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Risk tolerance, risky play and resilient youth with Nevin J Harper


To thrive in an uncertain world kids need to develop the capacity to be resilient in the face of change. Wild places are the ultimate training ground for youth to cultivate inner strength, interpersonal skills and a love of the natural world. However, with more of life being lived online many parents struggle to get their children off devices and into the outdoors.  In this episode of AIR I speak with Dr Nevin Harper about adventure and nature based therapy, the virtues of risky play and the need to support kids and teens in facing adversity on the journey to adulthood.

Show notes



Nature Based Therapy : A Practitioner’s Guide to Working Outdoors with Children, Youth, and Families

Wilderness schools


Episode transcripts

intro 0:10

You are listening to Awake In Relationship, a podcast about intimacy, community and culture in a time of great change with Silas Rose.

Silas Rose 0:42

Hello dear listener, my name is Silas Rose, and you are tuned in to awake in relationship. As we enter summer here in the northwest, we’re going through a very unusual and intense heat wave. This seems to be bringing back into focus and for me at leas, that  we are really in a climate crisis. I think COVID-19 kind of eclipsed the sense of urgency many of us feel, prior to the pandemic and it really was the youth, young people that were sounding the alarm with massive demonstrations, climate rallies, getting into the streets, and holding our leaders to account to take action on the climate file.  This work very much continues to this day. I’m thinking especially of the young people in at Fairy Creek, hundreds to 1000s of people standing up from the ancient forests. The youth are inheritors on this earth. I don’t think for many parents tuning in, you know the importance of instilling a sense of resilience and courage in your kids to face a very uncertain world.

Silas Rose 1:48

With more of life being lived online it can be a real struggle for parents to get their kids off devices and into the great outdoors. The wilderness is really the ultimate training ground for young people to cultivate an inner strength, interpersonal skills and a deep love of nature. 

In this episode, I speak with Dr. Nevin J. Harper, research, therapist and proffesor at the University of Victoria, about adventure therapy and the virtues of risky play. We also discuss how parents can increase the risk tolerance and support their kids in facing adversity and challenge on the road to adulthood. If you’re a lover of adventure, and wild places, and want to impart that reverence for nature and your kids, this episode is for you.  


Silas Rose 2:42

Nevin, welcome to awake in relationship. 

Nevin Harper 2:46

Thanks for having me, Silas Glad to be here. 

Silas Rose 2:48

So much of your work in the world of. academia, but a bulk of your personal and professional experiences, is really in the back country, I think a good place to start our conversation might be talking about your own personal journey from a high school dropout, which I know that you went back to school to get your diploma. But going from that kind of place to being interested in pursuing your PhD? 

