We should protect our children from risks, right? Isn’t that our job as parents?
This episode comes mid-way in an extended series on the importance of play for children. The first episode in the series was an interview with Dr. Stuart Brown of the National Institute for Play on the value of play, both for children and for adults. Then we followed with a look at the research on the benefits of outdoor play, followed by an interview with Dr. Scott Sampson who wrote the book How to Raise a Wild Child, which had tons of practical advice for getting kids outside more, as well as getting outside more with your kids.
Today we move on to the topic of risky play. We’ll define it, and discuss its benefits and drawbacks, as well as things we as parents can do to encourage more risky play if we decide we want to do that.
Because it turns out that insulating our children from risk may not be such a good thing after all.
Other episodes referenced in this show
Brackett-Milburn, K., & Harden, J. (2004). How children and their families construct and negotiate risk, safety, and danger. Childhood 11(4), 429-447.
Brussoni, M., Brunelle, S., Pike, I., Sandseter, E.B.H., Herrington, S., Turner, H., Belair, S., Logan, L., Fuselli, P., & Ball, D.J. (2015). Can child injury prevention include healthy risk promotion? Injury Prevention 21, 344-347.
Brussoni, M., Ishikawa, T., Brunelle, S., & Herrington, S. (2017). Landscapes for play: Effects of an intervention to promote nature-based risky play in early childhood centres. Journal of Environmental Psychology 54, 139-150.
Christensen, P., & Mikkelsen, M.R. (2008). Jumping off and being careful: Children’s strategies of risk management in everyday life. Sociology of Health & Illness 30(1), 112-130.
Hill, A., & Bundy, A.C. (2012). Reliability and validity of a new instrument to measure tolerance of everyday risk for children. Child: Care, Health, and Development 40(1), 68-76.
Leviton, M. (2016, February). The kids are all right: David Lancy questions our assumptions about parenting. The Sun. Retrieved from https://www.thesunmagazine.org/issues/482/the-kids-are-all-right
Little, H., Wyver, S., & Gibson, F. (2011). The influence of play context and adult attitudes on young children’s physical risk-taking during outdoor play. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal 19(1), 113-131.
Niehues, A.N., Bundy, A., Broom, A., Tranter, P., Ragen, J., & Engelen, L. (2013). Everyday uncertainties: Reframing perceptions of risk in outdoor free play. Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning 13(3), 223-237.
Norton, C., Nixon, J., & Sibert, J.R. (2004). Playground injuries to children. Archives of Disease in Childhood 89(2), 103-108.
Plumert, J.M., & Schwebel, D.C. (1997). Social and temperamental influences on children’s overestimation of their physical abilities: Links to accidental injuries. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 67, 317-337.
Poultona, R., Menziesb, R.G., Craskec, M.G., Langleyd, J.D., & Silvaa, P.Aa. (1999). Water trauma and swimming experiences up to age 9 and fear of water at age 18: A longitudinal study. Behavior Research and Therapy 37(1), 39-48.
Sandseter, E.B.H. (2007). Categorizing risky play – how can we identify risk-taking in children’s play? European Early Childhood Education Research Journal 15(2), 237-252.
Sandseter, E.B.H. (2009). Characteristics of risky play. Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning 9(1), 3-21.
Sandseter, E.B.H. (2009). Children’s expressions of exhilaration and fear in risky play. Contemporary issues in early childhood 10(2), 92-106.
Sandseter, E.B.H. (2010). “It tickles my tummy!”: Understanding children’s risk-taking in play through reversal theory. Journal of Early Childhood Research 8(1), 67-88.
Sandseter, E.B.H. (2011). Children’s risky play from an evolutionary perspective: The anti-phobic effects of thrilling experiences. Evolutionary Psychology 9(2), 257-284.
Sandseter, E.B.H., & Sando, O.J. (2016). “We don’t allow children to climb trees”: How a focus on safety affects Norwegian children’s play in early childhood education and care settings. American Journal of Play 8(2), 178-200.
Storili, R., & Sandseter, E.B.H. (2015). Preschool teachers perceptions of children’s rough-and-tumble play (R&T) in indoor and outdoor environments. Early Child Development and Care 185(11-12), 1995-2009.
Wyver, S., Tranter, P., Naughton, G., Little, H., Sandseter, E.B.H., & Bundy, A. (2010). Ten ways to restrict children’s freedom to play: The problem of surplus safety. Contemporary Issues in Eaerly Childhood 11(3), 263-277.
