campfire with foil packets
nature play

What Camp Taught Me: Part Two

The Art and Skill of Letting Them Fail

I can already feel your tension as you read the subtitle of this blog. Failure? Encourage failure? But what about how they will feel about themselves? How will I manage their disappointment? This makes me feel terrible…like….a….a failure, right? Take a deep breath and keep reading. I need you to trust me. It’s gonna be okay.

While we were starting one of our many projects at camp this summer one of my counselors turned to me and said, “I’ve never done this project before. I’m so glad you’re here.” I quickly turned and reassured her, “Oh don’t worry, I’ve never done it either. We’ll figure it out together for the first time in front of the kids.”

Now know that this is a far cry from Classroom Vangie who, in addition to having Plans A, B, and C ready to be implemented at any moment, had also pre-prepped each and every craft, project, read aloud, song, finger-play, and game. There was never a margin for error, or failure, in my lesson plans. And my kids (and assistants) were astounded everything always worked the first time. But in truth, it had never worked the first time because I had failed the first three times at home where no one could see. Nature Vangie has realized that she was leaving out the most valuable part of each lesson for her students – error.

boy struggling to climb onto tire swing

So many of my “forest friends” who are new to nature play melt at the first sign of struggle because they have never experienced it before. So the first time they attempt to climb the tire swing and it moves, they are completely unprepared to adjust their strategy, ask for assistance and/or try again. Instead they give up.

At Bushcraft Camp, we spent Day One just making fire starters and learning our Fire Safety Rules in small teams. Day Two was “Fire Starting Day” and everything was ready to go – except our materials. These had gotten the first good rain we’d had in weeks this Georgia summer. I considered adding another activity because I knew excitement was high and that frustration would match that when fires would not meet expectations. But Nature Vangie prevailed over Classroom Vangie and I did the unthinkable – I let them struggle.

The photo on the left is their attempt on that day. I won’t lie, they were pretty frustrated. But we debriefed in teams afterwards and discussed what they’d do differently the next day. You can see much better results from Day Three when fires lit immediately due to troubleshooting on the part of the kids – not the adults.

So if you visit a Sparrow’s Nest Play program expect to see…

  • Children in the process of acquiring a new skill who may show frustration. Please be patient.
  • Arts and crafts that have been designed and completed by the children. Most of them aren’t going to make a Pinterest board but we love them more for that.
  • Adults who are asking questions instead of solving every quarrel and issue that arrises between children. You’ll hear, “Did you talk to your friend about it?” or “How do you think you can solve that problem?” or “What could you do differently next time?”
  • A peaceful, honest place of learning and discovery that welcomes the struggles that make our victories so much sweeter and children that own their challenges and accomplishments.