Nevin Harper 3:20

it’s one that I’ve been asked before. And I, I liken the childhood stories that I’ve experienced and remembered and recalled through my writing and through being asked these questions. I’d liken that to almost like a recollective memory process where I’m actually getting a chance to go back and experience my childhood memories. . So I grew up in a small northern Alberta town of 600 people an oil industry town at the end of a road just before you cross into BC and a couple 100 kilometers off the road where you just about cross into the Northwest Territories. And so a place that has, you know, big patches of forest, it’s kind of like that northern reach of the boreal forest, or lots of wildlife from moose to elk to bear to wolf and those animals are roaming through town all the time. And in fact it it just reminds me of something I’ve been trying to write about was this experience about how much as children we were probably considered like pretty bratty by our parents. Because we always had a pension to do the wrong thing, or the thing that was least desired of our parents such as when they were bears in town, especially in the fall, when bears are hungry and preparing for their winter hibernation. The mostly men of the town would rush around and get the bear trap set. And so there are these huge steel containers with a trap door that were baited with a chunk of dead rabbit or a piece of deer that the bear would be attracted to, and the bear would get inside trip the trap. And then someone would grab a pickup truck and drive the bear, you know, certain kilometers away from the town and release it. And this was a fairly common practice, especially with bears that have become problematic. Well, they used the town’s fire hall, and the siren as a warning in the fall, to let us know all in town that there was a bear in town. The kids were told when the siren goes off, come home. But when the siren went off, we all got on our bikes, gathered up into a posse and went looking for the bears.  So fast forward, you know, 15 years from that, I find myself leaving the North to go to college, and then on to university. And I had colleagues and friends that were saying, like, we’re going to the mountains on the weekend, or we’re going, you know, to such and such a lake on the weekend. And I was excited by that. I thought, Oh, yeah, I’ll come to what are we doing? I like to go camping, but you’re not, you’re not fishing, you’re not hunting, there was no extraction of resources. And my mindset growing up was that that’s why you went out away from the town was to get something that the town needed back, you know, in town for people to survive sustain themselves. And so my relationship to traveling in the outdoors wasn’t for pure entertainment sake, it had purpose. And then as a young man, I learned that that purpose was for some self care rejuvenation, personal challenge, growth.  Even though I was invited along at the end, and I realized quickly, and by the time I finished university, I was I was already guiding others in the outdoors. And then that just became a career. And I found ways to work in the my interest in in human welfare and social justice by working with disadvantaged populations and youth at risk and in the correctional system. And it was basically bringing people into relationship with the environment, and allowing things to unfold in a way that were experiential, and emergent, and that the learning would occur regardless of how much intention or training I had. I had, keep them safe, provide them with new experiences and a certain amount of challenge and burden. And that became the basis for all that I’ve done in my entire career. I’ve just found different ways to have different jobs. And now as a university academic, I feel like I still am a practitioner, but I get to read and write and research and teach about those concepts now as best I can. That’s, that’s, that’s the condense 40 year bio. 

Silas Rose 9:34

I as well spent most of my day outside, you know, fishing, hanging out at the beach, going to pit parties, playing dumb war games in the ravine. I would leave home in the morning and come back some time at night. It was kind of normal those days, sort of unthinkable now. So when do you think things really changed for young people for kids? 

Nevin Harper 10:27

I think it was something that was experienced over time. And from my own childhood growing up in the areas that I did, I know that there were things that changed our relationship to what we did for recreation, where we spent time, whether we spent more time outdoors indoors, like I remember clearly, again, having only one television channel, so a pretty limited perspective. But I remember clearly, when music became visual in Canada, much music, my friends that had satellite television, it was MTV in the United States that there was suddenly something that shifted in our relationship with music, it became something that we watched. So there was one more reason at least in Canada on CBC on Friday nights to be glued to, you know, carry David Mulligan and Much Music. That to me was the beginning of technology is something that I’m really attracted to. And then of course, there was television and movies before that. But fast forward to cell phone technology and iPhones for sure, the smartphones with the visual of putting a screen then on your phone, which we saw in, you know, Blade Runner in the movie back in the 80s. Again, and we thought there’s no way, that’s so futuristic. That’s crazy. That acceleration of technology has just been so fast and furious that I have no idea how to actually identify where those changes took place. But if we look at it, and snapshots, and when we have research that looks back, we know that generation after generation, children, for starters, were allowed to range from home less less and less. There was one European study, maybe a city in Germany, where they looked at a family home, and they asked the parents, how far children were allowed to range from this house, unaccompanied, unsupervised. And they weren’t allowed out of the backyard for a particular age. And I’m sorry, I forget what that age was. But then the parents themselves had said, because it was a families a multi generational passed down family home, they said from this home, we were allowed to travel, you know, X number of blocks. And then they went back to the grandparents in the grid that that range kept expanding and expanding, expanding to the extent that today, people would be considered irresponsible as parents for allowing them, their children to range that far. So between the distractions of technology, which have, again accelerated in ways that we don’t understand like there is gaming technology in there, like with the infinite scroll of social media, the variety and availability of film and the the now continuous storytelling of being able to watch entire seasons of something back to back to back to back to back. It’s just so overwhelming. And I think it’s just simply removed us from having quiet time, being bored, having reflective space, the time and space to just call our bodies and think about who we are and what we’re doing in this world. And then couple that with, you know, what’s been called stranger danger or fear of traffic, like just our concerns about traffic accidents alone, has got parents fearful to a point where they just keep their kids in the backyard, and often supervise him through the back window that’s accelerated so fast so far, that we’re just trying to understand what some of the effects might be. And we have some ideas, but most of them are just theories at this point.


