Dads—Give your kids freedom to explore


If there’s one single place we want to achieve excellence, it’s in our role as dads.

This is a huge challenge, because in case you haven’t noticed, kids are not putty in our hands. They are their own people, they have no concept of contributing to our sense of worth, and they are about as easy to control as quicksilver.

It’s because they hit the ground in exploration mode. Kids should be born into the world equipped with pith helmets and maps. By nature they are explorers. And also by nature, they have limited judgment or caution.

Whatever he sees, he wants to check out. Whatever is within her grasp, she wants to taste. A toddler on the beach is driven to explore her world one rock at a time.

As dads, our instinct is to protect. But we do well to turn the young explorers loose, and not go heavy on restraint and confinement. Oh yes, safety-certified car seats, approved inoculations, and clear drills about crossing the street.

But only enough of this to keep them from disaster.

We need to let them take a few risks.

Risk-taking is how they learn

When my mom, Dorothy, was 8 and her brother, Bobby, was 10, their dad bought a 3,000-acre dryland wheat ranch. No, their childhood years had no Disney-style entertainment equipment, no video games, or cable TV, but their childhoods came with a lot of adventure.

I asked what they liked best.

There were:

coulees to traverse,

chokecherry stands to discover,

pastures to explore,

a streambed or two to follow,

alfalfa to taste,

curious weeds to collect,

rattlesnakes to learn the sound of and to avoid,

prairie dog towns to wander into,

cloud formations to dazzle,

thunder storms to be caught in.

Exploring became their favorite form of play. If they were heading outdoors and their mom asked, “Where are you going?” the usual answer was, “Just going exploring.”

What was their main activity while exploring?

My mom responded to my question in an e-mail: “Alone in my private adventure playground, I thought my first big thoughts. I looked at my feet wandering along the cow path, small under the big sky, and realized, this is me.”

The joy of reckless exploration

Few children today are privileged to have such a wide expanse to explore, but all children instinctively explore their environment.

This past summer my five-year-old son explored his grandparents’ garden. It was all new to him. He found corn growing on stalks and whooped at the fun of twisting off an ear and peeling away the husks. He helped snatch tiny tomatoes that blinked like red lights, teasing him under the foliage. He found mounds of potatoes to unearth with Grandpa’s help.

He carried the bucket into the house and announced, “Look at this. We dug these up right out of the dirt!” His amazement was catching and we found ourselves looking in new wonder at the way things grow.

I restrained the urge to hurry him to the sink to wash his hands before we had properly appreciated his harvest.

Encourage the Columbus spirit, yes.

Sometimes a child’s exploring is about, “What would happen if I . . . ?” Sometimes it’s about, “Are there some new ways I can use this stick?”

We all know there’s no better toy for a kid than a cardboard box, especially one big enough to climb into. It’s another kind of exploring to figure out the spatial relationship between himself and the box, to learn how and where his body will fit, to let his imagination discover ways to turn the box into whatever he wants it to be.

Sometimes exploring is geographic. When families go on road trips, even short ones, it’s a good idea to equip a kid with a map and let her follow the route. She’ll gain a sense of where things are in relation to other things, an awe of the challenges of terrain, and a confidence in navigating her way in the world. She may even muse on what must have been the impressions of the first settlers who saw this part of the land.

A child who is encouraged in his instinct to explore may grow up to be the kind of person who discovers new worlds, who takes the extreme challenges, who imagines solutions from experiments in test-tubes.

My guess is that the people who sailed with Columbus beyond the edge of the known world, the families who trekked over the Oregon Trail, the Neil Armstrongs and Buzz Aldrins of space fame all started out as kids exploring their environments.

Maybe they tasted a rock, made a ship from a box, or roamed their father’s ranch, and the world is a richer place.

Maybe they had dads who gave them freedom to explore.


Question: what were some of the best exploration adventures you had as a child? If you’re a parent today, how have you helped your children learn and love to explore?


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    I’d sure hate to have grown up in a subdivision.