parents. In the case of adolescence, you have kids who are going through, again, major brain development. The part of the brain that’s the last to develop is the part that says, ‘Wait a minute, maybe this isn’t a good idea.’ The executive function of the brain is very slow to follow the surge in hormones,” Murphy explains. Because of that, kids need to learn quickly that thinking through their actions is important.
“Parents need to have kids demonstrate that they can think through the consequences, as opposed to telling them not to do something ‘because you say so,” says Murphy. In other words, if a kid seems like they’re about to do something dangerous — like climb onto the very top of the jungle gym and stand on it just to see the view — parents should talk them through it. Ask them: What do you think will happen if you get up there? What bad things could happen? Have you thought about what it would feel like if you fell? And when kids demonstrate that they’ve thought through taking a risk and either do it or don’t, parents need to reward that behavior with verbal praise.