Silas Rose 14:12

Its a very basic question. but as an educator, why is some connection to nature so important in youth development?


Nevin Harper 14:20

One of the easiest ways to think about this is just to simply identify humans as one of millions of species and that from a biological and even evolutionary perspective, we were designed as a functioning species to live in harmony with the surrounding environment, meaning that we had to adapt to it, and we had to live within it. And I believe that the burdensome nature of being a human in the outdoors is something that we’ve lost. And yet when we see studies of human systems that are being challenged such as through physical exertion and even mental exertion, that there’s great positive rewards to the body. So I think, like from a biological physiological standpoint, we know that it’s just really good for our bodies to be active, and to be outdoors. And that’s an ideal conditions. Of course, that’s not in the worst of storms, or an air pollution, or swimming in a polluted river. So when the conditions are ideal outdoors, it’s good health, it makes, it’s just good sense for us to be in it. There’s a huge body of literature now that’s grown out of like Korea and Japan on the practices of forest therapy, forest bathing, that have shown all these biological markers, like increased ability to fight cancer cells, stabilizing of blood sugar levels, increased concentration, like reduced cortisol levels, so there’s a stress ridden reduction function which you can easily apply them to things like anxiety, and other you know, disorders that people might be having, from a through the therapy lens that we work with nature, I think sensory awareness, being able to be in our bodies and have greater ability to be sensory beings in that space. And even beyond the five basic senses, you know, we work with proprioception, like how our bodies relate to space and movement and the vestibular sense of balance. Like if we’re say, climbing a tree, there’s, there’s touch there sound, there’s balance, there’s movement, and then interior reception, like what’s going on inside our bodies? Like, how am I actually feeling in this environment? And so I think, the fact that being in natural environments when the conditions are right, that we know, and this is very common, that people can say, Oh, I just feel better, like we know there’s health benefits to it. And then I think there’s also some great possibilities for learning from it in terms of, you know, the metaphors that nature can offer us. And that nature can often be a mirror to what we’re looking for in our lives, whether that’s looking at something through the life cycles, watching water move downstream and around rocks and and think about what that lesson might be for us in our day to day lives. And so we were never meant to be in boxes indoors, where there’s straight lines only, and artificial air and artificial light. And it messes with our sleep cycles.. I’ve got a wall of books in my office that could help answer that question. 

Silas Rose 17:52

Your average North American teens spends nine hours a day on devices, in your own experience from working with youth  what do you think the long term effects of this are?

