5 Adventurous play ideas to conquer childhood fear

In our early years, fear keeps us alive.

Everything is potentially dangerous to the risk-oblivious toddler. It’s no wonder we’re all frantically flapping after our kids as they innocently plod about. “Stop licking the plug sockets!… Don’t climb out of the window!.. PUT THE KNIFE DOWN!”

It can seem like an unending task to teach children about the potential dangers that surround them. Eventually though, kids learn NOT to cuddle open fires, lick carving knives or run enthusiastically off cliffs and this wariness towards potential danger keeps them safe. It’s essential for toddlers to fear the various risks that surround them.

But soon the effect of fear reverses. In early childhood, fear keeps us safe. But as we grow up,holding onto those same fears becomes detrimental.

Fear leads to avoidance and avoidance breeds anxiety. If we continue trying to keep kids away from danger we could actually lead them into a minefield of future mental health conditions. Cotton-wrapping kids is counterproductive.

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Unfortunately, this is increasingly the way that we’re parenting. Constantly monitoring children and mitigating any dangers whatsoever is a terrible idea because the child never learns to risk assess for themselves. The epidemic of risk aversion has kept kids clear of danger. But in so doing has made them more vulnerable!

Luckily there’s a better way. Not long after we’ve taught our children to avoid fire, knives and heights, we have to revisit those same dangers with them and demonstrate how to handle these same risks in a safe manner.

Facing those learned fears head on is the best way to conquer them.

Taking risk and facing fear is a natural and absolutely essential part of human development. Luckily, succeeding at this developmental stage is wonderfully simple, accessible, and free!

5 adventure play ideas to conquer fear in the outdoors

Here are 5 simple and accessible adventurous play activities that help your kid face fear head-on by taking simple risks that will grow their resilience and conquer anxiety:

1. Tree climbing

Conquered fear: Heights
Recommended equipment: Helmet, ropes and harness if you’re going high
Ideal age: 4+
Make it more challenging: Make a rope swing or build a treehouse
How to make it safe:

  • Teach them to always have 3 points of contact (two feet, one hand etc).
  • Show them how to identify rotten branches.
  • Demonstrate checking holds before putting any weight on.
A toddler and young girl enjoying the risk and excitement of being nestled high in the crook of an giant tree.
Two sweethearts sitting in the heart of a tree, photo by Ben at River Rascal

Climbing trees and childhood should be synonymous. The beauty of this activity is how profoundly accessible it is. You don’t need to live near a national park or an area of outstanding natural beauty to do this. All you need is a tree!

Risk assessment is intrinsic to tree climbing and will grows your child’s risk-assessing muscle very quickly.

2. Wild swimming

Conquered fear: Open/deep water
Recommended equipment: Life jacket, 360 snorkel mask and wetsuit (if cold)

Ideal age: From when they can swim or use a suitably-sized life jacket.
Make it more challenging: Introduce them to jumping off rocks/riverbanks into the water.
How to make it safe:

  • Make sure you know the tide and currents of the water that you’re planning
    to swim in.
  • Be familiar with any underwater hazards like sharp rocks, plants which could snag feet, or potentially dangerous animals.
  • Provide constant supervision.
A child wearing a full 360 snorkel mask while swimming in open water.
Conquering the open water, photo by Ben at River Rascal

Whether it’s the sea, a river, or a lake, conquering the fear of open water unlocks a world of fun and adventure. Although you have to be extremely cautious with water as the risk of drowning is extremely serious, with the right preparation and knowledge, this can become one of the most exhilarating ways to spend time in the wild with your kid.

Paddleboarding is also a great way to explore deep and open water with your kid.

A toddler sitting on the front of a blue paddle board in the open water
photo by Ben of River Rascals

3. Fire building

Conquered fear: Fire
Recommended equipment: Firebox or firepit
Ideal age: 4+
Make it more challenging: Try to start a fire without matches or a lighter.  Or, use a flint and steel.
How to make it safe:

  • Make sure there’s no risk of the fire spreading.
  • Make sure you don’t have a fire directly on the ground as fire can spread through the ground.
  • Have a bucket of water nearby for quick fire dousing if needed, or to plunge fingers into if they get a little too hot
A preschooler learning how to start a small safe fire.
Even young children can learn how to be around fires safely, photo by Ben with River Rascals

Learning how to handle fire is a great skill for kids. What’s better than huddling around a warm campfire, watching the flames? I like to call it Caveman’s TV!

4. Rope swing

Conquered fear: High speed
Recommended equipment: Rope
Ideal age: 2+
Make it more challenging: Set up your own rope swing
How to make it safe:

  • Make sure the rope can take the child’s weight
  • Ensure they know to hold on tightly and that they aren’t swinging straight into a tree!

Who can resist a well-positioned rope swing? Taking a length of rope and setting up your own provides a great focus for time outdoors with your kids. If you can find somewhere to set it up safely into water then you’re in for a full-blown day’s worth of entertainment!

5. Whittling

Conquered fear: Sharp objects
Recommended equipment: Anti-cut gloves and first aid kit
Ideal age: 4+
Make it more challenging: There are a number of different whittling tools and items to create with whittling, so once you have conquered one tool or item, simply move onto the next!

How to make it safe:

  • Constant 1 to 1 supervision is necessary for this activity at the beginning to
    ensure that it is safe.
  • Demonstrate proper knife handling and positioning of the wood and knife in relation to their bodies and other nearby people.

Learning how to handle a knife is a better way of keeping kids from injury than trying to put everything pointy out of their reach. It’s a standard activity in Scandinavian Forest Schools, whose kids start learning to handle a knife at 3 years of age!

Taking the time to introduce children to risky and adventurous play in their younger years will give them the self confidence, self-monitoring skills, and learning necessary to explore more independently as they grow and start adventuring more. Which activity will you have your kids try?

Ben runs River Rascal. If you’d like some fun adventure play ideas check out River Rascal’s free download ‘The Adventure Combination Game’ which provides over 4,000 potential adventure ideas. ‘The Adventure Combination Game’ overcomes some of the barriers to getting outdoors and enhances the benefits. You can check out River Rascal by going to riverrascal.com or their Instagram page @river.rascal.

Preschoolers learning how to roast marshmallows over their small fire
photo by Ben of River Rascals

What should you do now? If you are looking to read more about adventurous play for kids, check out these articles:


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