Some days, we are struck by the strong similarity between an early childhood concept and the life that we are living mid-pandemic. The one that struck us this week had to do with risky play.
Child development theory and philosophy often swing from one extreme to the other. Some of us have seen this, for example, having to do with the age-old qualm: “Do I get up and attend to a baby every time he or she makes a peep in the night, or do I let them put themselves back to sleep?” Sorry, but we’re not answering that one anytime soon. A similar debate happens concerning risky play, or even getting-dirty play. Should it be allowed, even encouraged? Is there a different level of acceptable risk for boys than for girls? How do we learn about risk-taking?
The article we read was “Adventures in Risky Play” by Rusty Keeler. The starting point is that play is a biological need for a child’s healthy development; it’s how they learn. The sad truth is, however, that for many young children, the time and access to free play — imaginative play, creative, child-directed play — doesn’t happen. Parents are busy, and right now understandably stressed. Schools are under pressure to make sure they produce results in academic learning scores. And sadly, young children can’t really speak up for themselves. There is science that points to the benefits of free play. Through play, children develop physical, cognitive and emotional strengths. They can explore and master their world and, with a group of children, learn to take turns, work in groups, negotiate and advocate for themselves.
Of course, keeping children safe is important for parents, grandparents and early childhood teachers. There is a range of danger: life threatening, trip to the emergency room and down to a Band-Aid. What is your threshold for risk? Have you talked with your child about knowing and trusting themselves?
We try so hard to eliminate risk for our kids — that’s one way to manage it. To us, managing risk is different than protecting children from real harm. By that, we mean a car speeding down the street, exposed rebar sticking out of the ground, broken glass or an adult who intends to harm a child. Risk is something a child can assess and determine what could happen. We’ve all watched children learn to ski. Do they fall? Usually. Do they do it again and again until they are successful and confident? Yes, to that as well. That takes courage and the belief that they will eventually succeed. When those children get a little older and need to learn to read, learn algebra or physics, where do they find the confidence that they can be successful?
The other thing to think about is how exciting and fun risky play can be. Do you remember when you first jumped from a big rock, climbed up a big tree, rode your bike fast or skied a black-diamond run? We can almost see your smile from here! Without getting deep into the brain science, this is great prefrontal cortex development and bodes well for decision-making when that child gets older.
Right now, our world is full of uncertainty, risk and having to make decisions that we’ve not had to make before. It’s difficult and can be incredibly hard.
We have all had to say no to so many things that we enjoy. What can we say yes to? Are there opportunities as a family or individually that may be exciting, or at least satisfying? Maybe it’s skiing for right now, making that bike go fast when it gets a little warmer or it could be something like volunteering to help a neighbor. Or trying a new, “risky” thing, like learning a new skill or language? While you’re at it, try saying yes to your child when you may have initially said no. Watch his or her reaction.
Right now, we just have to know that we will get to a better time, we can deal with today — and maybe take a break, but we cannot stop. All life is change. If you want to learn more about the article by Rusty Keeler, or the book that it came from, contact us. We’re happy to share.