Nevin Harper 18:05

There is a researcher in Norway, who looks at early years and early child development through the lens of outdoor play. And outdoor play has this inherent risk to it. We’re talking about climbing trees jumping in puddles, sliding and rolling down hills fast, we’re talking about childhood play, and things that are now limited in terms of access, and support by parents and caregivers who are concerned about being sued or seen as not being providing, you know, safe environments for their children. So there’s a positive social engagement piece, which makes it again, safe to do emotionally, but then to reap the rewards of doing challenging things, whether that’s holding a child’s hand stepping across stones across a creek, and the next time you can stay close by as the invisible handrail. They experience this as the success of overcoming something that might have been challenging, might have been fearful, created another learning opportunity and mastery and self esteem and all these other wonderful, you know, social and emotional benefits, that they can then better take on other challenges in their life. If we’ve reduced risk, this is the big you know, sticking the neck out there as a theorist risk. If we’re taking so many fewer risks at the level of childhood development, is there any relationship between that, and the levels of mental health issues we have in our adolescent population right now, because probably pretty easy to show some correlations between those two things in different ways with different variables. causation, of course, is really hard to study and hard to prove. But I mean, I went from in the late 90s, to maybe 2004, working in programs with young offenders in the correctional system, running wilderness expedition programs, as part of their probation. And the majority of them were actually in corrections because of externalizing behaviors, stealing cars, assaulting people, you know, so breaking entering, those were the types of crimes that they were associated with. We saw numbers and corrections dropping and dropping and dropping to the point that they’ve closed most correctional programs in the province of British Columbia. Yay, that’s wonderful, because they weren’t necessarily the healthiest environments for kids anyways. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t still kids in need. But they’re expressing that need in a different way. And what we were observing over time, was more mental health issues, more internalizing of those same crises and experiences that they were externalizing before. So not breaking into cars, but rather locking themselves in their rooms, not stealing things, but not having any social relationships instead. And so I think that’s, that’s one of the shifts that maybe I mean, again, I’m a researcher, so I need to, I need to put pen to paper and try to figure out with colleagues Is this something that we can actually demonstrate that this early years childhood risk taking, that there’s not just the right to risk, and that it’s a developmental need, but that by not providing it, we’re actually compromising the child’s dignity to fully develop, and that scares some people. And I get a lot of feedback on that from child injury prevention folks who are saying, like, we haven’t had any children under such and such an age in the emergency rooms, you know, the numbers are so low. And it’s been that way for years, look at the great job we’ve done. And I would say at what cost because if kids aren’t climbing trees, and not necessarily falling out of trees, but maybe almost falling out of trees, or falling from heights and not getting hurt too bad. I think there’s a significant amount of learning that occurs there that potentially is being lost by wrapping kids in cotton or bubble wrap, or however people have expressed, there’s been a numerous array of books that have been published on this topic. It’s not really my expertise in child development. But I definitely support outdoor risky play, if you’re in relationship, meaning that you understand what risks already exist in the child’s life, because many of the people that I’ve worked with in my history, have already had too much risk in their life. And so connection with nature, the sensory work, being outdoors is enough. And I don’t need to add further risk to their experience in life. And so I just want to put that out there. And that’s a, there’s a cautionary tale there for those who move into working without the risky play that you really need to be with your clients or your students or your the children you’re working with, and be where they’re at understand whether or not risk is even appropriate.


Silas Rose 23:30

Risk tolerance is very much central to your work. I am getting the sense that it is not necessarily the kids who need to expand their risk tolerance, but the parents. 


Nevin Harper 23:41

Yeah, the pragmatics of it. The practical pieces, I think, are best exemplified in what we’ve seen in the last decade in terms of growth around forest and nature schools. So early years programs, where children are dropped off by their parents in the morning with full understanding that their kids might come home when they pick them up, dirty, muddy, and maybe they’ve got some scratches, scrapes, cuts and bruises. Because there’s a lot of falling down when you’re wearing, you know, gum boots and muddy buddies through the woods, on a winter program in Victoria, for sure. And a lot of that is that the articulation of the benefits of the program, which include those risks, and parents that are participating in those programs are accepting that that is a an essential and inherent part of the program. My children might actually, you know, get some bumps and bruises. And I know that these are people that are educated and trained, and they’ve got a really good sense of what kids can and can’t do. And they allow them to explore and allow the curriculum to emerge afterwards. And so parents in that realm, they’re already there, they’ve got it, and hopefully they can, you know, stay true to those values and beliefs about the need for those types of risks. Parents in general, I think one of the things He’s of talking to them about their childhood is that they quickly compare, you know, so as you mentioned growing up, you know, up Island beach, fishing out till your parents called you in at night, hard to believe that might happen today. But raising children and talking to someone about the experiences they had, you simply have to ask, what do you think the benefits of that work? What did you learn from that? You know, how are you today because of those experiences and that we might run out of that as a as a technique because I think younger parents now maybe didn’t have those experiences. And so there’s the potential of what’s called the extinction of experience, like this idea of you and I saying, Yeah, we played outdoors. That’s contending against media, which seems to be there’s a hyper sense of concern, when things happen, something happens to a child somewhere in the world. And there’s this, it’s called the availability heuristic, the fact that you heard it on the news, and I heard it on the news. And suddenly, we think, Oh, my God, that could happen to my child to like the notion of child abductions, like in the 1990s, there was a lot of talk of that, because there were a few incidents of it in different places, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen. But it happens so infrequently. Like in Canada, it’s like a stranger, taking a child is a one in a million, you know, possibility. But, you know, children are taken by but it’s often people known to the family, this idea or concept that some stranger is going to take my child was hyper sensitized in the media, and all of us experienced it, and became far more cautious with our children, because we believe that might happen to them. I don’t know that we can reverse that. But I think we can allow parents to explore and revisit what their childhood explorations and adventures and risk tolerance was, and then try to find ways doesn’t have to be complicated. Simply spending more time outdoors, unplugged with their kids, letting their kids you know, lead the adventure, providing unstructured opportunities for play in outdoor spaces, no expectations, nature has unlimited possibilities, they will not get bored, because there’s so many options out there, walk to a local park, find them while this, you know, corners of it and just let them explore, put energy into, you know, whether it’s whatever is accessible, to get to whether it’s a hike out, you know, to a beach, hit like a beach for us, you know, like out to the west coast, or even hike up the highest point of land in the area and go off trail and allow them to build forts and have adventures. And I mean, that’s mostly talking about the young ones, I think, the adolescence, it’s a little bit more difficult at that point, because they may or may not have had those experiences in their life, they may already be pulling away from their parents exposure to nature, like the the camping trips, and everything else. But I know that if they’ve had them in their childhood, they will return to them as adults. That’s borne out in the literature around outdoor recreation around gardening. If children have these experiences growing up, they often with access and resources will return to them as adults, the adolescence maybe it’s just everything you can do to reduce the screen time, increase family time, play more, have more fun, and try to do it all outdoors. Like that’s, I don’t know, that’s that’s my short list.


