The words ‘risk’ and ‘children’ rarely seem to fit comfortably in the same sentence. Well-meaning parents, myself included, do all we can to protect the most innocent from what we perceive as risk. We bandage every scrape. We make them aware of every potential danger they can’t possibly see. We careful, careful, careful, careful them to death. We remove every possible hazard within a two-mile radius. We shelter our children from all risk. What happens then, when those children inevitably go out into the world and have not developed the skills to asses and evaluate risk? Are we doing an entire generation of children a disservice?
I would like to stake a claim…to be faced with risky situations allows for the development of risk assessment. Huh? What’s this risk assessment thing you’re talking about lady? Don’t worry it’s very simple.
- “Hey risk, there you are.”
- “Hmmm, what’s at stake here, what are the dangers and what are the consequences?”
- “Do I want to avoid this risk, or can I figure out an appropriate way to take this risk?”
Taking risks may have a bad rap but risk taking doesn’t have to equate with recklessness. We all took risks when learning how to walk. We take risks when applying for jobs, when choosing who to love, when trying a new topping on our pizza or reading a book from an author we’ve not read before. Taking risks is a leap into the unknown where we continually gather information and data on our successes and failures based on our goals.
Childhood is the time when risk assessment begins its development and within that time-frame, play is where children do most of their learning. Outdoor play specifically provides those risky challenges that nurture healthy judgement of success. I’m talking about the kind of play that can fill a parent with anxiety and make them prone to redirecting play to something ‘safer’. Tree climbing, poking at the campfire, playing by or (oh my word) in water, jumping from high places, running through tall grass all pose relative risk. It is within this play when children are challenged and learn to assess potential negatives or dangers , cuz mom, you aren’t always gonna be there to point those things out.
Tree climbing, for example, can test a child’s strengths, their limits and provide learning about injury. Injury doesn’t need to be traumatic brain injury. Exposure to small injuries such as scrapes from tree bark or jabs from tree branches or even broken arms, are a collection of experiential learning that can actually lead to the prevention of a fall that could be more serious. Children will want to climb that tree and someday we may not be there to tell them ‘NO it’s not safe’. Children engaged in risk during childhood play cultivate their understanding of cause and effect while nurturing their development of risk assessment. Should allow them the space to learn or shelter them?
Ironically, children have a natural curiosity and connection to ‘risky’ outdoor play. Outdoor play is not a structured, sterilized plastic playground regulated by safety standards. These types of play spaces do not ‘reflect the developmental needs of children, but rather the goal is to prevent or reduce risk’. How many of you have seen children playing on a piece of equipment in a way that was not its intended use? These kiddos are bored and seeking out experiences that create elated emotional states, test their boundaries and challenge their minds and bodies.
When a child climbs to the very top of a dirt mound with every intention of jumping, the outcome is uncertain. Childhood experiences with uncertainty create familiarity with the associated emotions, potentially anxiety and fear. If one is to face uncertainty then one is prepared to be wrong and learn from that experience. It takes persistence and courage to learn from our mistakes and try again until we achieve the desired outcomes in spite of our fears.
As that same child is deciding if this jump is gonna hurt, or maybe checking out different places from which to launch that may be more appropriate to meet her goals, that child may also be experiencing fear. Fear is nothing to fear. Studies support repeated exposure to ‘fear-inducing’ situations during play, develop within a child, the ability to cope. One study reported, “…rats deprived of play during critical development periods resulted in excessive fear, inappropriate aggression and exaggerated emotional reactions to stressful situations.” I would like to point out here; the leading mental disorder among children and adolescents is anxiety. Would it not be wonderful if outdoor play could be part of a remedy to this epidemic?