Almost Fearless

The Importance of Risky Play and What it Teaches Our Children

It’s a lovely spring afternoon, and my four year old son is standing on top of a boulder. He is roughly 20 feet off the ground, having scrambled up the rock face on hands and knees, all by himself. He looks around, grinning from ear to ear, proud of his accomplishment and eager to move on to the next challenge.

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“Look at me, mama! I did it!!”

Other parents looks on, barely containing their instinct to hover, hands in the air, ready to catch him; their urge to climb the rock to save him from imminent peril is palpable, while I stand at the bottom, silently watching him, my heart in my throat. When he safely reaches the top, the tension (almost) leaves my body, and I’m able to cheer and encourage him, mirroring his smile with my own, celebrating his accomplishment with him.

In an increasingly cautious culture, “helicopter parenting” or, hovering beside your children to ensure they don’t get hurt or face any negative experience, is common. It’s a scary world out there, and parents want to protect their kids from harm, but many experts claim that with such involved parenting methods, they are doing just the opposite.

Studies have shown that risky play, like climbing trees and rocks, jumping from high things, and even using grown-up tools like hammers and screwdrivers, is a great boon to child development, but many parents feel the risks outweigh the benefits and discourage this kind of activity.  

Many times when adults look back on their childhood, they recall afternoons spent with packs of children riding bikes and building forts, climbing trees and jumping from swings, all without a disapproving adult gaze.

But, opportunities for today’s children to have similar experiences are declining. Afterschool programs are now the standard, replacing the ubiquitous latch-key kid of the 1980s and 1990s. Afternoons filled with adventure and unsupervised play are now spent in prefab playgrounds, waiting for parents to get off work.

In his Psychology Today article, Peter Gray, PhD explains why a decrease in risky play is both notable and dangerous,  “Over the past 60 years we have witnessed, in our culture, a continuous, gradual, but ultimately dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play freely, without adult control, and especially in their opportunities to play in risky ways.  Over the same 60 years we have also witnessed a continuous, gradual, but ultimately dramatic increase in all sorts of childhood mental disorders, especially emotional disorders.”

#cardiff #wales #butepark #bnw #bnwphoto #blackandwhite #bnwphotography #bnwofig #climbingtrees #treeclimbing #bnw_society

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Although opportunities for risky play have decreased, children naturally gravitate towards this type of play, like moths to a flame. Some activities just seem to call to children, and, even in “safe” play spaces, children will improvise and find risks to take. Ellen Sandseter, an early childhood education professor at Queen Maud University in Norway and advocate for free play, has determined 6 main categories of risky play that seem to attract children from all geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds:

  • Play with great heights

Whether it’s a tree or a boulder or the dining room table, children are drawn to high places. The accomplishment of scaling great heights even follows some children into adulthood.

  • Play with high speed

Swinging on ropes and vines, careening down a hill on bike or skateboard, and swinging as high as the playground swing will allow are all familiar examples of a young child’s attraction to speed

  • Play with harmful tools

In many cultures, young children are entrusted with knives, hatchets, and other “grown-up” tools. Children gain a sense of accomplishment and pride, not to mention a thrill of adrenaline, in using dangerous tools.

  • Play near dangerous elements

Playing with fire or near bodies of water gives young kids a thrill and sense of adventure

  • Rough‐and‐tumble play

Roughhousing, wrestling, chasing, tackling, the rougher the better. And in most cases, children prefer to be the chasee instead of the chaser.

  • Play where the children can ‘disappear’/get lost

Whether it’s Hide and Seek or hiding in the racks while parents are shopping, children relish the temporary rush of being on their own.

All of these play categories provide opportunities for children to trial adult roles and responsibilities, to make informed choices and to see the real world effects of their actions. To reap the educational and developmental benefits of these child-led activities, parents need to give their children space.

Fiona Tapp, a writer, educator, and  former school administrator, encourages parents to ease up on play restrictions, “It can be nerve wracking for parents to allow their children to play in ways they may deem to be dangerous, but letting your children exercise choice responsibly is an essential step in developing childhood autonomy. Kids need to get dirty, test their limits and practice managing their own concept of risk in order to be active, healthy and independent.” Engaging in these types of play is not only developmentally appropriate, it should be encouraged by parents and caregivers as it allows young children to use problem-solving skills, gauge risk, and develop self-confidence. Across Europe and the US, unique playgrounds are cropping up that do just that.