Silas Rose 29:09

And being part of a transition into adulthood is learning to face fear and the uncertainly, you touched on this earlier in the conversation when you were working with at risk youth. I really believe that part of the male psychology craves that, do you see that possibility for adventure therapy as some kind of form of rite of passage?

Nevin Harper 29:34

Maybe I’ll start in reverse order. So the concepts of rite of passage, I think, are of interest. And I’ve worked with those ideas before and I know, people like Joseph Campbell and his work in mythology and the hero’s journey, and there’s some fairly solid critique of those ideas as if they were cross cultural. Everybody participated in them. But the literature is definitely chock a block full of stories of adventure. And they follow that pattern, that archetypal pattern of the hero’s journey. I think that is a wonderful model or recipe for youth development. And not even gender specific, I’m suggesting that young people coming of age can participate in either family practice, or community or cultural practice, or programs, such as ones that I’ve worked in, where they can recreate the steps of that passage, as potentially some form of transition or celebration of a transition in life. And so often rites are a celebration of a passage, the practice itself isn’t necessarily the right, it’s that they have achieved or reached some stage of development. And I can tell you from the adventure therapy, the outdoors industry, people are really attracted to those types of programs, when they’re nearing a transition, or have passed through a transition themselves. So some programs see a great influx of young outs. Some have a significant influx of sort of mid career professionals, some see retirees, you know what I mean? Like, there’s places and times when people are having some type of a transition. And these programs, and especially that Hero’s Journey model where there’s a call to action or a call to adventure, right, so there’s something that’s pulling them away and creates separation from their community, then there’s some type of ordeal or situation that they experience, you know, in the traditional rites of passage, while they would say that there was some form of a, an initiation that takes place through that challenging experience. And then there’s a return, there’s a return back to your community, your society, your family, where you get to share the boons of your success of the ordeal. And I mean, these are great pieces of Greek literature of, you know, the separation, the initiation, the return, they show up in film over time, again, and again, you just have to look at Star Wars through the lens of archetype and hero’s journey. Look at Lord of the Rings, you know, these big classic sequel type movies. They’re all built on that. Was that the case for the young men that I worked with? When I worked in youth justice, there was a lot of toxicity in their maleness. And so a program like that, that was at the time designed specifically for males, focused on values and expression of maleness in ways that tried to help young people understand what it would mean, to be a male in society. What would it mean to be a leader in your community? As a male? What would it look like to be a male in a family? What does it look like to be a male in relationship with a partner like, all of those pieces came out, and yet the program as much as it had, I would say transformational ability, if you spend a month in a novel, unique environment, doing challenging things that you didn’t think possible, and you overcame the hardships through learning the skills and developing some resilience, you feel great, right? There’s nothing except a greater self that comes from that. The problem that I experienced was that there was no return. There was no family and community waiting for them, knowing what they’ve been through, honoring and recognizing the changes that they’ve made, rather, and by example, I broke up a fight one time between a father and a son in a parking lot. At a probation officers office. The youth came into the van with us, we went away for a month we were on a wilderness expedition. The youth grew and developed and experienced things, learned about his sort of inner self and was able to articulate things in such a great capacity that he knew what he wanted from life and how to relate better to his parents. The day that he finished the program, the father had his fists up, he wanted to finish what started 26 days earlier. And so for me, it wasn’t a rite of passage. It wasn’t something that was celebratory or an initiation, because those who were, you know, his community, his family didn’t know what the expedition was about, didn’t honor or recognize his change upon return, or allow him a chance to share what he had gained from that expedition. So for me that model kind of just it just kind of collapsed. But I do like it because it’s a great one to teach with. It’s one to allow people to design programs as a model to say, Oh, I get it, I get it. So what would it look like for this family when their child goes away to camp for the whole summer? And what are they going to learn in camp? And how are they going to grow and develop? Because there’s a lot of thought put into child development and social emotional learning and camps and programs. And then how is the family going to understand, recognize, and celebrate and honor that growth and learning upon return? If family started doing that, or communities worked in that way, and it was a reciprocal ongoing experience that becomes culturally embedded, then it would be a rite of passage, then it would be recognized as a transitory experience. But I think we we play with those terms until that until that comes to fruition.