Other episodes mentioned in this show
Hello, and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. We’re mid-way through an extended series of episodes on play at the moment. The first in the series was an interview with Dr. Stuart Brown of the National Institute for Play on the value of play, both for children and for adults. Then we followed with a look at the research on the benefits of outdoor play, followed by an interview with Dr. Scott Sampson who wrote the book How to Raise a Wild Child, which had tons of practical advice for getting kids outside more, as well as getting outside more with your kids.
Today we move on to the topic of risky play. We’ll define it, and discuss its benefits and drawbacks, as well as things we as parents can do to encourage more risky play if we decide we want to.
Before we get going, I want to acknowledge that this episode rests heavily on the work of Professor Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter (I hope I’m pronouncing that somewhat accurately) at the Queen Maud University College of Early Childhood Education in Norway. We’ve discussed quite a bit of research lately which relies on a single researcher’s work – I’m thinking of the Mindset and Grit episodes, and I’m also familiar with the take-down of the Power Poses research by Dr. Amy Cuddy, which is the idea that if you stand up straight and spread your arms out wide in a really physically open position before you do something scary like going to a job interview or giving a presentation, your performance will measurably improve. After another study failed to replicate the findings of the original one, Dr. Cuddy’s own co-author ended up publishing a statement saying she didn’t believe that Power Poses were real and had any benefit. What those researchers all had in common was a single paper or very few papers which formed the foundation for their work, and an incredible amount of exposure which, these days, is often measured in TED talk views. Dr. Dweck of the Mindset research is the laggard in this group considering that her work has been around the longest, with only 7 million views; Dr. Cuddy leads the pack with 45 ½ million views.
On the other hand, Dr. Sandseter has not given a TED talk. The majority of her sample sizes are pretty small; she also almost exclusively works in Norway except where she occasionally collaborates with researchers from other countries so her findings may not be applicable to people in other countries where risk is viewed differently than it is there. She has a blog but honestly it’s pretty dry reading, with most of the updates consisting of notifications about papers she’s published, which non-academics can’t access anyway because the actual papers are behind the publishing journal’s paywall. I also haven’t found any papers criticizing her methodology or her results. My overall impression is that she is a scholar who has slowly and patiently built up a body of research over the last decade and a half, and she’s interested in being a resource to educators in Norway rather than being a celebrity – all of which is to say that I generally trust her work.
So how do we define risky play? Dr. Sandseter tried to do exactly this in a 2007 paper, for which she followed 38 children aged 3-5 from two Norwegian preschools and also interviewed the teachers at those schools. She selected the schools because of the variety of outdoor experiences available to the children in each of them – one of the preschools had a playground had what she calls a “typical” playground with swings, climbing tower, a play hut, switchbacks (she doesn’t say what these are) and a climbing tree. My first thought was that I’ve never seen swings or a climbing tree in an American preschool playground because these are deemed too dangerous, so this paper is probably gonna be pretty interesting. The other preschool was situated in a forest and had a typical playground as well as use of part of the forest that was surrounded by fences. Both groups of students often hiked to nature areas like forests, the seaside, caves, and so on. Dr. Sandseter observed six kinds of risky play that have since become the standard ways to define risky play – these are: play with great heights, play with high speed, play with harmful tools, play near dangerous elements like deep water, rough-and-tumble play, and play where children can ‘disappear’ or get lost. I’m going to quote and sometimes summarize some of the parts of the paper that raised my eyebrows on some of these kinds of risky play.
Regarding play from heights, when a group of 4- and 5-year-olds arrive at the beach, one of them sees some cliffs that are 7-10 feet high and says “Wow, I wanna climb up here,” so he does, and his friends follow. They explore the cliffs, which are steep and slippery; they keep climbing over the cliffs and back into the woods above the cliffs, come down to the beach, and do it over again. While the teachers did later describe this kind of play as risky, they watched this incident without interfering, from 20-30 feet away – so, too far away to do anything immediately if something bad happened to one of the children. The children also described climbing to the roof of the climbing tower and jumping off, even though this was forbidden by adults in case they got hurt. One girl said “Yes, it’s a little bit scary, but it’s great fun – I often land on my bottom, and that hurts a bit – but it’s great fun anyway.”
The ‘play with dangerous tools’ section was particularly interesting – it reads “In both preschools the children were allowed to quite freely use tools that were potentially dangerous – for example, a knife for whittling, a saw for cutting down branches, or a hammer and nails for carpentry.” Dr. Sanseter took field notes on three instances:
“The fire pit is lighted and the children are gathered around it chipping with a knife each on some wooden branches. The children use knives freely and seem used to whittling on their own.”
