NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC FAMILY: How did you explore as a child?
ERIKA BERGMAN: I had the benefit of living on a big, wide-open farm in Hawaii. I could take a horse and a dog and a machete with me, and as long as I was home by dinnertime, I could do anything I wanted. And I would go and really get myself into trouble—but with only myself to rely on, I would get out of that trouble. It instilled a real sense of self-confidence, independence, and self-reliance.
NGF: Why do you think it's important for children to explore?
BERGMAN: The greatest part of exploration is that it doesn’t happen one time. It happens over and over and over again. I think the benefit to a child exploring is the same sense of discovery and value that Sir Edmund Hillary had when he climbed Mount Everest—even if kids are just climbing a hill for the first time. And it entices them to carry that spirit into adulthood, where they can explore places that may be new to science.
Bergman’s tips on inspiring children to explore
Let kids get lost. Getting lost and finding my way back was the most fun that I ever had as a kid. If I didn't have my job, I’d go underwater and get lost and find my way home every day. So I suggest that parents find a safe space to let their kid get “lost.” That might mean letting a kid figure out how to complete a challenging errand on their own. I think it’s so hard, but letting a child struggle their way to their own success is how we all became explorers.
Encourage some trouble. Letting a child get into and out of a small amount of trouble on their own encourages them to think and troubleshoot like an explorer. For instance, if they accidentally break something in the household, encourage them to figure out how to fix it instead of getting upset.
Try some snail mail. I send my nephew postcards and art from around the world, and when I get home, he knows absolutely everything about where I’ve been. I also have my students from Girls Underwater Robot Camp—who are from six different countries—become pen pals with each other. Finding an international pen pal for your child encourages them to put themselves in somebody else’s shoes, to realize other people are out there, and to think about them.