Thursday, February 2, 2017

Risk and Character Along the Billy Goat Trail

In the Sound of the Bells column, from the Potomac Almanac, 26 Jan., 2017.

New Year’s Day was bright and sunny, and my sons and I decided to start things off right with a hike along the C & O Canal towpath.  We weren’t the only ones with the idea, and after finally finding a place to park, we ambled down a hill to find the towpath packed with bikers and dogs.  After about a quarter mile of steering my five-year old out of the way of potential collisions, we were pleased to see a dirt path leading into the woods toward the river.

A few paces in we discovered ourselves on the Billy Goat Trail.  I’d been told about this trail before, the haunt of thrill-seeking ramblers for over a century.  But this was our first encounter, and after about an hour’s journey, my sons and I are definite fans. 

We loved the views of the river, of course, and climbing and descending the hills.  The boys are still talking about walking along the face of the cliff, and climbing from rock to rock (the spaces between much better suited for a goat’s hoof or a kid’s shoe than my floppy boots).  They clambered over some rock outcroppings, shimmied up a log, found a rock slide, even dipped their toes in the river.  Such a trail demands a walking stick, my seven-year-old insisted.  His brother claimed to spot a short cut, which landed us, laughing, in a clump of briers. 

I loved watching my sons laugh and skip, their cheeks flushed from the exertion.  It was altogether different from a trip to a neighborhood park, where the platforms all have railings and the ground is cushioned with a spongy mat of reprocessed tires.  This was play risky and dangerous enough that I marveled that the Park Service could still get away with it in this litigious age.  The Billy Goat Trail seemed to give kids the space to be kids, with plenty of berth for the dirt, blood and howling that make real fun.

A series of recent studies conducted among Norwegian preschoolers have shown that children instinctively seek out risky experiences in play.  The researchers categorized these experiences as great heights, high speed, dangerous tools, dangerous elements (like fire and deep water) mock aggression and getting lost.  If the children’s play environment does not naturally present these kinds of experiences, one study noted, children will try to adapt the environment to facilitate them.  It’s comforting to know my boys aren’t the only ones who jump over railings and go up slides the wrong way—and let’s not even get into the repurposing of otherwise benign objects into swords. 

The researchers couldn’t identify precisely why children seek these experiences (though some have suggested they might present evolutionary advantages).  But they appear to be associated with a wide range of emotional, social and physical benefits.  Risky play helps children to cope more effectively with stress and to develop more determination.  It increases creativity and the ability to self-assess, and helps children understand limitations and human mortality.  Risky play is also associated with improved social skills and a more positive and pro-active attitude toward life.

Risky play forms character.  God has made us, it seems to me, so that we thrive through facing challenges and learning our limits, coming to terms with death and danger, facing fear and, ultimately learning to trust in Him.  

There is a strain of delight in wild places that runs through the Bible.  Psalm 104 traces God’s watchful care over the created world in its great diversity.  “The high mountains are for the wild goats;” verse 18 notes, “the rocks are a refuge for the rock badgers.”  I doubt that the Potomac cliffs shelter many rock badgers, but it sure can be fun to trace the paths of the wild goats.

It’s also notable that several of the Bible’s greatest leaders were formed through periods of struggle in the wilderness.  Alone and facing the elements of a harsh desert climate, Moses received the revelation from God that called him to lead God’s people to freedom. David gained courage and wisdom to be great king defending his sheep from wild animals.  Elijah, and then Jesus after Him, withdrew into the wilderness early in their times of service to listen for God’s voice and to learn more about their own gifts and responsibilities.  Jesus’ forty days, which Christians will soon mark again in the season of Lent, was a time of testing and endurance.  The time was not fun like an afternoon’s ramble on the Billy Goat Trail.  But like my sons, Jesus departed from it renewed and full of confidence, with a message to share.

This is a wonderful community for children and their parents.  As newcomers, my wife and I are continually surprised by the quality and diversity of organized activities available here for our sons.  But we’re also grateful that there’s still space for play that’s at least a little wild and dangerous.  Our children will need both kinds of experiences to grow up faithful, confident and strong.  

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