“Alex, aged 4 and Tori, aged 5 have each got a hammer and nails and start nailing some wooden boats. They have a great independence in their work, and the preschool teacher present seems completely relaxed even though they swing their hammers as they like. Two younger children aged 2-3 years old also take part, and they get to play as equally independently as the two older children.
“The children participate in building a wooden climbing tower. They get to use the saws and knives as they like. One of the boys saws into his hand but is fine after getting a band-aid. The children also participate in tying the branches together, and then climbing on the construction when it’s built.”
Sometimes the children were observed using an axe, although I was amused to see that the teachers did supervise this activity more closely than the others. Overall, the teachers thought playing with these tools was somewhat risky, while some of the children agreed but some didn’t, although in a subsequent study Dr. Sandseter observed that the children were there quite closely supervised when playing with all kinds of dangerous tools, that the children tended to concentrate highly when using them, and also talked with each other about the importance of using tools correctly so as not to hurt themselves or others.
What these quotes and anecdotes reveal to me, of course, is not what these Norwegian preschoolers and teachers thought about risk, but the deep gulf between their perception of risk and the perception in a country like the U.S., where a knives, hammers, nails, saws, axes, and especially fire pits would NEVER be allowed within ten yards of preschool-aged children. While Dr. Sandseter believes that allowing children’s use of dangerous tools in preschool is probably a Scandanavian phenomenon, I have personally seen twenty sets of pruning shears in a basket on the ground under the covered porch of a preschool in Reggio Emilia, Italy – I only saw the children indoors, but I can only assume that since there were enough pairs for a class full of children to use them, and they were sitting out right next to the wellies the children used in wet weather, that a class full of children probably did and do use them.
I’m reminded here of an interview with Professor David Lancy, the anthropologist whose work we refer to often on the show. He says that parents in most societies don’t intervene when children investigate a sharp knife or stray near the fire. When ethnographers ask parents why they allow this, the parents’ reply is often “this is how they learn.” The interviewer asks “Do you think it’s wise to let children play with knives?”, and Lancy responds “I’ve found that there is a trade-off. If parents give their children such freedom, the kids may indeed get hurt, but serious injury is rare in village societies. Children there die most often of malnutrition and illness, not accidents. Meanwhile village children happily take the initiative in learning how to use common tools like knives, setting their own pace and keenly observing those who are more competent. If parents were to play a more active and protective role in their child’s development, the children might be safer from injury, but that sense of autonomy and ability to learn independently would be undermined. The children would cease to take the initiative to learn new things and instead wait for an adult’s permission, guidance, or instruction.” To me, this says a lot about American society, where parents generally WANT their children to look to them for permission, guidance, and instruction. We show them how to use toys, rather than letting them figure it out for themselves. It’s almost as if we can’t fathom that they would manage without us, because we need to feel so central in their lives.
Back to Dr. Sandseter’s paper, the final issue I want to give examples on is play where the children can disappear or get lost – on one field trip a five-year-old says “I’m going to go on a walk all by myself!” and the teacher responds “That’s all right; go ahead!”. Two other children join the first. They walk for a short while, then one of them goes back to the group while the other two crawl through some dense bushes and announce to Dr. Sandseter, who has been following them: “Good bye! We’ll be back at twelve o’clock!”. While the children thought this kind of play was risky because they might get lost, they did it anyway because of the joyful fear they experienced and the teachers actually did not feel as though it was risky at all and felt in control of the situations. Again, my mind was boggled – in the U.S., children generally aren’t allowed out of a parent’s or teacher’s eyesight in a fenced area like a playground, and when they are away from these fenced areas the boundaries become even tighter.
At the heart of all this is the idea of risk, and the type and amount and risk that children are willing to take, and that parents are willing to see children take.
