Editor’s Note: FFS doesn’t promote any particular parenting philosophy or method, the RIE parenting method echoes so many of our values that we felt it might be of interest to FFS participants. Enjoy the read!
By Skip Spitzer
It is not half so important to know as to feel when introducing a young child to the natural world.
Many parents know how important it is for young children to spend time in natural settings.1 But, as in any environment, a child’s experience in nature depends on how we parent in nature. How do we best support nature’s nurturing rather than undermine it?
There is not a lot of published guidance about this. Fortunately, the “RIE” parenting philosophy is remarkably suited to helping children get the most out of natural places. Here’s a little about RIE parenting and how to apply some of its principles in nature.2
RIE (pronounced “rye”) stands for “Resources for Infant Educarers,” an unfortunately murky name for a child development philosophy. It focuses on children 0-2 years old, but most RIE parents apply its principles throughout their parenting.
Coalesced and popularized by Magda Gerber, the main idea of RIE is that we best support children’s development by fully recognizing their capabilities and allowing children more space to use them. In practice, this means a lot more waiting, observing, and understanding our kids, and more empathetic and less invasive responses to them. Gerber describes this as the essence of giving our children respect.
Upon deeper learning and practice, RIE can become a transformative mode of supporting and relating to children. RIE principles visibly foster confidence, skills, self-direction, executive functions (like self-monitoring and emotional regulation), resilience, and respect for self and others. They can also make parenting a lot easier and enjoyable.
RIE in nature
As Gerber puts it, we respect a child by appropriately refraining from “interfering with her experience of encountering life.” Nature is a wonderful environment for encountering life! How do we aptly refrain from interfering, especially with the potential dangers of natural areas?
Let the children play
RIE fervently encourages self-directed play, which is a child’s internally-motivated mode of discovery. Through this kind of play, she learns not only about herself and the world around her, but also how to learn, and how to work with emotion and other people. She develops executive function, including attention, impulse control, working memory, and other processes that enable problem-solving and self-regulation. She develops motor skills and strength. She becomes more self-confident.
As hard as it can be to accept, she really doesn’t need you for this kind of play. In fact, most kinds of parental involvement restrict play or make it less internally motivated and directed, undermining development.
Natural areas are wonderful environments for self-directed play because they provide so many resources, but not ready-made games, instructions, or buttons. Let her take advantage of this by not suggesting, directing, entertaining, teaching, or needlessly interrupting.
Instead, let her play! Observe. Trust that whatever she chooses to do—even if it looks like not much—it is a good choice for her.
If you have reasonable plans to impose, say meeting up with others or reaching a destination, wait for a good time and let her know. We’re meeting Stevie, so I’d like us to walk down the trail now. Work with her like what she is doing is important. I see you are climbing on that log—would you like more time to finish?
Let the children struggle
RIE emphasizes letting a child develop motor skills by himself and on his own schedule, rather than teaching, assisting, or restricting him. It likewise encourages giving him room to problem solve cognitive and social challenges on his own. Not only does he learn by doing things without help, he develops a keen sense of what he can and cannot comfortably do on his own—the essence of self-confidence. He also becomes more self-directed in learning new things because he’s learning how to learn.
Nature is an amazingly rich environment for encouraging the development of motor, cognitive, and (in groups) social skills. When a child is struggling, say trying to climb down from a rock, avoid teaching, assisting, coaxing, or encouraging (which undermines his ability to assess situations for himself).
Start by just observing. You might be surprised by what he can do given time. You can reflect out loud to affirm his experience. You are trying to get down. I see that is hard for you. Support awareness of any danger that concerns you. The edge is here. You are close to the edge. Spot him as needed. If assistance is requested or required, start minimally. My hand is here if you need it.
Of course, we have to safeguard against undue harm. It’s amazingly easy, however, to rescue when we don’t need to, robbing children of essential experience.
Let the children self-soothe
RIE encourages letting a child learn how to understand and work with her emotions. This is done primarily by providing emotional support but not taking responsibility for her emotional experience. Difficult feelings are normal and healthy, and we undermine emotional development if we act as if they are ours to deal with or problems to get rid of as quickly as possible. Parents usually have a lot of work to do in becoming comfortable with children feeling badly.
