I watched as my kids eyed the drop to the water nervously. It was a good ten feet or more from the top of the rock they were standing on to the water below. Add in the extra five feet or so to their eyes and the fall looked dizzying. They walked to the edge and looked down, measuring not just the drop to the water, but also their abilities and their courage. How comfortable were they pushing themselves to jump off? What would they do when they hit the water? What was the plan to get back to shore?

They walked to the edge, mentally planning out the best places to put their bare feet as they ran and where they would jump. Peering over the edge, they became familiar with the rock they were on and the water they were leaping into. Part of building up the resolve to do something new is visualizing it, setting up what will happen inside your mind so that you know the plan intimately. 

The first jump is always the hardest and the most nerve racking. Both screwed up their courage and took a leap of faith into the water, dropping with giant splashes before swimming back to shore. Soon, the leaps were happening faster and with increasing joy. The satisfaction received from rising to a challenge is hard to beat, and their smiles showed both how much fun they were having as well as how proud they were.

We were fortunate that afternoon to run into a kayaker that had just jumped off the giant rock. He gave my son a quick tour, showing him the best place to jump off the rock and where the deeper water was safest and where it was too shallow to jump. His quick guidance was invaluable.

I didn’t know it at the time, but there are whole groups of people who jump off these rocks. Over the course of our time there, other groups walked and boated in, jumping off of rocks much larger than the one we were using.

There was another lesson there for us. While my kids wanted to try their hands at jumping off the twenty-foot-high rock, it didn’t look safe. People were jumping twenty feet into water that was only five feet or so deep, inevitably mentioning that they didn’t realize how shallow it was. Some came out with their feet hurting.

Later that week, other people, jumping off of a different large rock that was even higher, severely broke their legs jumping into water that was too shallow. It was an important lesson: just because other people are doing something doesn’t make it safe. I have since heard other stories of those severely hurt when jumping off the rocks.

When we go back, just because the rock was safe once doesn’t mean it will be safe again. It will require careful inspection, wading out into the water and paying close attention to what is happening.

Fulfilling a nature challenge like crossing a long log without falling into the mud below can build balance, confidence and more.

That is a great part of what playing outside is about: accurately assessing risks and acting according to how safe it is and your comfort level. Getting children outside is a great way to give them confidence in their capabilities.

Children at Audubon’s Day Camp are constantly pushing their limits, in a good way. They balance across logs and learn how to tell whether it is rotten or slippery while testing their ability to balance. They walk across mud and learn whether it will hold their weight or suck off their shoe. They climb, run, jump and play, learning a lot about their capabilities and pushing them further.

Those capabilities include creativity. There is no limit to what can be imagined outside compared to on a screen. Kids outside find ways to amuse themselves that are hard to conceive as an adult, from creating pine cone kingdoms and potato bug zoos to stacking logs into towers. Their world is fresh, new and full of possibility.

I believe that one of the goals of raising kids with a heavy dose of nature is to encourage them to do things they never thought they could do. That could mean creating things outside using the power of youthful imagination, walking across a long slippery log, discovering how water flows by damming a ditch, or challenging themselves to take a leap of faith into the waters below.

Nature can help kids grow: in ability, in knowledge of how the world works and in confidence. Audubon’s Nature Play Area was created to give children a place to challenge themselves both through creative invention and by challenging their abilities. Audubon’s outdoor areas, like most in the region, are free and a great place to start your children’s or grandchildren’s adventures.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are still open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. Though the Nature Center is currently closed, including restrooms, due to COVID-19 restrictions, drive-thru sales are available from the Blue Heron Gift Shop and Day Camps are open. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.