While environments can be inherently more or less risky because a hill is more or less steep, and trees can have branches that allow small children to climb up or don’t, but there are individual characteristics associated with risk as well. Children can choose to climb more or less high up the hill or not; they can choose to ride a tricycle fast or not; they can choose to focus and concentrate while playing or not. Children make these choices based on the risks they subjectively perceive, and the balance between their abilities and their fears about those abilities moderate their actions. Studies have found that there are differences between children’s tolerance for risk, a statement which perhaps seems obvious to anyone with more than one child. Even I can see the difference in risk tolerance between my 3.5YO who thinks that jumping off the next-to-last step is pretty risky and exciting, and her friend of exactly the same age who loves to snowboard and wants to know why he can’t go on a zip line by himself. A high activity level and a desire to engage in daring behavior are important risk factors for accident proneness and injury incidence, although perhaps the overall rate of injuries does not increase for these children as much as they otherwise might because they, too, understand what their bodies are capable of and use their abilities and fear to regulate their risk-taking behavior. Children do tend to overestimate their physical abilities; one study that wasn’t done by Dr. Sandseter observed the link between extroversion, impulsiveness, daring, and carelessness, implying that there is a link between temperamental characteristics and childhood accidents. The study also found that children who watched a video of another child doing four physical tasks taking a toy off a high shelf and moving under a wooden bar resting on two posts without knocking the bar off or putting their hands or knees on the floor were more conservative in judging their own abilities when the child in the video failed, rather than when the child in the video succeeded. This implies that children get a lot of information about whether they can do something from whether their friends can do it, although this ability overestimation was more of an issue for six-year-old males and temperamental characteristics were more at play for 8-year-olds. The study was pretty tiny – only 32 children, so it would be good to see if the findings were replicated with a larger number of children, and a wider ethnic and economic sample size.
We should also acknowledge that children aren’t always the best judges of what parents might describe as true risk. One study in Denmark had a researcher follow 35 children aged 10-12 years old for 3 or 4 days a week for 8 months. The researcher talked with the children about how they perceive risk. One boy approached the researcher why he chose not to use a bike helmet. He said “Just to let you know, I don’t use a bicycle helmet.” The researcher said “why not?” and the boy said “I don’t need to, because I am really good at riding a bike. If anybody should drive into me, I will just jump off. There was just recently a bike that rode into me. My bike was completely wrecked. But I jumped off.” Another boy reported a conversation he had had with his father, who was trying to get him to wear a helmet. The boy said he replied “I don’t need to wear a helmet because I have very good reflexes.” Then he told the researcher “One time I fell down the stairs over by the music room at school. I fell down on my tummy and then I covered my head quickly (and he demonstrated by covering his head with his hands and arms). Then I just did like this and I was not hit on my head but on all the other places (meaning his hands and arms). The researchers note that a public service campaign in Denmark to “Use your head – wear a bicycle helmet” is unlikely to be effective, because it implicitly asks students to consider the risks of not wearing a helmet with the only logical conclusion being that they should wear a helmet. But these children believe they have learned the only logical lesson from their own experiences which is that they don’t need to wear a helmet because they can manage the risk without one.
My purpose is not, of course to argue that children shouldn’t wear bike helmets. There are some risks that adults perceive that children cannot yet know are important. But children are exposed to many risks that are not life-and-death types of risks, and in these cases we need to prepare them to make better decisions for themselves. Consider another anecdote from later in the paper – Robert and John are going to slide down a snow-covered hill on a plastic sheet; Robert goes first, loses his balance, falls and tumbles, but runs back up the hill to do it again. John gets ready to go when Robert says “Wait John! Move a little bit to the left to avoid skiing into the brick wall.” The boys did take a chance, but they judged their own and each other’s limitations and used their first run as a trial to judge the environment to stay safe. Ultimately this is what we want children to do – to be able to judge risk for themselves, and if we never allow them a chance to practice in relatively low-risk environments when they’re young, they might not be able to do it themselves later when it counts. Researchers conducting one study in Australia, which tends to be more like the U.S. in terms of sterilizing its playgrounds, even observed that children who are bored in an excessively safe environment sought out inappropriate risks to add elements of exhilaration, fear, and ‘being out of control.’
Why do children engage in risky play? I would have thought that an adaptive response from an evolutionary perspective would be to avoid risk, much as children avoid new foods in favor of safe foods because the new foods might hurt you. But it turns out that the picture is in no way as clear as this and indeed, children seem to need some exposure to risks. Let’s look at Sandseter’s six categories of risk in turn. Play involving heights helps children to develop perceptional abilities related to depth, form, shape, size, and movement – skills important both in childhood and adult. One study also found that children who were injured due to falls before age 5 weren’t more afraid of heights later in life than children who didn’t, and children who were injured in a fall between ages 5 and 9 were actually less likely to be afraid of heights than those who weren’t injured in a fall. A young child who doesn’t fear heights are more likely to behave in a risky way in high places, causing them to experience more serious falls which will desensitize the child to heights so they fear heights less later in life. It’s possible that similar benefits related to spatial orientation also accrue to children who play at high speed, although we aren’t really sure why children enjoy feeling thrill and excitement associated with fast play because evolutionarily speaking, humans didn’t really experience high speeds in the same way that we do now. The same goes for play near other dangerous elements like deep water – several studies have concluded that children are not more afraid of water if they have had some kind of traumatic event in water before age nine, and that playing near these dangerous elements can help children overcome their natural phobias and that these phobias do not arise as a result of accidents. We also know that risky play is positively associated with physical activity and social health, and negatively associated with sedentary behaviors, which makes logical sense because children engaging in risky play are outside moving their bodies around. There may also be associations between risky play and learned risk management, self-confidence, mental health, and independence. I find this last one to be particularly ironic given the high premium that Western parents put on independence – it seems as though by reducing their opportunities to engage in risky play, we are reducing their opportunities to learn and practice skills that would benefit the independence that we so value.
