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37 FEBRUARY 2002
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Why Every Child Needs a Challenge

Julian Rollins writes in Family Life about activities which could be just the thing to give timid children (and their parents or caregivers!) more confidence

Anyone who's stood at the edge of a sheer rock face, and looked over, knows the shiver of fear and sudden panic. Overcoming that fear, taking a giant step into the unknown and abseiling down the rock face is a defining moment. A moment to remember. For a nervous ten-year-old like David Smith, that moment can become the high point of the child's life. His mother Alison says: “In spite of the fact that he doesn’t like heights, David had a go. He was very proud of his achievement and so were we."

Alison describes David as “slight for his age and short-sighted, a not 'sporty' boy". When, after seeing a school video, he decided to go on an activity weekend in the Shropshire countryside, Alison was surprised. “ I couldn’t help thinking the activities were likely to trigger his asthma. I had to ask him again if he was sure he wanted to go, but he seemed certain.”

For Alison and her husband Andrew, David's first trip away from home in Derbyshire was a weekend of worry. “I spent the whole time expecting the phone to ring,” she says. Since his weekend away last September, David has discovered a new confidence, which Alison believes is rooted in his pride at his achievements on the trip. “When he came back, I wanted to know about the food and accommodation, but he could remember very little of that. He wanted to tell us about the abseiling, the quad bikes and the canoes. He was exhausted, but delighted with all he had done."

Alison is now convinced that parents should overcome their anxieties and allow their children to be challenged. She believes the change in outlook soon brought changes in David's life. Within a few weeks, David, who had speech therapy during his early school career, had volunteered to read at a school event. “We were amazed, but very pleased,” she says. He also became more robust in his attitude to other boys. “Before, he would have turned and run when other players ran at him during a football game. Now he’ll get stuck in and tackle."

Children like David are often prepared to try challenging things, but parents' doubts and fears may end up limiting their child's horizons.

Doug Jones runs White Hall, an adventure centre in the Peak District, where children get the chance to have a go at a variety of sports, including caving and rock climbing. “The activities are challenging, but the children do rise to them, often surprising teachers and parents,” he says. So when a child turns up at the centre with a note that says he or she cannot do one or other activity, it is often the parent who is afraid, rather than the child. “There’s a tendency for parents to underestimate what their children can achieve,” Doug Jones says. “We find that the parent will say of a child that he or she doesn’t like the dark and can’t go caving, but the child is actually very keen to have a try.”

In some cases, nervous parents volunteer to join school groups so they can keep an eye on their child, he says. “When that happens, we try to put parent and child in separate groups.” Children are often more ready to overcome their own doubts and have a go.”If somebody they trust is saying, “Let’s go and have a try”, then younger children are more likely to do just that,” he says.

Children need to take risks
Dr Michael Boulton of the University of Keele is a psychologist who specialises in the study of children's play. He is concerned that their opportunities for exciting play – especially during their junior school years – is now so severely limited that many youngsters miss out on the chance to learn how to deal with risk. “Children do need to take risks, both physical and social,” he says.

“Climbing a tree is a good example. It is a risk that clearly has dangerous consequences and the child going up the tree is learning how to trust his or her own judgement – how high can I go?"

But he or she is also learning how to deal with peer pressure. Friends on the ground are likely to be goading the child on, and he or she has to decide how to deal with that situation. Learning how to say no to your peers helps in other situations too at some time in the future it may be that the peer group pressure is saying “scratch that car” or “steal those sweets”.

Climbing trees and running wild may have been part of Famous Five childhoods of the past, but for most of our children today organised “adventure” under the watchful gaze of adults is the best – and only – alternative. “Faced with a physical challenge, such as abseiling, a child has to decide whether to rise to the challenge or give up,” Dr Boulton says. “For most children, that can be a great learning opportunity; unconsciously, in other situations in life, they will make a similar choice, thinking, “I’m not sure I can do this, but I’m going to have a go”.”

For the usually passive child, rising to the challenge can be a great opportunity to present themselves to other children in a good light. “Having looked over the cliff edge and been frightened, like everybody else, but having still had a go, is a great confidence-builder.”

The difficult decision for us as parents or caregivers is how to gauge when a child is ready to face a challenge and get the best from it. “Children will benefit as long as they don’t feel like failures,” Dr Boulton says. “Asking a child to abseil off a cliff face when they've never even been allowed to look over a cliff is setting up a situation which will probably result in failure.” Making the judgement for a “passive” child may be more difficult.

“Often a parent can misread a child's passivity. Yes, you have to respect their interests, but it may be that their reluctance to have a go is not because they don’t want to, but because they lack the confidence,” Dr Boulton says. Trying – and with luck, succeeding – may be just what’s required.

Tim Jepson is a lecturer at the University of Wales, Bangor, who trains instructors for the outdoor activity industry. He believes that an outdoor adventure course is the perfect situation in which “unsporty” children can discover new strengths. As parents, it’s probably these children we are most likely to keep at home, believing they are not ready for the rough and tumble of the great outdoors. “Children often don’t enjoy competitive school sport because of the aggression and the body contact,” he says. “Outdoor activities are very different, there’s no need to compete.”

Don’t underestimate the quiet ones
Faced with a new activity, such as climbing or canoeing, children who do not like more traditional sports can find new strengths. Often you find that as the group faces a new activity, the existing hierarchy breaks down. Quieter children find they can master their nerves and have a go.

Tim Jepson has two daughters, aged nine and eleven. He feels quite strongly that parents need to give girls the same opportunities for adventure as boys. “Boys often invent their own adventures they build dens and go cycling, but parents often assume that girls are not, or should not be, interested,” he says.

Lynn McTeer was in two minds about sending her daughter Stevie, then aged nine, on an adventure week organised by her school at Ashby de Ia Zouch, Leicestershire. “They go every year and her brother, who is older and more outgoing, had been and enjoyed it,” Lynn says. “But I felt Stevie wasn’t ready, not because of any worries about the activities, but because I thought she wasn’t ready to be away from home.”

A year later Stevie did join the adventurers, spending five days away in the Wye Valley. She tried a range of activities, including fencing, canoeing and abseiling, and in spite of her mother’s concerns, she really enjoyed it. “I was a bit worried because she’s not the sporty type, but she seemed really elated by the experience,” says Lynn.

“When we got her home it all came pouring out. What she’d done and achieved. She seemed to want to describe how it all happened. But when she’d finished she just went up to her room and burst into tears “I think it was the disappointment of being back home.” Since her holiday, Stevie has been more independent, Lynn says. “I think she has grown up quite a bit, although whether that’s simply being away from home or whether it’s the activities is hard to say. “It would be naive to believe every child who goes out and tries a challenging activity is changed,” says Tim Jepson. “But if you capture a child's imagination and challenge him or her then they can take that away .and use the experience at some time in the future. The idea of “character building” is as valid now as it ever has been. It is a phrase that comes with historical baggage “it conjures up an image of cold baths and early mornings. But if you offer children the opportunity to test themselves, then you are giving them a chance to build character.”

Acknowledgements to Family Life

The International Child and Youth Care Network

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