Adventure playgrounds can be anything from a space filled with “junk” and tools to a forest filled with stumps and logs and creeks. Nontraditional playspaces  encourage children to partake in risky play, and in some, the rule is no parents allowed. Children can work together to build a fort from scrap wood using real tools or wander off solo to climb a tree and experience solitude. The play is limited only by the child’s imagination.

But these playgrounds aren’t everywhere, so how can parents incorporate healthy elements of risky play into their child’s playspace?

Tips For Implementing Risky Play at Home

Height

Beyond the monstrous swingsets and play-structures that dot suburban backyards, opportunities for climbing are somewhat limited in home play environments. Adding pre-fabricated items like geodesic domes are  popular, and at less than $200, a fairly affordable option, but many parents choose natural materials like tree stumps, large rocks and boulders, and even old tires.

Speed

Children will swing on anything, even something as simple as a heavy gauge rope tied to a sturdy tree branch. Add a tire and you’ve done double duty by providing something to both climb on and swing from.

Harmful Tools

I have a photo of my son when he was 3, chopping kindling with a real hatchet. You can see the concentration and determination in his little face. He was working hard, doing real work, and he was into it, very focused and invested. Small opportunities to use real tools abound in everyday life, everywhere from the kitchen to the workshop. Set aside a small area in a garage or workshop for your child to work with tools, or supervise them while they help chop vegetables with a real kitchen knife. A quick safety rundown prior to using adult tools, reminding your child to keep fingers clear of the blade or moving parts should precede use.

Dangerous Elements

Apparently I like doing country things.

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Building fires outside or in a fireplace can be great fun for young kids. Making smores and roasting marshmallows, or just chucking sticks into a fire is a great way to give your kid the experience of fire without the risk of an insurance claim when your curtains catch fire. Concerning water; boating, rafting, kayaking, or even tossing rocks off a bridge or shore will afford your child a sense of adventure.

Rough and Tumble Play

Wrestling with a grown up or older sibling, chasing other kids through the yard, and tackling and rolling around on the ground are time-honored ways to encourage rough-housing and “horse-play” which are vital to gross-motor and spatial awareness development. Big movements not only help muscle and nerve development, they wear kids out!

Disappearing Play

We're following the leader, the leader, the leader We're following the leader  Wherever he may go ♩♩

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Hide and seek or a romp through the woods are great ways to allow your child to experience the thrill of independence. Even climbing behind the stacks of bathroom tissue at the supermarket can give kids a bit of exhilaration.

By encouraging children to engage in riskier play, parents and caregivers encourage the development of problem-solving skills, self-confidence, and critical thinking. Allowing kids to have thrilling, sometimes even frightening, play experiences not only builds character, but many find that it results in improved mental health.

Risky play = happy kids.

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Kristi Pahr

Kristi is a freelance writer and mother who spends most of her time caring for people other than herself. She is frequently exhausted and compensates with an intense caffeine addiction and a habit of swearing and laughing inappropriately. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

4 comments

  • We were visiting grandparents when my first-born was about two. I came out of the farmhouse and heard her call “Daddy.” I looked around but didn’t see her. “Daddy.” I followed the voice. Someone had been painting window frames and left a ladder against the house. She was at the top, by a second-story window. “Hi, Daddy,” she said when our eyes met. “How’s the view?” I said. She giggled. “Can you get down? I asked. “Yes.” I watched for a while, then walked away to let her climb down without supervision. Okay, I peeked from around the corner of the barn, just to wonder at her confidence and coordination. She wasn’t at risk of falling unless she felt afraid and tensed up. I just stayed out of the way of her adventure.

  • Thank you so much for this article! When our oldest was 1,5, he climbed on top of a tower in the playground. I trusted him and his capabilities completely. The other mothers in the playground not so much. As I was heavily pregnant with our youngest, it was evident I would not be able to climb after him or help him down, so several mothers felt the urge to do it for me. I reassured them it wasn’t necessary, that he was a perfectly fine climber. They gave me a look like I was the worst mom on the planet… But I was right; he climbed down effortlessly, and I was the proudest mom on the planet 😉

  • I agree completely, but I would note that there are two additional very unfortunate reasons that supervised play has become the norm. One is people who sue if a child does get hurt when playing at the neighbor’s, and the second—more ominous one—is child snatching, either by a pervert or by a non-custodial parent. When my second child was young I lived in my grandparents’ house (where we all used to play in each others’ back yards with no rules about who we were playing with and in which yard), but 40 years later my son had to have a play date to be in anyone else’s yard. Ie also had a legal protection order against my ex-husband for both of us. Boy Scouts was a great help to me in providing the benefits of risky play for my son.

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