Remembering that children don’t really see tools as being particularly dangerous, we should also keep in mind that many of the tools that we use today didn’t exist for our ancestors, so we didn’t learn to fear them. Children’s interest in tools is less likely to be them trying to build a resistance to a phobia of tools and more likely to be an interest in them and their functions for hunting and gathering.
Rough and tumble play is found in cultures all over the world, and is also the most common form of pay in non-human mammals. Researchers think that as well as providing great physical and motor stimulation, rough-and-tumble play enhances complex social competencies like affiliation with peers, social signaling, bargaining, and manipulating situations. Boys engage in this play more often than girls, and learn about aggression, fighting, social competition, and experience in both dominant and subordinate roles even when they don’t actually intend to hurt each other. Historically this play had enormous value, since gaining control over people and ecological resources was critical to survival and required a lifetime of learning and practice. Even now, it’s possible that learning how to regulate aggression and real hostile behavior early through rough and tumble play is a critical skill for boys, although they may continue this play into adolescence and at that point it becomes more of a hierarchy-building activity. Children often use fantasy play to signal rough and tumble play is coming; things like superhero play, play fighting (including wrestling), chase games, and protect and rescue games. If we think back to the episode we did on gun play, we found a great deal of ambivalence among teachers about allowing gun play and the same seems to be true for rough-and-tumble play, which teachers more frequently redirect and stop than other forms of play. Perhaps we should reframe our own thinking about this kind of play – instead of seeing it as “play that looks like fighting and might lead to fighting,” we could see it as play that supports children in answering questions like “who am I?” and “what am I good at?” that they might not yet have the vocabulary to address verbally but that they can explore physically. Girls’ vocabulary tends to lead boys’ by several months, which may be why they tend to use relational aggression rather than physical – they are more likely to ostracize another girl who steps out of line rather than physical punishment.
Researchers believe that separation anxiety is a bigger issue for girls than boys because boys needed to stray further from the home to hunt while girls were creating a nurturing, safe environment for child-rearing, which is why boys tend to engage in more of the ‘wandering off’ type of play than girls. I think the ‘nurturing’ part of that assumption represents a particularly western-centric view, and I’d love to see studies on this related to cultures that distribute work more equally although I haven’t found any yet. Apparently children’s wandering off alone can act as a sort of anti-phobic behavior that helps them deal with involuntary separations from adults at other times.
So risky play serves an evolutionary purpose for children, but surely there must be another reason they continue to do it and seem to enjoy it so much? Dr. Sandseter observed another small group of preschoolers over a period of several days as they engaged in various forms of risky play and found that the expressed both fear and exhilaration; often fear first, as they realized their play was becoming more risky and maybe too risky for their comfort. Assuming the goal is achieved, fear is followed by a highly aroused sense of exhilaration, which the children expressed by jumping up and down, stretching their arms up in the air, or doing “show off” moves. They often then wanted to repeat the play over and over again, and attain even higher levels of difficulty through new variations of the play. Sometimes, especially in rough-and-tumble play, children showed both fear and exhilaration at the same time and maintain this balance by increasing the intensity of attacks on the other person, but by choosing play partners of the same gender and similar strength.
Dr. Michael Apter developed Reversal Theory to explain why people engage in behaviors, and unlike most theories that attempt to uncover hard-wired preferences, this one focuses on individuals’ changeability and flexibility. Two motivational states relevant to risk taking are the telic and paratelic states. In a telic state, a person is goal-oriented, sensible, cautious, and arousal-avoiding, while in the paratelic state the individual is playful, adventurous, thrill-seeking, and arousal-seeking. In a telic state high arousal is an unpleasant emotion that we want to decrease, while in a paratelic state arousal is pleasant and we want more of it. In the paratelic state a person may feel confident even though he perceives the risk he is experiencing, and may deliberately move as close as possible to the edge between danger and injury because this results in the highest possible level of arousal. It’s called Reversal Theory because a person can move back and forth between the two states as a result of internal emotions like frustration or satiation, and by external events like sudden and new physical danger. Some individuals do tend to spend more time in one state rather than the other, and when individuals spend a lot of time in the paratelic state she is understood to have a sensation or arousal-seeking personality. When Dr. Sandseter interviewed four and five-year-olds about why they engage in risky play, many of them discussed the ambivalence of feeling both excited but also afraid at the same time, and their most common description of this feeling was that “it tickles my tummy.”
