Living Arts Weekly: Edges

August 22, 2021

Today’s guest blog post is from LifeWays Training graduate Erin Houlihan, director of Violet Glen School in the Woods, in East Troy, WI:

I got to watch my daughters jump from a cliff this summer.  There are selective things in life I hope for them to experience.  Physically jumping from the edge of a cliff was one of them.  I watched them commit to the decision as they observed others taking the leap, including their mom. I most appreciated witnessing that moment at the edge just before jumping; where you are scared but willing to brave the fear and “go for it.”  Then the “let go,” and finally the relief and exhilaration as you realize “you did it.”

As an Outdoor Experiential Educator, I hope for children to feel their “edge” often enough that they become familiar with that in-between spot.  I don’t believe this edge has to take the form of a high rocky cliff.  It can be anything, and different for everyone.  It is the place where we are at the very limit of our comfort zone.  Where that next step or move takes us out of our familiar circle and pushes us to be brave and venture into the unknown, trusting that we are capable and can endure.

I see it on the first day, when children step away from the safe, loving arms of their parents and enter into our class community.  I see it that moment before they first reach down to pick up a chicken.  I see it as they step up before their peers to perform their role in a class play.  I see it when my Olders bring their individual voice to our listening circle.  I see it anytime they are attempting a new skill for the first time.  I did it just the other day as I officially began to weave a basket.  I had been harvesting material, prepping material, watching you tube instructional videos, reading books, and finally I took the plunge and began weaving.  At that moment, it felt like I stepped over an edge.

How do we help strengthen and foster this skill in our children growing into adults?  The positive after effects of “cliff jumping” can only truly be felt if the person has voluntarily jumped on their own, rather than being pushed.  If pushed before you are ready, you most likely will become fearful and stay as far away from the edge of a cliff as possible.   However, I do believe we can offer children space and time to work their way to the edge of their comfort zone.  Sometimes, just stepping out of the picture, is what propels a child to try something new.  After introducing a new skill to a child, I will often step away for a bit so they can wrangle with it on their own, without my eyes or my presence interfering in that very personal engagement with their inner self.  It also requires an understanding of each child’s limit.  Knowing the level of risk each individual might be willing to take and making that available. And sometimes its just standing by, just being there as a warm presence, while they build courage and confidence to try something new.

I write this as I currently stand on my own precipice, preparing myself to fully jump into a venture that is yet unknown, but certainly worth the risk.  Violet Glen began with an initial jump.  It is said that if you feel you have purpose in the direction of your life, it is this sense of purpose that helps propel you forward amidst fear and uncertainty.  What better skill can we strengthen in our children as they navigate this beautiful, rocky, rough terrain of living?

I understand, as a fairly seasoned adult, that my daughters will approach many “cliffs” in their lifetime.  Some edges will be scarier than others, but all ultimately will call on their inner confidence and strength, and will require them to let go of their uncertainties and self doubts.

So I will step back as I watch a child striving for that higher spot on the tree, rather than say “be careful” and then give verbal instructions on how to best proceed.  I will instead let them trust themselves and rely on their own instincts for the best way to move forward.  I will continue to invite my children, at home and in school, to the edge, knowing that they will jump when they are ready.  I will be with them on the “other side” as they momentarily bask in the joy of confidence and accomplishment, before they once again make their way to that next cliff.


Calling outdoor educators! If the idea of helping the children find their edges has sparked an interest in you, please consider joining us for Learning in Nature 2! This online course will allow us to explore together the inner work of the adult that helps us cultivate what Thomas Berry called, “a mode of sacred presence” that is rooted in mystery and wonder. Click on the link for more details. This course begins Setpember 29th. Students who complete this two-week course will earn a certificate for 8 hours of Continuing Education.

Learning in Nature 2: The Mystery and Wonder of Exploring Nature with Children