Silas Rose 35:53

Before we conclude our conversation, for those parents that are listening right now, where would be a good starting point for increasing risk tolerance? Perhaps it’s a resource, or where would you point people?


Nevin Harper 36:06

I don’t want to just simply list off books that people have to go and buy. But I think there’s also organizations online, Canadian, there’s outdoor play organizations that have been developing over the last couple years, there’s the child and nature alliance of Canada, there’s resources online, there have been books, I mean, our book was written primarily for counselors, but we wrote it in a language that parents can pick it up and use it just as easily. So our book, again, with Dave and Katie, nature based therapy, I’m just thinking there was a book that came out a couple years ago called balanced and barefoot, and for early years for people with young children, if you really want to get a good resource that has lots of ideas, and there’s, it’s research based, but it’s not written overly academically. That’s a really good one, I think finding other parents that have the adventurous spirit, and are doing those types of things with their kids. And, and I know from raising our own children, that you  tend to find those people with common interests. We tried to recreate some of our own adventures with children, I quickly realized that, you know, a three or four year old child doesn’t need to go on a multi day overnight canoe trip, we can just take the canoe out on a local lake. And it’s just as big of an adventure. And in fact, if you put them in the stern seat, you will go where they take the canoe and that will be the adventure. And I just had to draw in the reins of my motivation to give them every exposure to adventure that I thought I could and just allow them to lead the adventures. And in doing so, I learned far more about the ideas of unstructured, unsupervised, free play, and allowing those risks to happen and biting my tongue when I want to say things like, stop, don’t do that you’ll fall. And I learned to say, Oh, wait a second, where are you going to put your foot next right as opposed to scripting the future for my child who may or may not fall from that tree. And these are all just tiny lessons. But again, being around people that are experiencing and playing with these ideas is probably one of the best ways because then you then are rewarded by that social interaction while your children are developing these hopefully anti phobic capacities to deal with challenge and risk and, and just maybe think on what I’ve suggested in terms of risk being a developmental need risk being a right to the child to experience and learn to deal with on their own. And that also that there’s a certain dignity to doing that in their growth and development

Silas Rose 38:46

That’s a great point to end on. So thank you, again, so much, Nevin. And how can people be in touch with you if they want to know more?

Nevin Harper 38:54

The easiest way would be NevinHarper.com. It’s just my personal website. And I take inquiries for research and counseling and consulting and all stuff through that. It’s just it’s just the easiest way to keep all the messaging coming through the same box.

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