I do want to spend some time talking about how adults perceive these risks, because I think that is one of the main reasons why we don’t allow children to engage in more risky play. Adults in Western cultures have attempted to reduce the risk associated with just *being a child* by standardizing factors like maximum fall height, how much impact a surface must be able to absorb, sharp edges, and the likelihood of being trapped, pinched, crunched, or struck. Unfortunately we now engage in what is known as “surplus safety,” which refers to the excessive measures we take to prevent an injury from occurring, no matter how minor it is, whether or not any lasting negative effects occur (and disregarding any positive effects that might occur), and regardless of cost.
As we learned in our introduction to outdoor play and learning, the Centers for Disease Control reports that more than 200,000 children are treated in emergency departments annually for injuries sustained on playgrounds, but the rate of injuries is decreasing and the rate of both injuries and deaths remains tiny compared to injuries and deaths sustained on traffic accidents. I was interested to see that Dr. Sandseter acknowledges a lack of supervision as a cause of childhood injuries in play, but she notes that supervising children doesn’t mean restricting children from taking challenges but rather allowing the children to take on appropriate risks and challenges. The adults’ own reactions – whether they interfere with, constrain, or encourage risky play – also contribute to the potential risk in a situation. Paradoxically, an adult can increase the level of risk in a situation by telling a child to “be careful,” as the child’s attention shifts from the challenge to the adult, reducing her focus on the challenge and thus increasing the potential for an accident. There is mixed evidence about whether parents respond differently to boys’ versus girls’ risk-taking; some studies show that parents expect more independence from sons, while daughters receive more cautions about safety and more offers of assistance – but other studies found no differences in the way parents treat daughters and sons.
And even Norway may not be immune to the overall trend toward promoting safety – Dr. Sandseter and a colleague published a study in 2016 with quite contrasting findings compared to her 2007 study where preschool teachers chatted off to the side while four-and five-year-olds climb low cliffs, and granting them permission to go exploring by themselves in the woods above the cliffs. They sent a survey to all 6,469 early childhood education setting in Norway and 32% of them responded, which isn’t an amazing response rate and may not be a representative sample. The managers said that things had changed dramatically over the last decade or two; in some ways risky play was still more permissible than in the U.S. – for example, “climbing with trees is accepted but only up to a certain height and always with adult supervision,” and “we are more careful in regard to climbing trees with rocks below, where you can fall down and hurt yourself.” My favorite example was “As a result of worries among parents, balancing on the fence that surrounds the institution is not allowed unless there is deep snow underneath,” although there was no mention of putting tape on the fence to be sure the snow is deep enough. But in other ways, early childhood play settings are coming to mirror those in more conservative countries as new rules on playground equipment define what is allowed in the outdoor space and equipment that was built by parent volunteers is removed, local authorities cutting down trees, and in one case young children being kept off the playground when large puddles have formed.
Dr. Sandseter worked with several colleagues mostly in Australia on a paper that defined ten ways that children’s risky play is restricted, and highlight some of the implicit and explicit assumptions that adults make about children’s play.
Firstly, we assume that adults are the best people to manage children’s risk taking, in spite of the fact that children learn quite effectively how to manage these risks themselves from the moment they start moving around their environment. When a young child falls upon encountering a steep slope she isn’t just learning about how to navigate slopes, but also how to gather the relevant information to make a decision to solve the falling problem, which may involve crawling down the slope next time she meets it. If we stop allowing her to make these decisions for herself and just put her on her hands and knees at the top of the slope, she misses the opportunity not just to learn about slopes, but to learn how to learn about navigating her environment. The same goes for older children – yes, sometimes they fall. But they need the experience of evaluating risk and sometimes failing to get better at making judgments about risk, but also about learning how to learn about risk.
