Without a doubt, the photo at the beginning of this post would probably evoke a clenched-teeth, inward sucking of air by many parents. Risky play always does. But, in all fairness, it needs to be discussed, examined, and justified. This is especially important since it can help develop a child’s self-confidence, resilience, executive functioning, and even risk-management skills. And, believe it or not, engaging in risky play can actually reduce the risk of injuries, rather than increase it.
Children need the opportunity to figure things out for themselves- to determine their own comfort levels and what they are capable of doing. This, in turn, allows them to develop risk- management skills. Risky play does not mean the play is unsupervised. It simply means the role of adults involves facilitating and supporting how children want to play without over-guiding. We can provide the environment for play… and then get out of the way.
Play that does the most good requires both physical and psychological space. It requires wide open physical space and psychologically, the child needs to feel the freedom to try things on his own.
In risky play, children experience doses of fear and then practice adapting their behavior to manage it and overcome it. So, according to the emotional regulation theory, play, among other things, assists children in learning to overcome their fears. Then, when they encounter real-life dangers, they will be less likely to give up, become overly fearful, or question their confidence.
When I was a child, kids regularly participated in climbing trees or structures, speeding down hills on bikes or makeshift vehicles, using real tools, exploring fire and water, playing in places where they could fall over or into something, and exploring the neighborhood unsupervised. Now, parents who allow such types of play (#free range parenting), are likely to be accused by their neighbors or other parents of neglect.
In our culture, over the past 60 years, we have seen a gradual decrease in free play and especially children’s opportunities for risky play. Additionally, a particularly disturbing correlation exists that perhaps you haven’t considered… At the same time this has been happening, we have also seen a gradual dramatic and steady increase in many kinds of childhood emotional and mental disorders. Anxiety. Depression. Lack of resilience.
Children are genetically programmed to teach themselves emotional resilience by challenging themselves and testing their own abilities. By stifling the kinds of play that enable this to happen, we are actually endangering them more than the risk-taking.
Children are relatively more likely to injure themselves in adult organized sports than in their own self-directed free play. This would be due to the competitive mindset and adult direction involved. These things create situations where children are led to take risks of both hurting others or themselves. Also, in organized sports, children are encouraged to specialize in certain positions that can overuse specific joints and muscles, causing injury and damage. Children engaged in free play rarely specialize. They participate in a variety of activities, stop when they hurt, or change what they’re doing. Since they are not being driven by adult directed competition and expectations, children are not likely to hurt their playmates, because that would end the fun.
I recently discovered an interesting tool developed by Dr. Mariana Brussoni, from the University of British Columbia. She and her team have created this tool to help parents and caregivers make informed choices about risky play for children. It can be accessed at outsideplay.ca
It’s definitely worth checking out and bookmarking!
As for that photo of the child poking a campfire? That’s my youngest grandson, of course! His daddy is paying forward his own childhood experiences and it makes me smile every time.