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School holidays: Are adventure experiences good for your children?

 Risky activities can gift your kids the best travel souvenirs.

In my family it's fair to say I'm the more risk-averse sibling. Once was enough for me when I finally sky-dived, but that would never compare to my older sister who, as an instructor, hurtled towards Earth from 10,000ft more than 1000 times.

We grew up together, so when it comes to studying the origins of adrenaline addiction we're a walking example of nature beating nurture – and I certainly didn't get those genes. But there are plenty of researchers theorising that if parents nurture their children's adventurous attitudes and thrill-seeking (i.e ripping off the bubble-wrap and locking up the iPad) then there are rewards elsewhere in their behaviour and learning.

But what is this armchair psychology doing in the travel section?

Holidays are usually the time when kids' structured schooldays go out the window and risk-taking adventures are high in volume and variety. And, as a souvenir slightly more valuable than a tourist T-shirt, children take home lessons learned in the wild.

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Associate Professor Scott Duncan, from the Human Potential Centre at AUT University, has worked for many years on the benefits of "unstructured play" and the idea that raising children with the old-school methods of tree-climbing and risk-taking need to be encouraged.

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He says family holidays offer children opportunities that, although maybe not OSH-or-ERO-approved pay dividends later such as overcoming fear, learning new physical skills and feeling accomplishment from that.

Duncan says family holidays present new environments for adventuring together: "It's about allowing enough down time for this [riskier] play to happen, and that means down time without screen time ... Secondly, parents or relatives can take the children to places they haven't been before: forests, beaches, lakes, anything where there is a chance for children to try new things and test themselves."

Researchers such as Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter have argued that over-protecting children during recreation can have paradoxical effects when it comes to their development of coping mechanisms. Basically, and as talkback radio will tell you, kids aren't as tough as they once were (cue the story about walking miles to school barefoot).

But let's not pre-order the family bungee jumping pass just yet. Duncan suggests parents research thoroughly any risky activities before booking them, particularly if in a foreign land. "If you have any uncertainty around this I would suggest to follow you gut and avoid them. Almost all countries will have plenty of fun outdoor activities that are safe but still allow children to get off the beaten track."

Alarm bells start sounding louder for parents when children are messing about in a foreign land – nobody wants trips to the ER and doctors bills ruining the holiday. Hence the ever-strong allure of the lazy fly-and-flop family holiday. But travel insurance can help bring peace to those worry-warts.

In countries with reciprocal healthcare agreements such as Australia, many of us go without travel insurance. But when getting involved in active, riskier adventures elsewhere it's a good idea to buy a policy and read through the activities covered if things go wrong. As a rule, travel insurance strictly forbids acts of 'recklessness'. This can include excessive drinking, participating in high risk sports and activities, or riding a motorbike without a licence.

Natalie Ball, director, Comparetravelinsurance.co.nz says "It's important to know that not all thrill-seeking activities are automatically covered by travel insurance. You can often purchase adventure pack add-ons to your policy... Generally, recreational activities that are not considered 'high-risk', such as kayaking, surfing and trekking, are automatically covered by travel insurance. Once you get into risky territory, (skiing, abseiling etc), limitations may apply to your cover and you may be required to pay an additional premium."

As for activities that are rarely covered, they would be ones that parents likely would put a stop to before the kids get carried away anyhow, such as cliff jumping.

Whether your little one gets the thirst for adventure that leads them to do just one skydive or, like my older sister, more than a thousand, these activities below offer a balance between adrenaline thrills, teamwork, risk assessment and safety.

Paintball: A stag do favourite, but for older children it brings life to all the adventure based Xbox games they've been playing. Yes, it bruises. Yes, capture-the-flag has never been more fun.

Farm animal parks: For the pre-schoolers and city-slickers this is an introduction to rural life. Risks are low, other than getting a goat butting you or being accidentally weed on.

Zorbing: Like your kids wrapped in bubble-wrap? Then Zorbing – hopping inside a massive inflatable ball and rolling down a hill – may be next on your family adventure.

Hiking: Ticking off one of New Zealand's Great Walks is a great introduction to DOC hut life, native flora and arguing about orienteering.

Zip-lining: Height fear be gone. Why simply walk through forest parks when you can fly above the trees and walk around canopies sporting harnesses and helmets?

Snowsports: Tis the season after all and nothing develops character like sore, well, everything after falling down a hill all day in front of the masses.

Josh Martin is a London-based Kiwi journalist, who writes about travel, tourism, business, and consumer issues in between trips to places you'd rather be. Email josh.martin@fairfaxmedia.co.nz if you have a travel issue you'd like him to write about.

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