Preserving Wildhood: Learning to let go and let children explore

Our children need to go a little wild.

I’m not talking throwing-a-tantrum-in-Target wild. But rather the kind of wildness that comes with pure, unadulterated childhood.

Our kids need to have a wildhood, if you will.

As parents, we have such a monumental task of teaching, guiding, and directing. Often, it’s easy to forget that one of the best gifts we can give our children is taking a step back, and setting them loose to explore and run wild. Sometimes, the most important thing we can teach them is to trust themselves.

Growing up, some of my fondest memories come from traipsing around the woods with my sisters – more or less unsupervised. In the woods behind our house, my sisters and I built kingdoms from sticks and stones. We swung on old vines and found bugs. We climbed on boulders.

And of course, we got into scrapes. There were sunburns, tick bites, splinters and, one summer, a particularly nasty case of poison ivy. But to me, none of those mishaps were reasons to stop playing outside. If anything, they were only part of the adventure.

Now that I’m a mother myself, I of course take a slightly different view when my kids are scrambling over boulders and wading across creeks. Part of me smiles, happy to see them fully enjoying their childhood.

And the other part sees broken arms, stitches, or staples just waiting to happen.

I am not a helicopter mom when my kids are playing in the forest or at the playground. Sure, I like to say that I am giving them freedom to explore and the ability to trust their own bodies. But honestly I think I just couldn’t keep up with two toddlers at the playground so I gave up trying and just started watching from nearby years ago.

My heart still leaps into my throat about a dozen times every time my kids find a pile of rocks to start climbing on. Their safety is important to me. As a parent, I have found ways to balance my mom-anxiety, their desire for exploration, and my belief that our kids truly deserve a chance to be wild.

Here are some tips on how to step back, let go, and encourage your kid to get a little wild.

  1. Use your worry (but don’t lose yourself in worry). When I start worrying, I check in with myself. Is what they are doing actually likely to be dangerous? Or am I just imagining worst case scenarios? It’s so easy to let our mom-brain run ahead of us. Worry has a purpose – it allows us to see and think through problems. But once we’ve thought through a logical scenario, it’s okay to let our worries go. If I’m thinking the rock they are climbing on is too wobbly, I tell them. If I’m just starting to imagine every bone that can potentially break when my kid is a foot off the ground, I recognize my discomfort might not be warranted and try to let it go.
  2. Check-in regularly. Check-ins help me balance helicoptering and benign neglect. If my oldest is starting to scramble up a pile of rocks and getting too high off the ground for my own comfort – it’s time for a check in: “Do you have a plan for getting down? I’m here if you need a spotter but if you go any higher than that I won’t be able to help you down.” Even my wildest children, if encouraged to check in and assess their surroundings, usually have a pretty good sense of their own limits and will typically choose to come down.
  3. Don’t say “Be careful!” Sure, this phrase comes out of any mom’s mouth pretty frequently. And our children are experts at ignoring it. Instead, I try to encourage my children to draw their own conclusions about danger. “That rock looks wobbly – did you test it?” “Rocks are slippery when wet, are you moving slow enough?” “You are hiking close to an edge with a steep drop off.” Giving them information helps them practice decision making. (Even if we as all-knowing moms already know what the end decision should be and it would be so much easier if they just listened to us!)
  4. Teach skills. I signed my kid up for rock climbing camp. Our local rock climbing gym offered summer day camps, so we signed our oldest up. He came home with a much better sense of how to scramble across rocks safely. (He also came away with the ability to climb higher and faster, so I don’t know if in the end this actually contributed to my overall sense of calm.) If your kid has an interest, say swimming, lessons can help them gain skills as well as an appreciation to treat the activity with competency and respect. If they want to learn to use a pocket knife, give them a full lesson (safety, cleaning, how to use) before handing one over.
  5. Set clear limits. Our kids are still developing their impulse control and sense of risk, so of course it’s important for us to give them limits, even while giving them freedom to explore. If they are rock climbing, they have to have three points of contact and go slow. If they are biking, we have pre-designated meet up spots. If they are wading into a creek, they can’t go above their belly buttons. Having boundaries in place gives them some freedom to explore while giving me some peace of mind.

Our kids deserve to get a little wild. They deserve the chance to get bumps and bruises. They deserve to have really good stories from their childhood that they can tell around campfires in their 20s. (Even if those stories end in a trip to the doctor’s for stitches).

I’m not going to lie – my kids have absolutely taken fumbles while balancing on a log or running too fast on an icy playground and my mom heart immediately thought “why didn’t I prevent that??” But in truth, the vast majority of head bonks in our family have happened at dinner time when someone was not sitting on their bum as instructed.

And our kids need chances to try, and yes, to fail.

They need the chance to get a little wild.

(Stay tuned for the rest of our series on Preserving Wildhood. We are going to talk about letting our kids have adventures, freedoms, and the challenges that can create for us as parents! Are your kids wild? How do you encourage it? How do you set limits when you need to?)

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Team Member Jackie is a coffee-lover, writer and a mom of a five year old, three year old and a baby living in Helena, MT. She thought that hiking might help tame her children’s wild spirits, and co-leads a Hike it Baby branch. All that hiking only made her crew wilder, but in a good way. Before kids she enjoyed reading, knitting and baking, but now she enjoys making it to bedtime.

© 2019, Tales of a Mountain Mama. All rights reserved. Republication, in part or entirety, requires a link back to this original post and permission from the author.

3 thoughts on “Preserving Wildhood: Learning to let go and let children explore”

  1. I have quick question for Amelia, or the other Mamas, if applicable. What about wildlife? I got a short kid and tall sagebrush in Yellowstone National Park. My biggest anxiety about free play among the wild animals in this environment is that visibility is so limited. Apex predators aside, if I let her explore, she could be out of my site and tickling elk within three feet of the house.
    Any tips? Any guidelines you used with your littlest?

    1. Great question. And yes, agree it definitely makes it tough. Honestly Janine, I don’t let my kids roam a little more until they are about 6 and I am certain they understand what to do around different animals. And Mammoth is so tough – they are literally everywhere. BUt, I do think there is value in even some letting them “go” and explore even while you are nearby and can see who’s coming. It’s just all about letting them lead that exploration.

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