Building Resilience in Kids Pt. 3 | The Art of Wandering Outside

Today is Part Three of a blog series we’re doing called “Raising Resilient Kids.” We’re looking at six practices that parents and caregivers incorporate into the fabric of their families’ lives, to help their kids to develop resilience in their lives. Resilience is the ability to thrive through hardship, learn the life lessons needed, and grow as a person. The challenges that kids face today often require resilience. And the problems of adulthood also welcome a kind of resilience that can begin to be formed in the childhood years. On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, though this post is not directly about his work, we remember that his witness testifies to the kind of human resilience that is both needed in the world and possible through Christ.

Today’s practice is about wandering outside together. There are both physiological as well as psychological reasons for this. I’ll start with the latter.

As a family, we began this practice when our daughters were in preschool in Princeton, New Jersey. The preschool for the seminary families was a delightful community that practiced the Reggio Emilia (Italian) method, which is a student-centered, experiential pedagogy that focused on self-direction, exploration, and self-guided curriculum. We loved it, and so did the girls.

During this time, we as parents were encouraged to find time every day where we would let our kids lead us into whatever activity they wanted (with proper boundaries, of course). We took this outside and turned it into regular nature walks. We would go to a park or a trail and say, “Ok Hannah, you lead the way…where ever you want to go.” And Hannah would immediately turn into Dora the Explora and take us on whatever meandering adventure she wanted. We followed her. We never logged any miles doing this, but the fascinating things she showed us, like ladybugs, lizards and butterflies, would always put our problems in perspective.

Psychologically, this practice not only creates a special bond between caregivers and their kids, but it also forms in kids a sense of self-confidence and freedom of spirit. They learn how to make decisions that influence the behavior of others. They learn not to be afraid of the world, but to be fascinated by it (which, I think, is God’s preference for us). They learn how to do a little natural problem-solving when they encounter a roadblock of sorts on the trail. When you practice the art of wandering outside with your kids, you are planting the seeds of leadership at an early age.

Even if your kids are older, you can still do this together. The point is to get outside and wander at their lead, where they want to go. There are real physiological benefits in doing this that have no age requirements. Exercise strengthens the brain and creates resilience capacity.

I have battled chronic depression since I was a teenager, and there is nothing that clears my head more effectively than an hour-long hike, a good run, or time on my board in the ocean. This head-clearing isn’t because I’m happy when I do those things and not happy when I work, so I better do fun things more often so that I can be happier more often. It’s not like that. It’s that actually taking the time to get outside and exercise or wander, allows me to handle the challenges at work with greater wisdom and clarity. Why? Because the outdoor exercise resets the serotonin and dopamine levels in my brain that too often get out of whack and flare up my depressive tendencies. When my head isn’t clear, I can easily get self-absorbed, whiny and unmotivated. When my head is clear, I do what I want to do and not what I do not want to do (read that in the ilk of Romans 8:19-21).

The same hormones, adrenaline, and cortisol are released during times of stress and raised during times of exercise. Exercise teaches the brain to recover from stress more quickly and effectively.

As a family, we have made many long road trips. My wife, Devon, is a master on the road, and for her, it’s intuitive. Every time we stop for gas (which is as rare as possible because Mom likes to cover as many miles in an hour as possible), she takes the kids out of the car and runs line sprints with them at full capacity on the sidewalk or in the parking lot. Our kids have been gas station sprinters since they were toddlers, and it’s crazy how effective this practice is on the road. They become instantly happy again by the end of the session, and with just enough resilience to keep them chill for the next leg.

With great resilience, Dr. King fought to protect the freedoms of all children in the United States. On this day, try to honor his legacy by taking your kids outside and wandering together. Let them lead you. Build a little resilience capacity, and experience the joy of play together.

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Building Resilience in Kids Pt. 3 | The Art of Wandering Outside

Chris Pritchett

Chris Pritchett was our first CEO of the Pro Deo Foundation. He currently resides in Salt Lake City, Utah with his wife and three kids. Chris is the Senior Pastor of Mount Olympus Presbyterian Church

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