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I’ve been planning a big road trip that we’re going to take this summer. We’re a nature-loving family, and our travels in the past usually include either mountains, deserts, beaches or islands.

This summer will be different.  Our trip will have a lot of nature-watching, but it also will have some big city touring, too.

I’m excited, but at the same time I’m a bit nervous. Even though I live near Chicago and we go there frequently, somehow Boston and New York City seem a little scarier! Maybe it’s because they’re new, and I’m not exactly sure yet how we’ll get around.

Now I know this may seem a little silly for you adventurous types who navigate new countries all the time (and I’d like to be one of you some day, too!), but this trip with its 7 city stops  has been a bit more challenging as far as planning and thinking about how we’ll get around then I’m used to.

Not to mention the 46 hours we’re going to be in the car together!

But I want to do this more.

As I think not only about future trips, but also things we do closer to home on a weekly basis, I want to push myself, and at the same time encourage the kids to try things that may seem strange or even scary at first.

There are things that we do daily that are routine.  You know, those things that we’ve done a thousand times and can almost do them in our sleep – take a shower, put on our clothes, make breakfast, and drive somewhere familiar.

It’s important for our brain to develop these familiar scripts. Without them, we’d have information overload. Just doing the simplest things would be incredibly overwhelming otherwise. Familiar scripts also allow us to concentrate on more than one thing at a time.

But if we surround ourselves with the familiar, our brain cells are no longer growing. We need new stimuli to activate new brain cell growth and to alter and add new connections to the brain cells we already have.

Children’s brain cells reproduce and develop at a more rapid rate than adults. Dendrites are either kept or not kept at this point depending on whether or not children use them. Their brains are constantly being pruned for those branches that are lying stagnant.

So, what does this all mean?

It means that continued brain cell development and dendrite connections are important, but in order for that to happen we have to keep bringing new things into our lives. We have to look at familiar things in new ways. And that can be a very an uncomfortable and sometimes painful thing to do.

What are some ways to help our kids to take steps outside their comfort zone?

1. Be on the lookout for things your children have not encountered yet.  The good news is that almost all children really do want to learn and do new things. Some children are natural leapers. They always dive right into something new. Other kids need more time and space.

The important thing is to respect how each child wants to approach that newness. Keep your eyes open for the new and unusual, and then introduce them to your child. Don’t be upset if they don’t want to do everything. That’s ok. Do you want to do everything other people introduce to you?

2. Introduce new things gradually. Connect something new to something they already know about. In school talk, this is called building upon prior knowledge….and that’s a good thing to do! If there’s an element of the familiar, kids will feel safer and less confused.

3. Travel to different places.  If your family enjoys traveling, this is a great way to introduce new things to your kids, especially if you vary the types of places you travel….something I’m trying to do with my family. If you’re always going to resorts or taking cruises, there are valuable things your kids will learn, but after a while it will be like anything else familiar. The intensity of the learning will lessen.

Decide to take a trip to a place you’ve never visited before. Make it a totally new environment. You don’t even have to go far. Most people live within an 8 hour drive of a big city. Most big cities have ethnic neighborhoods.  Visit a neighborhood you’re not familiar with. Eat different types of foods. Visit different types of stores. Listen to new types of music. Smell new smells. Watch new performances.

4. Do familiar things in different ways Think about the route you use to drive home from somewhere familiar.  How many different ways can you take to get home?   What about eating a certain type of food? How many ways can you cook or eat that food? Why don’t you try a new way to do something you always do?

5. Spend time reading, thinking and talking about something you don’t believe in.  In my experience, most kids love to argue! And I think that is very valuable skill to master. The next time your child states an opinion, ask him what the opposite argument would be. What points could he use to make the other argument?

The more you learn about the other side of what you believe, the more your own belief is strengthened. Or it could cause you to change beliefs, too. Encourage your kids to read about and talk about other ways of looking at a problem or topic.

6. Learn something new in order to make a difference in someone else’s life.  You’ve probably read about or know someone who has had a serious physical disease and has gradually become an expert at knowing how best to cure that illness or to find relief from pain.  You might also have read about someone who has experienced the devastation of war and has learned how to fight effectively for peace by learning about the complex issues involved and the long history that has led up to that point.

Introduce your kids to real problems in the world. Find something that captures their attention. Challenge them to make a contribution to solving that problem. They will probably have to learn new skills, be put in new environments and have to make choices they’ve never experienced before. 

7. Have your kids list their fears and what they would gain from conquering them. Does your child have a fear of heights? What could she do if she was to conquer that fear? Would she be able to reach a dream that would have otherwise been impossible? Maybe that fear isn’t stopping her from doing anything she wants to do. Then why would she have any incentive to face her fear?

Just because your child has fears and doesn’t want to face them doesn’t mean she’ll never face them.  Just because there’s nothing in her life that would make her want to conquer that fear doesn’t mean there never will be. It’s the same way as when she learned to read or use numbers. When kids have a good reason for using a skill, they’ll learn it. When they have a good enough reason to conquer a fear, they’ll find a way to get past it…usually with someone else’s help.  

8. Make it a point to talk to people of different cultures, values and religions.  I’ve always been fascinated with other people’s stories and how they live their lives. We all have such rich stories to share with others. One thing I’m proud is that my kids have no fear talking with anyone they meet. I hope they continue to have that self-assurance and curiosity. I want to find interesting people and introduce them to my children….those people that lead very different lives than ours and come from very different places.

 

Photo Credit: phil_g

Have you been able to help your kids step outside their comfort zones? Do you have any tips you could share?

 

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