Fear is an evolved emotion. It helps us to deal with stress relating to potentially dangerous situations. It makes hearts beat faster, adrenaline flow and bodies sweat. Fear is frightening – obviously. As we get older, we tend to like to experience our fear in small, controlled bursts: job interviews and moving house, for example. The idea of my child being scared is difficult to deal with. But is a fearful child always a bad thing?
While filming on the island of Eigg in Scotland for Project Wild Thing, I asked the children to say what in nature they found most fun. The activities they chose were, at least in part, motivated by the thrill they produced. When children camp, there is thin fabric between them and fairy tale wolves and monsters. When they climb trees, they know that the combination of height, handgrip, gravity and the ground can end in two very different ways. One of the boys said that his favourite thing is to get stuck in the sand down by the sea. The best thing, he said, is the risk that the tide might come back in, and drown him. I asked him if he needed the risk of death for something to be truly fun. He thought, and then confidently answered, ‘Yes, I think so’.
Is that so extraordinary? Spending time at the mercy of nature is the original extreme sport, and we all crave this, to some extend, especially when we are young. Nature offers a huge range of possible experiences combined with a healthy threat of death. I believe that fear is an important selling point if you want to make children enthusiastic about the outdoors. It is wonderful that in our controlled worlds, time outdoors can still inspire us by making us feel small and powerless. There is nothing like being in a raging thunderstorm – although I’ve been to some clubs that nearly got there. And I can also recommend being chased by a bull – although not being caught by one.
For the film, I have tried to make nature into a product and then sell it to children. I call the top-of-the-range experience NATURE GTL. It stands for ‘get totally lost’. I think that getting properly lost, or even just the risk of getting lost, is very appealing. We all used to get lost much more before GPS arrived (and before the rise of the indoors). Without the freedom to get lost, children replace the thrill of realising they are powerlessness in the face of the natural world with a jolt of adrenaline from watching TV, or playing video games.
Recently I was walking with the children in Gunnerside Gill in North Yorkshire. Albie (4) lost his footing on a path along a steep side of the gulley. He fell and rolled about 20 feet pretty much straight down. Miraculously he came to a safe stop against a fence. I climbed down to pull him up again. His first words were, “Can I do it again?”
He was thrilled about what had just happened – energized by the possibility of danger. As we continued on the walk, he invented a game of spotting other places where he could repeat the fall. He did not fall again. He had processed, and enjoyed the risks around him. Nature did that.
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