Secondly, we assume there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ playground surfaces, when as we can imagine given what we now know about how children learn about navigating their environments, uniform playground surfaces can really only be seen as a limitation on children’s learning. I was surprised to learn that studies are actually not in unanimous agreement about whether rubberized flooring makes playgrounds safer – some studies say it does, while others argue that falls from height cause the most significant injuries and rubberized surfaces are most effective at attenuating falls from standing height, not from the top of a playground structure. Further, children might engage in, more risky play because they perceive that they are safe due to the presence of the rubberized floor.
Thirdly, we prioritize regulation over pedagogy in early childhood education centers, which is another way of saying that we attempt to legislate specifications and indicators of potential injury rather than trusting the people who are most intimately familiar with our children to use their professional knowledge and judgement to keep children safe. This training turns out to be critical – one study done in Vancouver that Dr. Sandseter actually wasn’t involved with took two playgrounds in early childhood education centers with few affordances for high quality play and gave them cheap makeovers, spending a total of $8,000 across the two centers for items like tires, bamboo poles, simple wooden walls to create a “house,” and paint, as well as lots of “loose parts” like sand and sea glass. The playground in one center had a greater potential for change than the other and in that one there were marked increases in play with natural materials as well as decreases in antisocial behavior at that center, there was no change in the amount of risky play that the children at each center engaged in. The researchers hypothesized that the teachers at the centers were not trained in any way to change their approaches toward risky play, which means that simply providing the equipment won’t necessarily lead to changes in children’s play if the adults around them are still telling them to be careful and not do things the adults think are dangerous.
Fourthly, we assume that restrictions on play are necessary in a modern Western environment. These restrictions must be necessary because children are incapable of judging risk for themselves, and childcare professionals are incapable of judging risk for children, and public transit isn’t safe for children and neither is walking on the sidewalk, really, so children shouldn’t take field trips to a fire station or a store or even the post box to mail a letter.
Fifthly, we assume that some children are injury-prone when actually there is limited evidence for the genetic basis of injury-proneness and most of the variance in injuries across children was due to environmental factors, and particularly factors associated with socio-economic disadvantage where children play in places like driveways of apartment blocks rather than in a play space.
Sixthly, we assume that toddlers and preschoolers just can’t walk. We push them in strollers and we drive them from our garages to their daycare, so they are essentially divorced from their community because they don’t get to interact with anyone or anything in between the two. Yes, it takes longer to walk with a child. And yes, in some places it just isn’t safe and we need policymakers’ help to make streets places that are welcoming to pedestrians. But I can speak to the benefits of ditching the car, which is our primary method of getting our daughter to and from daycare. She still gets dropped off at daycare by car because my husband drops her off on his way to work which he has to drive to, but when I’m between projects at work and I can leave half an hour early in the evenings I walk the two miles to her daycare and we take the bus back up the hill. We get to talk about bus schedules and making sure the number on the front of the bus matches the number of the bus we need, and what all the signs say on the bus, and she has struck up conversations with people on the bus several times. Just today we had to perch on a little informal seat on a crowded bus and she said “can you sit next to me so I can have a hug because I love you and I like your hugs.” I certainly wouldn’t have gotten that on a car ride. Because the bus stops several blocks from our house we walk the last part and she picks flowers and we watch the cherry blossoms bloom as their leaves develop, and a few days ago after the farmer’s market she walked five blocks up a hill with a stretch so steep it has steps, without any complaining. Her stamina is definitely improving, and she’s getting the idea that we walk places which is going to be huge for us when we’re on holiday in Taiwan, where we’ll probably already have been by the time you hear this episode.
Seventh, we’re convinced by the statistics that we must find a way to avoid all hazards in the playground, even though it’s statistically more likely that the child will die in a vehicle accident on the way to the playground than while engaged in play.
Eighth, we assume that parental guilt leads to good outcomes for children, and we aren’t shy about applying that parental guilt. Just today as I’m writing this, Professor Peter Gray whom we interviewed a while back on what motivates children to learn published a blog post on Psychology Today about the benefits of risk for children’s learning, and after he posted about the article on his Facebook page someone commented: “I can remember the raised eyebrows and looks of disapproval from other parents at the park when I would encourage my toddlers to climb higher on the monkey bars, or swing independently on the non-baby swings. My toddling twins derived pure joy from these basic moves of freedom, but the other parents observing this play only saw the risk and perceived danger.” The pressure of surplus safety that stifles parent-child interactions also extends to the early childhood education settings, as both teachers and administrators are afraid that their careers and maybe even their entire program could be jeopardized by a lawsuit if they used professional judgement rather than surplus safety to guide their decision-making about safety.
