Thursday, July 10, 2014

risky play outside

This summer marks many milestones for my little guy. At the ripe age of 4.5, he's had many independent firsts. I am constantly amazed at all he can do at such a young age.

One of those firsts centers around the dogwood tree. He learned how to climb to the lowest (safest) part of the tree last spring at age three. Now he shimmies up to the tallest branch with ease, just before the point of where it starts to bow. He clings to the branch like a bear cub. It's a thrill for him to take risks, test his own ability, and feel the pride that comes with accomplishing something difficult.

Am I crazy for letting my four-year-old climb ten feet up in a tree? Maybe. But what would he learn by my barking at him to get down? That he shouldn't trust his own abilities? That he shouldn't try to do difficult things? That adults know better than him what his body is capable of?

I don't want to send a message that risk-taking is bad. In fact, calculated risks are the stuff of life. Knowing when to take them separates leaders from the rest of the pack. Shouldn't we encourage this attribute in kids?

Every parent (and educator) seems to have their own stance on risk-taking in play. As adults, we know it's our job to keep kids safe. But it's tough to draw the line between ensuring safety and being consumed with safety to the point of detriment. It's my assertion that we stunt our children's growth when we rob them of opportunities that risky play offers.

*I should also note that there can be harmful effects to "safe" play" when parents feel more in control. Children are prone to staying in a containerized setting (I.E. indoors) which results in less physical activity, fewer opportunities to connect within the community, and more screen time.

It's no secret that American parents are notorious for being over-protective. (Think rubber mulch.) Compared to European societies, it's not just that we are over-protective when it comes to risk in child's play. The undercurrent of this American mindset is that adults control kids, and must be in control in order for children to be safe. Thereby with good intentions, we have stripped a child's ability to trust himself first. Children then, must be carefully constantly trained and reminded that safety comes first. This happens in homes and in school settings, sending a message to children that they must rely on others to determine what they are capable of.

As the director of a preschool, I fully understand the challenges of keeping children safe. But I also understand that it is crucial for children to take risks, become confident in their abilities and feel the satisfaction of working hard to overcome a challenge. None of this is to say that children should be put in harms way or encouraged to do dangerous things! But we should carefully weigh the benefits of risky play before squashing it.

What's your threshold for risky play? Here are some examples of risky play that can have tremendous benefits:

-getting hands dirty/getting clothes dirty with mud
-walking barefoot
-tree climbing
-holding insects and spiders
-picking up a dead bird
-using a real hand tools like a hammer or saw
-putting hands in stream and trying to catch things
-picking and eating berries from trees (mulberries, wine berries, blackberries, etc.)
-playing in the rain
-examining animal scat (poo)
-making a fire

All of these comes with risk and reward. Let's face it - most of these just require a dose of patience, humor and a good long bath. As for my son, I want him to drink in the satisfaction of working hard to achieve a goal, In this case, it involves me holding my breath under a leafy tree.

Yes, peas are delicious - and funny!

Yes, peas are delicious - and funny!
Our little guy at 15 months, February 2011.