It has been cold in southwestern Pennsylvania. The lake has frozen over and the schoolhouse kids are delighted. But, playing on ice is risky! How can risky play be done safely? Why is risky play important? As I look back on this week, I feel like I need to wander into the importance of risky play.
Ellen Sandseter, a professor at Queen Maud University in Trondheim, Norway, is an expert in free play and has set the framework of our psychological understanding of play, particularly risky play. Her research has shown evidence of this startling prediction:
We may observe an increased neuroticism or psychopathology in society if children are hindered from partaking in age-adequate risky play.”
I don’t think anyone wants their child to suffer neuroticism or psychopathology. But, why does risky play make us so uncomfortable?
The Discomfort of Risky Play
Maybe it is our litigious society? I know as I am watching the schoolhouse kids push the boundaries of safety the first thought that comes into my mind is: “Oh gee, am I gonna get sued?” Honestly, this is my first measuring stick. How great is the risk of injury? Is this something other parents would let their kids do? Have I set reasonable guidelines and boundaries?
Maybe it is our need to protect children from pain and discomfort? It is only natural for us, as parents and teachers, to want to spare those we love from harm, injury, and/or discomfort. But, will sparing them hamper their learning? How will they know how to keep themselves safe when they are on their own?
Maybe the outcome of risky play will be messy and require more work? It is hard to watch your kid create more laundry. Trust me, I have piles of the stuff and it just won’t stop. It is frustrating to watch your newly mopped floors get tracked with mud. Let me tell you, the schoolhouse floors look like a hot mess after recess. But, how will they know how to clean up a mess, if they never make one? How will they be able to decide if they want to get messy if they never get dirty?
Important Risky Play This Week
All of these thoughts go around my head every time I take the kids outside. Yes, it does create a little anxiety. Before posting some pictures this week on our internal parent page, I had a pit in my stomach.
You see on Monday and Tuesday we had some amazing recess time. I mean, I wish you could have seen it. Like I said, the lake had frozen over and the ice was thick. We had been down to the water’s edge and poked at it a bit, but the kids were dying to really get at it.
I knew they were yearning to see if they could break it. Really, break it!
But, WOW! That is risky. So, I went for it. I took them down to a little cove we call the rock pile. The water stays shallow (about a foot to a foot-and-a-half) and I turned them loose.
It was a pretty warm day for winter. All the kids had tall rubber boots on. Most everyone had a change of clothes.
You should have seen the joy. Teenage boys squealing like little girls. They ran, they slid, and even fell through. Some kids got their pants very wet. Some kids got a little water in their boots. Furthermore, some kids sunk in the mud (up to their shins) and had to have help getting out.
BUT… big kids helped little kids. All of the kids know you can fall through the ice. Everyone knows how cold it is when the ice breaks. Each kid knows how heavy ice is and how cold it feels. All the kids know it is hard to get out when you fall in, even up to your shins.
Everyone came back inside and got dry clothes on as needed. Everyone warmed up with a smile on their face. The learning and memories were deep.
Six Catigories of Risky Play
Dr. Sandseter has identified six categories of risks that seem to attract children everywhere in their play. These are:
- Great Heights (Think: tree climbing, rock scrambling, and jungle gym hanging.)
- Rapid Speeds (Remember downhill bike riding, rope swing gliding, and sled sailing!)
- Dangerous Tools (Did you have a pocket knife as a kid?)
- Dangerous Elements (Fire and ice come to mind here!)
- Rough and Tumble (Wrestling anyone?)
- Disappearing and getting lost (Hiking, adventuring, and exploring!)
Now, what I am NOT advocating for is turning children loose with a knife and matches on a cliff side and pick them up in a week. (Although as an adult, I have to admit, that sounds like fun, I am just that kind of crazy.)
What I am advocating for is OUTDOOR FREE PLAY with a minimal amount of adult intrusion.
Safe Play is Free Play
Play, to be safe, must be free play, not coerced, managed, or pushed by adults. Children are far more likely to injure themselves in an adult organized sporting event than they are engaging in free play.
Most kids excel at managing risk and understanding their skills. They learn from watching each other’s successes, not (as in organized sports) instead of each other’s failures.
(I am not bashing organized sports overall. I had a great time as a kid on my swim team. But, I am advocating for a balance. Prioritizing free play over extended scheduling is so important.)
Our children know far better than we do what they are ready for. When adults pressure or even encourage children to take risks they aren’t ready for, the result may be trauma, not thrill.” (Dr. Peter Gray, Freedom to Learn)
My challenge to you is this: don’t prevent children from their own, self-chosen, dangerous play, believing it is risky when in fact it is not so hazardous and has benefits that outweigh the dangers.
Benefits of Risky Play
If I have not convinced you yet, here is my list of the important benefits of risky play:
- Children learn risk-management by experimenting with hazards.
- Natural boundaries and consequences happen without parent involvement; nature is a great teacher.
- Research proves risky play REDUCES childhood injury.
- Kids build social skills by managing conflict.
- Little scientists test and experience physics, chemistry, and biology in action.
- Older and younger kids alike learn mentorship, problem-solving, and leadership.
- Character traits like bravery, respect, responsibility, and confidence are learned in real-life settings.
- Respect for our natural world becomes natural, not contrived.
I am sure I could add more (feel free to drop your ideas in the comments), but those are my top ideas. Once you understand these benefits, how do you make it happen?
My Rules of Risky Play
- Set space, time, and safety gear boundaries. For example: Stay where I can see you. Stay where I can hear you. Check-in with me at this time. Be home before dark. Wear a helmet. Ask before you play with _____.
- Provide guidance not demands. For example: Wow, that car was going fast, it is so important to check for cars. Let’s feel how slippery those rocks are. Wow, that is slick! I want to check out the ice too! Let’s go over here where we know the water is shallow underneath.
- Observe and count to ten… slowly. See how your child is handling the risk. Give your child the chance to solve the problem, comfort themselves, or get help from a peer. Observe yourself out of a job!
- Let nature provide the consequences. Whenever you can, let nature be the teacher. Instead of, “don’t go over there you will get wet!” observe, “That looks wet over there.” (Kid goes over there.) “Yep, you got wet.”
- Save your cautions for when it counts. If you yell out demands and boundaries every moment a child might get wet, dirty, or a skinned knee your cautions lose their power. Make your cautions count for the big stuff. Your kids will know they need to heed them if they know you have trusted them with the small stuff.
- Get out of the way. Provide your child with an environment to play and then stand back and let them play.
- If you can climb it, you can climb it. This is a huge rule in our house. I don’t help. (I know, it sounds mean.) But, if you can climb that tree, then you can climb that tree. If you can cross that stream, then go ahead. But, Momma will not help you do it. When you can do it on your own, then you are ready to do it. Sometimes, if pressed, I will say, “Okay, let’s go together.” I will be with them and will help them problem solve, but I will not help them. This, however, is a rare occasion.