The deck off the back of our house was covered in fresh, fluffy snow. As we finished our dinner, J was eyeing the deck out the window. He had that look in his eye, and I knew he was cooking something up.
In a flash, he jumped off his chair, ripped open the door, and dashed out into the snow. Barefoot.
Within seconds, L was peeling her socks off and dashing out the door after him.
The kids were dancing around in the snow in their bare feet, squealing with delight and shrieking from the cold.
In seconds, they dashed back inside and climbed up onto the couch, where I wrapped their cold, pink feet in their favorite blankies, and we laughed, marveling at their bravery. How daring they were! How exciting to run outside barefoot! In the winter! "I bet no one has ever done that before!" said L, satisfied with herself.
They were so impressed with themselves for being brave enough to do that-and it gave them a bit of smug satisfaction to know that they'd done something that even their mom was not willing to do. I admit, I've never once had the desire to know what it feels like to run in the snow barefoot. Not something I'd actually try, but if my children want to give it a whirl, well, why not? They were proud, they had just taken a huge risk and challenged themselves physically. How exciting!
As parents, educators-all of us who work with children, we're constantly weighing the risk-to-benefit ratio. When it comes to nature play, there are constantly risks. But the benefits are huge Yes, someone could have gotten cold. in fact, they both did, which is why they came inside immediately. But the freedom to try something new is what's important. More so, in my opinion, than the need to stay warm and non-frostbitten. In this case, the risk was really small: a bit of mild discomfort, maybe, but nothing more.
Assessing risk is automatic, healthy, and necessary, but the tendency of many adults is to steer children away from activities that present any risk at all.
Do I encourage my children to go outdoors barefoot in the winter? No, I do not. Would I permit them to do this on a regular basis, or allow them to stand around in the snow with no shoes on for a long time? Of course not. (and I challenge you to find any child that would actually want to run through the snow barefoot on a regular basis...) But what's the harm in trying something once? Try to challenge yourself: allow children to take risks and test their freedom.
If the risk is negligible, or rather, manageable, and the benefits outweigh the risks, why not go for it? It's exciting, and creates a memory they will have forever.