On the Go

Fostering summer exploration.

Summertime is great when you’re a kid. Stressful school weeks are out of sight and autumn’s chilly days seem like they’re eons away. Plus, in the summer, each sunny moment presents an opportunity for something new— an interesting shell on the beach, a special friend at the park, a delicious ice-cream flavor at a neighborhood shop. In short, the summer is an ideal time for exploring.

In addition to being a really fun way to pass the time, exploring is actually an important milestone of childhood. By becoming a detective— on the beach, in the neighborhood or even at home— a child learns that one must look beyond the obvious “big picture” to truly see the world in detail as an interesting and complex place. Developing the ability to explore with an open and inquisitive mind— to analyze situations, objects and places— is a skill that carries a child beyond the lighthearted enjoyment of the playground and well into a successful adult life.

As a parent, it is therefore important for you to provide opportunities for your children to explore this summer. Encourage digging holes on the beach by remembering to bring along the shovel. Invite exploration on the playground by leaving ample time to play in the great outdoors, and by not restricting your child to the equipment. Ensure children’s bicycles, sports gear and safety essentials are always easily accessible.

On rainy days, museums are wonderful places for exploration. And your continued enthusiasm and patience, rather than apathy or frustration, nurtures your child’s desire to learn and question. At-home adventures emerge from baking in the kitchen or partaking in experiments with soap, water, clay and…just ask your young explorer! The key is for you, the parent, to welcome your child’s exploits, as well as to create an atmosphere for eye-opening experiences. For home pursuits, suggest a creative space where a little (or a lot of) mess can be cleaned up in a cinch, after exploits take place. Of course, in the summer kids can take experiments outdoors. Warm summer days are perfect for science projects as patios or driveways can be hosed down after play.

In any season, there are endless ways for kids to explore. Although it may not seem like it to an adult, trying new foods is a type of exploration; and for many children, eating a new side dish or snack is venturing into scary territory. This season, try widening your child’s palate. For one thing, summer isn’t defined by the clock— there’s no need to rush for the start of the school day, homework sessions or bedtime. Besides, in the summer delicious foods abound. Fresh fruits, barbecue meals and picnic fare all seem tastier and more fun when savored in the summer.

A child generally needs to try a single food more than ten times over a period of many days before truly beginning to like it— or deciding not to abstain from eating it forever. This feat typically cannot be achieved without an adult’s patient support and praise. Yet, children are often thrilled at how empowered they feel when they gain more food choices and relinquish their fears of trying certain foods. So, encourage your child to explore a rainbow of summer fruits. Make such snack time alluring by cutting fruits into interesting designs or serving them in novel ways, like atop a scoop of Italian ice. Invite neighbors to a dinner picnic on blankets in the backyard. Serve new foods on colorful paper plates while families sit together under a tree. Peer pressure can work wonders when it comes to exploring foods!

We also need to help our to children see the value of delving deeply when it comes to meeting new people. Entice children to explore relationships. In the same way that kids study a rock or an especially big crack in the sidewalk, children can discover the wonder in meeting unique people. Like anyone, kids can be quick to make snap judgments about people— and often not favorable ones. To counter stereotypes and superficial judgments, teach your child to ask questions, be patient when getting to know other people and truly explore the person he or she is meeting for the first or second time. This better equips your child to form meaningful relationships, even while jumping in the waves with a new friend.

One of the best ways to encourage your child to look below the surface when it comes to relationships is to role-model sincere personal interactions yourself. Also, confirm that other adults who spend significant time with your child, such as babysitters and grandparents, do the same. In other words, don’t pre-judge people based on how they look or sound, or by who their other friends are. Talk to your child about how we need to take time to get to know new people and nurture our relationships with them. This is a particularly important conversation to have with your child during the weeks before the new school year begins.

Some children are born explorers. They’re curious about everything, and they love trying different things and meeting people. Other children are reticent, perhaps a bit afraid of new experiences. They think touching something different is “yucky” or meeting someone new is terrifying. The idea of venturing out of their comfort zone may induce fear or feel overwhelming. Sometimes a shy child is left behind by other children who want to go exploring, especially in the summer when the park, pool and beach beckon children for adventure. A reluctant explorer may need a boost to abandon anxiety. For starters, ask yourself if you are contributing to your child’s anxiety by conveying your own worries about straying too far, getting hurt or becoming dirty. If so, you’ll want to become aware of your sentiments and keep ill thoughts in check to enable your child to become a more confident explorer, while staying safe of course.

Next, it’s crucial to control feelings of frustration at your child’s unwillingness to be adventurous. Such angst fuels a child’s fears, causing your child to feel as if he or she is disappointing you. Instead, look for teachable moments— opportunities to motivate your ambivalent child to become a confident explorer with your support. When you’re at the park, encourage your child to try a new piece of equipment by climbing on it with him or her. If your child is afraid to frolic in the ocean, accompany him or her during low tide on a very hot day (freezing water typically negates exploration). Each time your child tries something new or goes a bit further, reveal your pride. Mention as well how incredible it is to explore— how there are so many interesting things in the world to see and do.

Igniting interest in creative and adventurous pursuits is a gift you can give your child that endures long into adulthood. Get out your favorite walking shoes, your digging stick and your magnifying glass, and get set to go exploring.