6 ways to encourage a sense of adventure in your children
A girl aged nine or 10 sits hugging her knees on a beach, staring at the surf. Normally, her blue eyes sparkle with determination. Today, though, they’re wide with fear. She has set her heart on a triathlon but she needs to practise something that terrifies her. She needs to swim out into the deep, open sea.
Imagine you’re her dad beside her. What would you say? Tell her there’s nothing to be afraid of? Point out that everyone else can do it? Give up and take her home?
To encourage brave kids, you need to encourage them to understand their own capabilities.
Being a parent is full of dilemmas like this one. You want to protect your kids from failure or hurt but you also want them to be brave and enjoy great triumphs.
In short, you want your children to be adventurers — and not just the outdoorsy ones! Adventurers come in lots of different guises. You’ll find them at scout camps or they might take difficult subjects at school. As adults, they could wear crampons or they might wear a suit and challenge themselves professionally. Adventurers, put simply, are people who step outside their comfort zones.
Adventurers also have a few things in common. They have big imaginations but are grounded in reality. They seize opportunities but understand failure. They’re brave yet can judge risk.
It all sounds pretty good, right? Who wouldn’t love for their toddler to need less coaxing to try new things or for their anxious teenager to be more resilient and follow their dreams? The answer, oddly, seems to be lots of us.
Are adventurers a threatened species?
Humans are born to be adventurous, explains parenting author Maggie Dent: “All babies are born with what we call a seeking mechanism in the brain. Because the brain isn’t fully formed — it’s completely undercooked, just neurons without connectors — the human being is wired to seek and explore, to build these connections.”
So, why are there so many news stories about children losing their courage and resilience?
According to Maggie, two things changed in recent decades that are messing with kids. First, the world became more risk-averse, so now even walking to school is frowned on by some. Then came the idea of a “perfect parent”, part of which means having compliant, bump-free kids.
You’re likely to have not chosen this. In fact, you might have already decided to fight back. You’ve maybe grabbed a map, a torch and a hat and you’re wondering … what next? Well, it seems the answer is reassuringly simple: it’s to do less.
Let’s take a look at what a few top adventurers had to say about nurturing bravery, curiosity and resilience in kids.
Encourage nature play
In 2017, Lisa Blair became the first woman to sail solo around Antarctica. For 183 days she braved wild seas and freezing temperatures and says she’d never have pulled it off if she hadn’t grown up playing with sticks and mud beside the creek near her Queensland home.
“I wouldn’t say I was more or less brave than your average kid — I think your average kid just needs to be exposed to an environment that allows them to become adventurous,” says Lisa, who, in 2018, also sailed solo around Australia.
Letting children fail takes courage but, when coupled with the right kind of gentle reassurance and support, it also builds resilience.
This wild play builds children’s adventurousness in several ways, explains Anya Perkins from the not-for-profit Nature Play QLD. First, playing with sticks, stones and other found objects boosts imagination because, unlike most modern toys, a stick can be anything from a sword to a broom.
“As a kid I had a wild imagination,” says Lisa. “Sailing around Antarctica solo in my mind was possible because I already had that big imagination. I just had to figure out how to structure it.”
Second, because it’s child-led, they discover their own interests and motivations and can learn about setbacks outside the more structured school environment. These are exactly the kinds of skills children will need if, say, their mast snaps off 1000 nautical miles from land, as Lisa’s did.
“The difference between me and someone who’s sitting on the fence is I took one step forward, then another, then another,” says Lisa. “If I took every ‘no’ that I received, I never would have got here.”
As a teenager, American author and adventurer Caroline Paul also dreamt of doing something big. She didn’t have Lisa’s sailing skills — or any other specific skills, in fact — so she chose a challenge she reckoned anyone could do.
She roped in a friend and called the local newspaper. She was going to set a world record for crawling.
Only she didn’t. She gave up after 12 knee-chafing miles.
“It was ridiculous, it was an aspiration and a dream, and there was an edge of absurdity to it,” says Caroline, an ultralight pilot and ex-firefighter who describes the events in her book The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure (Bloomsbury, 2016). “But it was kind of magnificent, too. And failing at it — well, it didn’t feel this way at the time, but how many people have actually tried to set a world record?”
Caroline learnt that failure isn’t fatal; it’s part of living bravely.
So, let’s all ask ourselves something. Do I celebrate my child’s failures as well as their successes? Do I “helicopter” in when my child is struggling or stand back — then congratulate them for trying?
Letting children fail takes courage but, when coupled with the right kind of gentle reassurance and support, it also builds resilience, say psychologists Dr Dan Siegel and Dr Tina Payne Bryson in The Yes Brain: How to Cultivate Courage, Curiosity and Resilience in Your Child (Random House, 2018).
