“That is just not safe,” mumbles the father and only other parent at a playground I frequent with my three boys. He says it to no one in particular, just loud enough for me to hear the disapproval in his voice, but not loud enough to directly confront me about my seven-year-old son’s choice of play. My son is, quite impressively, standing on a large saucer swing and pumping his body side to side, bending his knees at all the right times and leaning into the motion to perfect the highest possible movement on the structure. The wind whips through his hair as he grins, air-surfing and ecstatic. “That is just not how that equipment is supposed to be used,” the father adds.
I smile politely and make eye contact, assuring the stressed man that I am aware of my son’s actions and moreover, I approve. I am only slightly annoyed by his reaction; I am used to it by now, and have learned to quiet the defensive voice in my head that wants to explain my choices. After all, my three boys tend to elicit a lot of attention at the playground with their rough and risky play; our youngest learned to ride a scooter (very fast, very competently) at barely 2 years old and our oldest seeks the highest of heights and jumps off of nearly everything. They play hard, take risks, and they can handle it.
The type of parenting my husband and I have engaged in with our three boys has evolved organically and includes high trust in the ability and efficacy of our children’s own judgment. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve uttered the phrase, “Only if you feel comfortable…” when asked if it was okay to jump off something high, I’d be a rich lady.
We give them space to explore and to fall down, to fail, to pick themselves up and try again until they have mastered what they seek to master at every stage. I also believe that competence can only be gained through experience; therefore, allowing our children to take risks will actually make them safer. Behind this philosophy is a strong trust in children’s abilities in general; I often feel that we don’t give children enough credit in this area. And I’m not alone.
So what’s at the heart of the desire to engage in risky behavior? According to Peter Gray, professor and author of Free to Learn, risky behavior in play functions to help children learn to regulate emotions such as fear and anger. Moreover, this kind of play is likened to practice for real-life dangerous situations. Risky play teaches emotional resilience, and not to mention, it’s fun.
Gray debunks the myth that we are keeping our children physically safe by limiting their risky play and instead enrolling them in organized sports, citing recent statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that claims over 3.5 million children under the age of 14 receive medical treatment for sports injuries per year (that’s 1 in 7). The BBC released statistics that revealed a startling statistic in UK: children are more likely to hurt themselves falling out of bed than falling out of a tree these days.
Jay Griffiths, author of A Country Called Childhood, puts it another way: that a risk-averse childhood is full of missed adventures, that to prevent small risk-taking in our children is to keep them infantile, enclosed, and unimaginative. Isn’t childhood supposed to be fun?
If you’re on board, here are a few suggestions on how to allow a little more risk into your child’s play.
1. Teach your child to use real tools
There are wonderful child-sized tool kits that are miniature versions of the real thing: small hammers, screwdrivers, saws, clamps, and safety goggles. Teach your child the right way to hammer a nail and give her the space to practice hammering some nails into an old stump.
2. Back off at the playground
Everyone wants their child to be safe, but the best way to do this is to give that child a little space to master his or her physicality. Resist the urge to lift your child up to a higher place; a child who cannot climb by himself up the tall ladder to the play structure may not be ready for that specific play structure. Let him work his way up to it, on his own.
3. Allow for some freedom
Work on your own comfort level by gradually giving your child more freedom and a little bit less supervision. As your child grows and gains confidence, allow for larger freedoms; for example, letting your child ride his bike to the local playground a few minutes ahead of you. With greater risk comes greater responsibility. Your child will understand this.
4. Climb trees
Seriously! It’s an amazing thrill and not as dangerous as you think.
5. Allow for more open-ended play
As long as your child is not infringing on the rights of others or just plain being rude, what’s the harm in running up the slide rather than only sliding down it? Allow for climbing and out-of-the-box exploration. Break some rules every now and then! Your child will be better for it.
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