Letting Nature Teach Us To Take Calculated Risks

Dr. Jenny (Jenny Lloyd Strovas of NatureMattersAcademy.com) had a very interesting guest and topic on her “Nature Wednesdays” podcast yesterday: Jason Kolaczkowski talked about “Letting Nature Teach Us To Take Calculated Risks.”

Jason’s advice focused on helping kids (specifically, “gifted and talented” kids) to develop resilience by taking them outdoors and supporting them in taking calculated risks.

On this topic, Jason (an outdoor instructor and the father of twin 6-year-olds) writes:

“Resilience has been well documented as a key contributor to physical and emotional development, self-actualization, and even more traditional notions of success. Yet, gifted and talented children are uniquely at risk for under-developing resilience. Gifted and talented children are far more prone to be perfectionists and perfectionists are far more prone to avoid failure. This can manifest as task avoidance and fall into destructive feedback loops due to the positive reinforcement gifted and talented children receive in other, less challenging spheres of activity. Through his own upbringing, Jason had seen various gifted and talented children have widely divergent experiences, with he and some of his peers excelling academically and socially while others floundered until much later in life (or are still floundering). Jason chalks up a primary cause of the difference in outcomes to those who sought challenges and came to terms with failure and those who did not.”

Reading Jason’s words struck a deep chord in me (as did the title of the event itself — which is why I signed up). Some of my thoughts:

• This so describes me. Not just as a kid, but as an adult. “Task-avoidance.” I never heard it put that way before, but I don’t think there’s a better description of my tendency to hang back from my goals of writing books, and making art, and planting plants, and organizing good stuff in my community. I really have to prod myself to do these and other “active” things. My natural inclination is to sit around reading novels all the time. Or finding a cabinet to de-clutter, or a floor to sweep. Or (the professional version) reading yet another article or attending yet another webinar related to climate change, stormwater management, urban revitalization, etc. Of course it’s good to keep up with developments in one’s occupational sphere. As a sustainability educator, I do need to, well, educate myself about sustainability! And that is a never-ending thing. But there’s a point where I can feel myself erring on the side of just consuming knowledge and then sort of sitting on it, rather than going out in the world and applying it to help solve the problems I want to help solve. After my Mom passed, one of the things I inherited was all of my old report cards. A teacher back when I was 8 or 9 wrote something along the lines of, “It’s great that Jennifer likes to read stories so much. I would like to see her write more.” (Over the years, fortunately, I have built up a sort of “energizer and motivational toolkit” for myself, thanks to many great thinkers and teachers, most definitely including Nature herself. So I have made progress in this regard. I think I never could have come so far if my parents had not gotten me (and my siblings) out in nature from the time we were very little.)

• While under-developed resilience, and task-avoidance, may be more characteristic of kids labeled “gifted and talented” than of kids not thus labeled, I think any child can fall prey to these dangers. And any adult! Particularly in our affluent, risk-averse society.

• In fact, I feel that “under-developed resilience” and “task-avoidance” are widespread in our society (mainstream, modern, industrial-colonialist-consumerist society). We have a risk-averse, and in many ways not-very-resilient society. I suspect that those attributes are strongly correlated with our disconnect from nature.

• Could obsessively neat lawns, pressure-washed driveways, and other excessive neatness be a manifestation of task-avoidance? As in, by engaging in a constant whirlwind of fussbudget busywork, we get to avoid the harder, failure-prone work that really needs to get done (such as putting our creative heads together to solve deep problems in our communities and the world)?

• Given the well-documented reality that our society suffers from disconnect from nature (I would even go so far as to say is characterized by disconnect from nature), the obvious “medicine” for people of all ages is to get out in nature more and let nature teach us to take calculated risks.

• Many of us adults need schooling, unschooling, re-schooling. I talk a lot about “Mother Earth’s Homeschool Planet.” We need to get out and let ourselves make small, low-risk actions out in nature, and learn from our mistakes (be they in a city park, a wilderness park, or in our own yard). It’ll make us more resilient to face and deal with the consequences of our (collective) very large mistakes. And will better equip us to nurture resilience in our kids (grandkids, surrogate kids, etc. etc.).

One of my main takeaways from Jason’s talk is the idea of pursuing activities with no determinant end point or point of “mastery.” And activities you don’t know for sure you’ll succeed at, but that it’s realistic to attempt.

A mini hike can ramp up to a longer hike. An overnight camping trip could be next, and a multi-night camping trip at some point after that. Although his mileu of choice is mountains and technical climbing, Jason emphasizes that we can find and create challenges anywhere.

He also talks about how parents can customize adventures for kids of differing temperaments. For example, if one of your kids likes to sit back and observe and know as much as possible in advance before trying something new, and the other kid likes to jump right into new things, no problem — let the second kid jump right in while the first kid watches.

You can check out the podcast and other related content at the links below. I hope you enjoy Jason Kolaczkowski’s chat with Dr. Jenny, and that it inspires you to take your kids (and yourself) on a mini adventure that stretches you.

One simple example for me would be taking the plunge and planting more fruit trees or native plants in my yard. While I hate it when something I plant dies (as happens!), at least the consequence of my “failure” at this point would not be actual starvation in my household or community. And the knowledge and experience I gain will boost my household and community’s resilience, as well as my own personal inner resilience.

Another example would be learning some more of my local wild edible plants. I know a few, but there’s always more to learn! (Note: “Calculated risk” in this case does NOT mean randomly tasting plants I don’t know!! I always consult local plant experts to learn about wild edibles.)

What about you? What are some calculated risks in nature that you might take to boost your resilience?

Update Aug 9 — additional thoughts:

• What if at least some of our collective addiction to “adventure” games and other electronic entertainment, might actually reflect a deficiency of meaningful calculated risk-taking and growth in our lives?

• Same with our addictive behavior with drugs, alcohol, junk food, and other substances. They provide an accessible and (seemingly) “safe” high, and don’t require as much effort as going out into the world and taking calculated risks.

• And could it be that we know on some level that the canned entertainment and “easy highs” are just a pale consolation prize for meaningful adventure?

Further Exploration:

• Jason’s family has a YouTube channel, Short Guys Beta Works, “where subscribers and the public get a weekly dose of outdoors experiences and education to help us all ‘get more out of that big outside!'” And the Short Guys Beta Works Facebook page is here.

• To follow Dr. Jenny’s podcasts and other content, join her Facebook group Help Your Smart & Gifted Kid Regulate & Learn STEM (in Nature) – w/Dr. Jenny. There, you can check out her past shows, including yesterday’s excellent interview with Jason Kolaczkowski.