5 Tips to Foster Autonomy through Nature

Happy Thursday! Can you believe we're almost to the end of July?! Coming at you today with a wonderful blog post to get you through the end of your summer with your kids, by our terrific ambassador Nichole. Enjoy!

I often get asked “How are your children so independent?” The question catches me by surprise almost every time. “Independent” is not a word used to describe my oldest until around 3.5 years of age. He would have been described as a “high needs” baby and toddler. I, personally, try not to subscribe to labels. I feel that they can put a person in a box and sometimes, he or she becomes bound by said label. I also believe that independence arises from a secure attachment to one’s parents and/or caregivers. By meeting a child’s needs from day one, the child naturally becomes independent in their own time. 

“The more certain kids are that some’s got their back, the more confident and autonomous the can be.” - Melinda Werner Moyer 


What does autonomy mean? In relation to childhood development it is when a child has self-confidence, independence, control over themselves and their bodies, and control of their choices. Does this mean your three year old stays up til 2 am watching Paw Patrol while chugging chocolate milk? Not quite. Children still need (and want) boundaries. Even when they are testing the limits. They look to you for consistency and structure. Some ways to encourage autonomy in children are let them pick out their own clothes, let them help around the house and give them age- appropriate responsibilities, offer choices (note: with toddlers, keep it to 2-3 choices; too many can overwhelm them and you), respect their opinions, and allow them to lead play. Body autonomy is also crucial for fostering confidence and independence in children. Instances in which family members force affection send the message that a child’s body is not their own. Remember: No is a complete sentence. It helps to view children as whole, innately wise and complete beings from day one. 

“Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.” - Maria Montessori 

What does autonomy and nature have in common? Exploration. What better place for a child to gain confidence, independence, and learn about their bodies than nature. In June, Deploy Joy Co.’s theme was ADVENTURE. The Joy Box includes a nifty adventure kit, an activity for children to practice patience and decision making skills, and more. This theme is near and dear to my heart, so with last month’s box in mind... Here are my five tips to foster autonomy in your children through the exploration of our natural world. 

Embrace Mud Play (Let them get dirty): 

Two of my parenting mantras: "Dirt doesn’t hurt." and "All messes can be cleaned." Trust me... the mud washes off, but the memories last a lifetime. I believe the hallmark of childhood is getting dirty! Children learn through their senses. If your child is hesitant to get dirty — that’s OK. You can encourage messy play by getting messy yourself. Children do as we do. It will give them permission to dive right in. Set aside certain clothes for nature walks and messy play. Invest in a pair of rain boots (My kids love LONECONE brand; I buy them off Amazon) and bring a change of clothes — remember spare socks and shoes, too. 

Mud makes us happier! Dirts contains a microscopic bacteria called Mycobacterium Vaccae. It increases serotonin in our brains, thus reducing stress naturally. It also helps build stronger immune systems. There are endless opportunities for creative expression with mud. Children use fine and gross motor skills while making mud pies. Children and adults connect to nature and, in turn, increase their compassion for the planet. 


Slow Down: 

For children, all the sights and sensations in nature are new to them. Give them the opportunity to feel a tree’s bark, to rub dirt between their fingers, and to toss rocks into a puddle. Sometimes adults, having done them a thousand times, take these moments for granted. 

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.” - Shunryu Suzuki 

This is an opportunity to learn from your child(ren). Can you see the world from their perspective? Can you adapt a beginner’s mind? Embrace the present moment. Maybe you only explored a quarter mile in two hours. Release your expectations. Quality time in nature is not typically goal orientated; which is another reason why it reduces stress. 

Side note: bring plenty of snacks and water, but remember to leave no trace. 


Be an Active Observer:
I’m here to tell you... You are not obligated to play with your child(ren). In fact, I
encourage you not to when you feel “obligated.” Children are innately wise. They will see right through your “fake it til you make it” veil. Play when your heart is in it, but play is child-driven (see next tip). Yes, this means devices away. You’re engaged. You describe what you see: “WHOA! That was a huge splash!” “You have mud on your nose!” “Look at that rock tower! You worked so hard on that.” You might be sitting next to them and mimicking what they’re doing without speaking. Being an active observer can simply be eye contact and a smile.
Try to avoid “I like/love...” statements and praise. Instead, encourage children through observation and acknowledge their efforts. This behavior tends to increase their intrinsic motivation and self-esteem.


Play is Child-Driven:

This tip pairs well with the previous two. In RIE (pronounced ‘rye;’ Resources for Infant Educarers) Parenting philosophy, when we complete a task for a child that they can do themselves we are sending the message that they are inadequate. We disempower them. They become dependent on us, rather than increase their own independence. This can happen in play. Our adult minds take over. We say things like, “What? Elephants aren’t purple.” Why? An elephant can be whatever it wants! Sometimes we do things for children because it is faster (and let’s face it... you’re PEEKING AT A ROLLIE POLLIE probably already late). “Let me zip up your coat” instead of breathing patiently while they fumble over the zipper. So, what do you do if your child is looking to YOU to lead their play? Or seems hesitant to take charge? My favorite two strategies are: Ask open-ended questions and play dumb. I’ve been known to put my 4 year old’s pants on his head instead of helping him get dressed. “What do you mean pants don’t belong on your head!? Are you sure? Show me!” You could say things like... “Hmm... What do you think will happen?” “What could we use to stir the mud?” “Well, that’s interesting! Can you show me?” Then: Pause. The pause is so important. Give them time to use their noggins. Give them time to exercise their creativity, to practice cause and effect, to use their voice, to make mistakes, and so on. 


Be Open to Risky Play (Let’s do better than ‘Be Careful!’):

I saved the best for last. Risky play is exhilarating. Children can experiment, learn about their bodies, and push themselves outside their comfort zones. It develops resiliency and confidence. It even teaches them risk management skills. There is no better teacher than experience. Physically, risky play develops proprioception, or the body’s ability to sense itself, hand-eye coordination, and gross motor skills.  Does reading the words ‘risky play’ make your palms sweat? I know. I get it. However, our fears as parents can get in the way of our children’s autonomy. It takes practice to be aware of our fears and to breathe through them. We remain close, but AN EXAMPLE OF CHILD-DRIVEN MUD PLAY not hovering. We provide guidance. Give them more information than just: “Be Careful!” Why? What is wrong with that phrase? If you use it too often, it loses its impact. It is also vague. It does not help your child learn anything about the given situation. Often “Be careful” really means “those rocks are slippery.” It is also a command, much like “Stop!” “Don’t touch that!” Our goal: Fostering Autonomy. Remind them of their capacity to manage the situation. Empower them to make good choices and to learn from their mistakes. Tell them what to do or offer them the opportunity to think before they leap. Here are some examples: “Notice how... these rocks are slippery.” “Try... stepping firmly and slowly.” “How will you... get across/up/down?”


Final Thought: With all things parenting and raising tiny humans... it takes practice and patience. I offer these tips for you to try on. Do what works best for YOUR family and YOUR parenting style, and leave the rest. At the very least, my hope is that this blog inspires you to get outdoors more often as a family. How do you foster autonomy in your home? Share your tips with DJC.

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