Nature provides many opportunities for difficult emotions, like when a child falls—especially if you give her freedom to fail. Unless medical intervention is immediately required, rather than defining the situation for her (You’re OK), telling her in essence that she needs outside help (Let me kiss it and make it better), distracting her (Oh, look a blue jay), or diminishing her feelings (Look, it’s not so bad), find out what she is experiencing and wanting.
Observe. Reflect out loud. I see you fell down. I hear you crying. Inquire. Was that scary? Do you want some hugs? Shall I hold you? Do you want to try again? Empathetically allow her what she feels.
Let the children motivate themselves
RIE supports inner-directedness and self-motivation by encouraging self-assessment, rather than relying on outside judgment. Praising achievement, which we often do as a matter of course, actually encourages a child to look outside himself for approval (or disapproval). It fosters an environment of judgment and implies negative judgment when it is hoped for but not given. Praise is also often given insincerely, which children eventually can sense and undermines the authenticity of your relationship. Much scholarship indicates that kids who are praised for achievement are preoccupied with how they perform, avoiding learning opportunities for fear of failure, whereas those praised for effort try harder.3 Children experience satisfaction for themselves, if they are not conditioned to look elsewhere.
A child will likely experience many victories and defeats in nature! Avoid approval-seeking by not cheering, clapping, grading (Good job), or commenting on his merit (Wow, you’re such a good climber).
If you want to interact, when it won’t interrupt his focus, you can reflect. You got to the top. You can acknowledge his effort or praise his process. You tried really hard to get up there and you got up. You tried really hard—maybe you’ll get to the top next time. Talk about feelings. How does it feel to reach the top? You seem frustrated.
Be clear and decisive with limits
RIE excels in fostering cooperative behavior. One key idea is rather than shaming, distracting, bribing, or threatening with made-up consequences, it is best to calmly provide empathy, set clear limits, and enforce them quickly and consistently.
Free play doesn’t mean anything goes. Some activities carry too much risk of harm to people, property, or to nature. Social play can get too intense. It’s also important to remember that we prize nature in part for its tranquility. Boisterous children may need limits to honor the “Leave No Trace” wilderness ethic’s principle of being considerate of other visitors.
When a child needs a limit, reflect out loud what’s happening. You are ripping off the flowers. That hurts nature. Tell her what you want, rather than asking, and explain why. We’re going to leave in 5 minutes, because we need to go home for lunch. Avoid turning your statement into a question by ending it with “Okay?” If you want acknowledgement, ask for it. Did you hear me? Acknowledge her desire. You don’t want to go. You’re having a good time and it’s hard to leave! If possible, you can model desired behavior and point out alternatives. Please be gentle with the flowers, like this. Sticks are not so delicate. Discussion and negotiation are great (if she’s able), but don’t give a standoff time to get a footing. To enforce a limit, offer a choice between cooperation or you taking control. You aren’t coming. Do you want to walk with me or do you want me to carry you? Follow-through consistently!
RIE parenting can strengthen the benefits of time in wilderness by helping you develop a more insightful and growth-promoting balance between independence and support. It also fosters cooperation, so time in nature will be more pleasant for everyone.
RIE can do this in all environments, so there is even more to be gained from learning how to apply some of its principles in nature.
There’s a lot more to RIE than what is shared above. To learn more, see Magda Gerber’s book Your Self-Confident Baby: How to Encourage Your Child’s Natural Abilities—From the Very Start. It’s a great introduction to RIE, even if your child is passed the two-and-younger milestones covered. Also see Janet Lansbury’s Website and the “RIE: Raising Babies Magda’s Way” and “Toasted RIE” FaceBook groups, which are especially useful in addressing specific topics.
1. For a brief summary, see the Nature Learning Initiative (NLI). January 2012. Benefits of connecting children with nature: Why naturalize outdoor learning environments.
2. As an avid student and practitioner of RIE, I believe the following is accurate, but I am not formally trained in RIE methods, nor is this is an official RIE resource.
3. See for example: Jenny Anderson. Quartz. January 12, 2016. The Stanford professor who pioneered praising kids for effort says we’ve totally missed the point.
Formerly an avid backpacker, Skip Spitzer is now a busy parent and reader of child development literature. He also participates in Free Forest School of Portland, OR. You can reach Skip at skipspitzer.com.