Experts say intense outdoor activities can help children increase focus and develop a better awareness of their surroundings
Walk around the base of any downhill-mountain-bike park, and the people pedaling look like extras from the movie Batman: full-face helmets, body armor, and bikes that could withstand a typhoon. They throw themselves off steep drops and bomb down narrow trails. The totality of downhill mountain biking—the uniform, the speed, the daring—entranced my two sons, eight-year-old Henry and six-year-old Silas, this summer. We spend a lot of time in Colorado’s Winter Park, and the resort’s Trestle Bike Park is always abuzz with downhillers. Over and over the kids begged to try it. Our regular old bike rides, the kind where you have to pedal uphill instead of taking a chairlift, the kind where you wear shorts and a shirt instead of a back protector and full-face helmet, were now apparently too tame for Henry and Silas.
I thought otherwise. It wasn’t the potential physical danger that gave me pause. I simply questioned the wisdom of exposing young kids to extreme sports. I couldn’t see the smarts in taking a formative childhood pastime like bike riding and making it into a gear-intensive, expensive, adult(ish) thing.
There was also the issue of discovery. I still remember taking my first mountain-bike trip, to Fruita, Colorado, in 1998, when I was 23 and experiencing the profound independence and freedom that comes with exploring a new place on a fast bike with young, wild friends and nary an adult in sight. Why would I rob my kids of that formative experience by slotting them into a sport too early? But most of all, I just couldn’t shake the cynical suspicion that extreme sports for kids—there’s youth kitesurfing, rock climbing, freeride skiing, spearfishing, and Spartan Races, to name a few—were developed entirely to manipulate Gen-X and Millennial parents’ Peter Pan syndrome, so we’d crack open our wallets and pay for lessons and gear. Lessons? When I learned how to ride a bike, there were no lessons—unless you count face-planting on the asphalt, my banana-seat Schwinn overturned beside me, as a sort of clinic.
Meanwhile, the boys relentlessly repeated their argument: downhill mountain biking looked fun, and they wanted to try it.
I reached out to Richard Louv, journalist and author of Vitamin N, The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life, who spawned the term “nature-deficit disorder.” Specifically, he believes that kids should spend a lot more unstructured time in nature so that they develop into curious, capable humans. Surely he would think downhill mountain biking, or any extreme sport for that matter, didn’t count as quality nature time for kids, since there’s a lot of structure and stuff involved. To my surprise, Louv said he was “fine with the Millennial or Gen-X approach to extreme outdoor sports, with a few words of caution.” Specifically, Louv said that the best nature experiences for young children are those that are personal, tactile, and slow, like getting muddy, climbing a tree, or watching fish jumping for flies at a lake. Although extreme sports aren’t slow, he said, they can be personal and extremely stimulating. “Young people are more likely to be attracted to riskier outdoor adventures,” he said. They can still commune with nature, even if they’re going fast and are wearing body armor. In fact, the risk inherent in extreme sports might make some kids “more aware of their surroundings,” Louv said.
That increased awareness could well spread to other aspects of their lives, like school and home. This is a good thing, according to Angela Hanscom, a New Hampshire-based pediatric occupational therapist and founder of TimberNook, a nature-based kids camp. “One of the most significant impacts of nature-deficit disorder is a decrease in attention span,” she said. This inattention has been linked to a lack of movement. Kids who are sedentary and staring at screens are not stimulating their balance or organizing their senses, she said. “Those kids tend to have trouble controlling emotions, are more easily frustrated, and struggle with hyperactivity,” Hanscom added.
Time spent playing in nature helps young kids develop their neurological systems, and they inherently seek out the stimulation they need. For instance, when kids spin until they're dizzy and fall down, that helps them organize their senses and develop their balance and brains.
Time in nature also helps kids navigate fear, and extreme sports might provide even more opportunities for that than, say, a nature walk. “When kids are able to try things that scare them, and realize they can overcome the challenges, that’s very important for their development,” Hanscom said.
Go ahead and take a downhill-mountain-bike lesson, she and Louv both advised. Just don’t make that—or any other specific sport—your kids’ sole outdoor activity. Louv and Hanscom also agreed on another point: there is no reason to have kids specialize in any sport too early. Avoiding specialization safeguards against overuse injuries, and it also teaches kids the importance of being open to new experiences. As for my reluctance to introduce the kids to something I didn’t do until my twenties for fear that I’d be robbing them of the thrill of discovery? Nonsense, said Hanscom.
“It’s OK to give your child amazing experiences at an early age, and it’s formative for the brain,” she said. “Besides, you don’t know what’s going to be meaningful to them later on, and they might discover something completely different when they’re 16.” Translation: Mom, you’re not as influential as you think you are, and you’re definitely overthinking this.
At least that was my conclusion one gorgeous summer morning as I brought up the rear on my family’s group downhill-mountain-bike lesson at Winter Park. Our fanny-pack-toting instructor explained the importance of soft elbows and balanced feet on the pedals, and the boys descended a relatively rowdy trail that was steeper and looser than anything I’d taken them on before. Suited up, we looked like a mini motorcycle gang. All told we rode five miles and dropped almost 3,000 vertical feet. Silas loved it and charged the entire day. Henry was more visibly nervous and walked his bike down the sections that scared him. I was nearly knocked over by the unexpected joy I felt at sharing this shred with my boys.
As our family descended the mountain, I thought of something Louv told me. Scientists who study human perception no longer assume we have only five senses: taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing. The number now ranges from a conservative ten to as many as 30. Yet most of us—kids and adults alike—exist in a predominantly digital environment that asks us to spend enormous energy blocking out many of these senses so we can focus narrowly on the screen in front of our eyes.
“That’s the very definition of being less alive,” he said. “And what parent wants their child to be less alive?”
About a month later, we were camping with a group of friends outside Aspen, Colorado, when the boys and their friends decided to build a steep downhill trail. Never mind that it was only ten feet long and dead-ended into a massive log. That trail was “totally rad” and occupied the kids’ attention for almost two days straight. They worked with their hands and worked together. And then they all hopped on their bikes to give it a go.
As I watched them bounce into the forest and squeal in delight, their vibrancy was palpable. The blood coursed through their veins and their little brains exploded with possibility as all of their interests intertwined—getting dirty, having fun on bikes, playing with rocks, being with friends. Every sense was stimulated, and then some, and as the kids flocked to the trail like icebound penguins to the sea, we all felt completely, alertly, happily alive. It was extreme in the best possible way.