“Part of widening the window of tolerance is allowing kids to face adversity, to feel disappointment and other negative emotions and even to fail,” they write. “That’s how we expand their green zone [of curiosity and courage]: by lovingly teaching them that they can live with and then move through frustration and failure, coming out stronger and wiser on the other side.
Live adventurously together
So, what happened to that trembling girl on the beach? After talking through her fears with her dad, she did eventually get in the water and swim. She finished her triathlon. And a few years later, aged 14, she got airlifted into a frozen runway just below the 89th degree north. From there, she skied 150km across shifting ice to the North Pole, becoming the youngest woman to do so. Her name is Jade Hameister and in 2016 she was Australian Geographic’s Young Adventurer of the Year.
Since then, the Melbourne schoolgirl has completed more difficult expeditions — across the Greenland icecap and to the South Pole — always hauling her own sled. She has also given TEDx talks about her challenges and being #bravenotperfect.
Her mum Vanessa isn’t quite sure where this courage comes from but thinks family life has something to do with it. “We were always just outdoors,” Vanessa recalls. When Jade was young, she went on training hikes with her dad, a mountaineer. By age six, she had climbed Mt Kosciuszko and spent countless weekends scrambling or jumping between rocks at the beach.
This modelling of courage and bravery sinks deep into children’s brains, says Maggie Dent — even if they’re small things like riding a bike, trying new foods or speaking out in public. Telling adventure stories? That’s a great idea, too, whether they’re about your own childhood or from a book.
“My parents weren’t outdoorsy at all,” says Caroline Paul, whose models were Harriet the Spy and Sherlock Holmes. “I was a really shy kid … but I read a lot of books about adventures. And I wanted them.”
Expose children to risk
In today’s world, even allowing your children to walk to school or climb trees can feel irresponsible. This isn’t just robbing children of their childhoods, argues Maggie Dent, it’s also stealing adulthoods. Grownups who can’t take risks miss out on the best in life: the top jobs, the exciting travel, the heart-thumping love stories.
This sounds scary, but research shows children who take more risks in play have more self-confidence and are less anxious. Importantly, they’re also better at assessing risk themselves.
“You’re actually protecting kids when you teach them to take risks in a way that’s responsible,” explains Caroline Paul, who once shot a river on a raft made of milk bottles. “You’re not supposed to go zooming outside your comfort zone from zero to 60. Adventuring teaches you that’s not the way it works — you have to take small, small steps.”
Here’s an example: climbing a tree. Children who’ve climbed trees from an early age naturally listen to their own “little belly feeling” of how high is safe, says Anya Perkins from Nature Play QLD. On the other hand, kids who are new to tree-climbing tend to be less tuned into this warning voice.
So, to encourage brave kids, you need to encourage them to understand their own capabilities, says Anya. You might ask, “How high up that tree do you think you’ll feel comfortable?” or “How can you tell that branch is strong enough?” This way, you don’t neglect children’s safety but you’re not always saying they shouldn’t or can’t. By allowing children to develop their own judgement, you empower them to keep themselves safe.
Let there be gangs
Were you ever a part of a neighbourhood army of kids, invading local creeks or building cubbies in scraps of land?
The sense of belonging, independence and rivalry in these gangs did great things, says Anya Perkins. Naturally braver children had the chance to lead and stretch themselves. More reserved children could watch, see something was possible then try it themselves.
You can encourage gangs back into neighbourhoods — and adapt them for busier ones — by hosting barbecues, asking friends on outdoor play dates and lobbying schools to build nature playgrounds that stay open after class, says Maggie Dent.
A parent can stay within shouting distance and, for very little kids, even parks are a substitute. “What we do know is any time you go to force a child to do something you’ve actually set it backwards,” says Maggie. “Taking them to playgrounds where they watch other children is way more powerful.”
So, what do you do if, after all these things, your child still isn’t the adventurous one? Mostly, relax. If Lisa Blair, Jade Hameister and Caroline Paul have one thing in common, it’s that they’re proof that big adventurers grow from small, scared children.
“Jade wasn’t always that kid who would be out there leaping into the middle of things,” says her mum Vanessa. “Jade was the kid who stood back and watched what was going on.
“We thought it was about letting them believe in themselves and letting them take baby steps.”
Maggie Dent agrees. She says the brain’s plasticity — the way it builds new connections throughout life — means even timid children can learn to be adventurous adults in their own time. We just need to keep gently providing opportunities.
Sounds easy? Of course it isn’t. Watching your child climb a tree is scary. Seeing them struggle hurts. Supporting a child through difficulty is harder than simply rescuing them.
Sometimes, you’ll get it wrong. But perfect parents don’t raise adventurers — brave ones do. So, as parents, let’s be #bravenotperfect. Let’s let the wild adventures grow.