Angela Hanscom is a pediatric occupational therapist who founded TimberNook, a nature-based development program designed to foster creativity and independent play outdoors in New England. She has written a number of popular posts on this blog, including “Why so many kids can’t sit still in school today,” and she posts often on the TimberNook blog.

Hanscom believes that children today are being harmed by restriction of movement in school, where recess and physical education have been dramatically cut back in many places, and outside, where playtime has become overly scripted. Efforts to make playgrounds safer, such as barring monkey bars or equipment from which children can fall, are backfiring, she says. And there is some research to support it. According to this New York Times story about kids:

Sometimes, of course, their mastery fails, and falls are the common form of playground injury. But these rarely cause permanent damage, either physically or emotionally. While some psychologists — and many parents — have worried that a child who suffered a bad fall would develop a fear of heights, studies have shown the opposite pattern: A child who’s hurt in a fall before the age of 9 is less likely as a teenager to have a fear of heights.

By gradually exposing themselves to more and more dangers on the playground, children are using the same habituation techniques developed by therapists to help adults conquer phobias, according to Dr. Sandseter and a fellow psychologist, Leif Kennair, of the Norwegian University for Science and Technology.

Hanscom’s new book exploring these issues was recently published, and it is titled “Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children.

Here’s an excerpt:

The third-grade classroom that was visiting TimberNook for the day consisted of mostly boys — rowdy, loud, and rambunctious boys. As soon as the children realized they had the freedom to explore and build in the woods, something funny happened: they got really quiet. They dispersed, and many of them started working together to build a massive teepee.

Nothing gives me more pleasure than to see children contentedly building a structure using branches, bricks, and logs out in the woodland. That is, until fear kicks in and everyone’s pulse increases a few notches at the cry of alarm.

“Put the sticks down!” I looked over to see a chaperone running frantically toward the children. “Danger! Danger!” she shrieked. Momentarily astonished by the sudden state of perceived emergency, I finally found my voice. “It’s okay,” I reassured her. “I said they could use the sticks as long as they respect each other’s personal space.” Speechless, the chaperone frowned, turned, and walked to a group of nearby chaperones. I could have stopped the kids from building, given into the fear, and encouraged them to do something considered a little less risky by the surrounding adults. However, I decided to let the kids proceed.

The children, with the help of a few excited adults, persisted with building their colossal stick teepee. “Look at what we built!” one of the boys said proudly, showing off their work. “Can you believe it?” another child eagerly asked.

During this time of construction, no child got hurt, which would have been fine. Getting bumps and bruises is a normal part of healthy outdoor play experiences — a right of passage of sorts. Not only was no harm done while these kids participated in “risky” play, but they took great pride in the work they completed.

Letting children take risks boosts their confidence. Using a knife to whittle a stick, exploring without an adult, tending a fire, and creating a fort all have one thing in common: there is the risk of injury. Even though letting kids take risks can be scary for adults, these experiences offer considerable reward and value to growing children.

When a child takes a risk, such as riding a bike for the first time, it can be frightening. At the same time, the child is learning to overcome that fear to reach a goal. In the process of learning to ride a bike successfully, the child learns patience, perseverance, and resilience — skills essential for success with relationships, school, and work experiences later in life.

When we also allow children to challenge their bodies in new ways, this develops strong muscles and organizes the senses — laying the foundation for higher-level learning. For instance, going upside down moves the fluid in the inner ears and helps improve spatial awareness. Climbing heights advances children’s motor skills and promotes a sense of confidence and accomplishment. Spinning in circles improves balance and attention.

Nowadays we are quick to restrict children’s natural movement tendencies. In many schools, going upside down is no longer acceptable. Kids are no longer allowed to spin on swings or roll down the hill. One teacher also reports, “We can’t even let the kids climb across the monkey bars. There is always the danger they could fall.”

As adults, we may always feel that we know what is best for our children. A child’s neurological system begs to differ. Children with healthy neurological systems naturally seek out the sensory input they need on their own. They determine how much, how fast, and how high works for them at any given time. They do this without even thinking about it. If they are spinning in circles, it is because they need to. If they are jumping off a rock over and over, it is because they are craving that sensory input. They are trying to organize their senses through practice and repetition.

Although letting kids take risks may be scary for parents and teachers at first, it is an essential part of growing up. Taking risks allows children to overcome physical challenges and strengthens their senses at the same time. These benefits ultimately make them safer, calmer, and more attentive in the long run. Risky play also allows children to overcome fears and anxiety and builds strong character. Children need opportunities to fail and make mistakes in order to become more confident and capable when facing future life challenges.

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