Ninth, we design our neighborhoods without considering children’s right to play. We put big houses on tiny lots with backyards that are designed for adults’ socializing rather than children’s play. Houses are designed so people can roll up their garage door, drive inside, shut the door, and then go straight into the house, so opportunities to interact with neighbors are fewer, and since few people are out walking either there’s little opportunity for communal monitoring of children’s safety. If we’re lucky, a small playground might be incorporated into the community – with the standard equipment and rubberized flooring, of course. If we’re to move beyond this, we need parents, urban planners, transport planners, education departments, and policy makers to work together to overcome these issues – a tall order indeed.
Finally, we assume it’s good to help children to ‘get ahead,’ and that the best way to do that is to stimulate them with extra activities, which means they have to be driven around to all of those extra activities, which reduces children’s opportunities to engage in spontaneous outdoor play, some of which is risky play, with whatever friends happen to be around. Dr. Sandseter and her colleagues observe that our individualistic view of safety lies at the heart of many of these problems – we are looking out for our own child’s well-being and safety, and if we instead looked out for all children, we might choose to enact policies so children can walk safely in cities by themselves, instead of keeping our child safe by driving him everywhere.
So what are we to take out of all this information? Firstly, I think we can say fairly conclusively that children need to be exposed to risk and learn how to manage risk when they are young, so they can learn how to do this when the stakes are low and better manage risks when they are older. Encounters with risks can have both positive and negative outcomes. Yes, children can fall, hurt themselves, break bones, and possibly, in the worst of circumstances, die. But there are also positive outcomes to risks as children gain confidence, determination, skill, and learn how to manage or avoid risks they don’t want to take.
Secondly, a thought on how to manage risk: I’ve realized that one challenge I face in parenting is to adjust my approach as my daughter gets older and is capable of doing new things. I tend to find something that works and I get into a habit of doing that, even when my daughter becomes capable of doing more by herself. One survey of parents found that parents adjusted their perceptions of what activities were risky as their children got older, which is great. But based on my experience, I do wonder how much of those results were the parent responding to a survey in a situation removed from any risk and thinking “yeah, I probably would let my child play fight with sticks,” an action that researchers deemed moderately risky, but if their child actually started play-fighting with sticks they might see it as fighting, or be afraid of what other parents might think, or put a stop to it for myriad other reasons. So do give a moment’s thought to whether the things you’ve consistently said ‘no’ to are things that your child could actually now do for himself.
Finally, we should acknowledge that risk and anxiety about those risks are socially constructed. People in different cultures have different experiences with and expectations about risk that determines what kinds of risk they are willing to tolerate their children being exposed to. Many families try to manage this risk by developing a minimum level of expectations or boundaries around what is acceptable, and the older children get the more they attempt to negotiate these boundaries particularly when two parents have different expectations about risk that children can potentially exploit. I’d encourage you to examine your beliefs about risk and how important you feel it is to a child’s development, and then try to align your beliefs with your actions so you’re not thinking that one thing is important but actually sending a very different message to your child through what you allow him or her to do. You may find you need to conduct a mini-intervention with yourself, as some researchers did with parents and teachers at several schools in New South Wales, Australia. Their process took two hours and included a number of exercises like visualizing the adults’ own favorite places to play as children, to compare their childhood play with their children’s childhood play, and listening to stories about a girl climbing at a park who shifts from confident to fearful in response to her mother’s panicked voice. Sadly the study failed to measure whether these parents actually followed through and let their children take more risks but the process seems psychologically valid – the intervention aimed to shift parents out of a ‘fast thinking’ model where they use heuristics to make decisions. A heuristic is a rule of thumb that develops over time, kind of like how a lot of parents say “be careful” without really thinking about it as soon as their child takes a tiny risk. Instead, the adults were encouraged to engage in “slow thinking” – to weigh the potential outcomes before making a choice and consider whether the potential gain is worth the risk of possible loss. This obviously requires more effort, and is a process we usually reserve for complex decision making, but the researchers argue that this is exactly what is needed if we are to reframe the way we think about risk to encompass ideas of uncertainty, opportunity, and challenge that may yield positive outcomes. From a practical standpoint, I think the easiest way to do this in real-time is when your child asks if they can do something, try to have your default answer be “yes” unless you can articulate a clear reason why they shouldn’t. And if you see your child doing something you think might be dangerous, just pause for a second before you shout “be careful” or “don’t do that,” and see what happens, and consider whether the benefits might outweigh the risk. You might just find that most of the time, they do.
Thanks for listening – all the references for today’s episode can be found at yourparentingmojo.com/riskyplay
Also published on Medium.