We welcome this guest post from Krissy Pozatek, LCSW, author, therapist and parent coach. After a decade as a wilderness therapist, Krissy identified concepts and skills kids gain in the wilderness and integrated them into everyday parenting so kids can be more adaptable and resilient. She's the author of Brave Parenting: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Raising Emotionally Resilient Children (Wisdom Pub) and The Parallel Process: Growing Alongside Your Adolescent or Young Adult Child in Treatment (Lantern Books).Eco-psychologist Bill Plotkin says that the best template for human maturation from birth through old age is equal parts nature and culture. Culture is learning from family, elders, religion, teachers, and now media. Nature is learning to be in and with the limits imposed by the natural world. Indigenous cultures struck a balance between the two as a result of living in the natural world in tribes, clans or villages. Today, however, kids learn almost 100% from culture - family, community and mainstream culture. This dramatic shift away from nature has reduced our ability to be adaptable and emotionally resilient.
As a wilderness therapist for many years, I observed kids resume their emotional development as a result of outdoor learning skills and living in the natural world.Why is nature so important for emotional maturation? 1) Not Being in Control: The inherent limits in nature foster maturation because we have to be adaptable to the challenges of the natural world. Whether it is bugs, or humidity, cold, ice, rain, snow storms, blisters, sun, wind, we have to yield to nature and accept the changing conditions. We cannot make it the way we want it, we have to just experience it and appreciate it for what it is. In fact our ancestors were resilient because they never had the option of control, for example: living in temperature controlled houses or eating the same foods all year round. These comforts of modernity come at a cost of being adaptable. 2) Struggling without Blame: When we encounter obstacles in natural settings, it does not make sense to ask someone else to fix or change it or blame them. Challenges need to be endured, navigated and mastered. For example, if rain moves in on hiker or wind changes on a sailor, or the sun sets before camp is ready, we can’t blame nature for these things. Even if it is 3 snow-storms in a row. The forces of nature are stronger than us, so we have to let go. 3) Delayed Gratification: When kids are in nature, it is a great departure from our world of instant gratification, and this is essential for maturing. Whether it is hiking up a hill to sled, collecting wood for a fire or waiting for the fish to bite, everything is a process. Nothing comes easily in the woods, but that is what makes all the sweet moments worth it. 4) Being in the moment: The natural world has a way of slowing us down and taking our attention outside of ourselves. Mental health struggles or emotional disturbances correlate to a degree of self-absorption – whereas being in nature has a way of pulling our attention into the present moment and noticing life all around us. Whether it is a shriek of a crow, the rustle of leaves underfoot or a cold breeze on our face, being in nature is a full-bodied experience. This is critical for children who are so fixed to digital technology where there is a lack of sensorial-awareness of the world around us. 5) Sensorial Awareness: Being in nature increases kid’s sensorial awareness because the natural world is a full-sensory environment. With sights, sounds, feelings on the skin, smells and sometimes tastes all around. Responding to natural sounds, like walking on crackling ice, or tasting snow on your tongue, this is soothing to our nervous systems, as opposed to man-made sounds like cell-phones or cars. This full-sensory environment naturally grabs kid’s attention, whether a child has attentional issues or not. 6) Connection with Others: One of the things most apparent that happens when in the woods with kids (or any group), is lots of connection. There is no door to shut or bedroom to escape to, there is just being together. This lends to new ways to connect, and share and open up. Simply sitting around a camp fire at night leads to a feeling of togetherness that is hard to recreate in a home environment. Or even getting snowed in can bring a feeling of connection by everyone sharing the same experience. 7) Impermanence: Of course impermanence is the only constant in our world, but this is not as noticeable in “indoor environments.” Kids tend to think things are the way they will always be. We tend to think the world is more fixed than it really is. In nature, movement and change is constant – whether it is the weather, seasons, time of day, life is constantly shifting and each moment is alive and new. This is refreshing. 8) Processing Emotions: Emotions are fluid and transient. They simply give us information about a moment we are in. However we tend to create storylines on our heads about emotions and over-analyze them which actually keeps them stuck and static. When we are outside with the hum and movement of the natural world, we tend to be more fully in our bodies and aware of our senses, so emotions are processed in a more fluid way. In fact Richard Louv (who coined the term nature deficit disorder) cites a Cornell Study revealing that stressful events are less disturbing to kids who live in high-nature conditions.