Is Risky Play Worth the Risk?

May 24, 2022 | 0 comments

“Be careful!” How often have you uttered these words to a child? As teachers, our training and experiences have taught us to always be alert to potential dangers, but if we’re not careful we start sharing that fear with the children in our care.

Of course we keep children safe by eliminating the hazards that are within our control. We have a fully stocked first aid kit, we carefully select age-appropriate materials, we require name-to-face accountability – among many others. Still, we’re cautious.

How can we protect each child from a fall or a scrape, from the world, from other children? Is that our job as teachers? Perhaps the more important question is: even if we did manage to protect them from all potential dangers, have we really helped them?

Early childhood experts say exactly that: too much hovering is detrimental to a child’s development of resiliency.

Resilience is the goal, not fear. So how do we help them stay safe without using the language of fear in our every caution? The answer is trust. Here are some ways you can develop trust in children.

1. Observe them.
Take the time to observe them, nearby, but without intervening. This is critical in determining hazards versus age-appropriate risk taking. Children need our back-up in truly hazardous situations and our observations allow us to find the ever-changing line between the two.

From one day to the next, their physical, social and cognitive skills grow. On a natural playground, a child may one day be able to balance on a low stump and the next, be ready to climb on top of the tallest one. Careful observation lets us know when they need our support, and when they can handle the risk. It also gives us a front row seat to their victories as they conquer obstacles and solve problems.

One of the most joyful benefits of natural playgrounds are the endless ways to engage with the equipment that suit children’s needs as they grow and change. Each natural play element within the nature playground offers us the chance to learn their capabilities within the safety of the natural play space.

2. Ask: “What’s your plan?”
Our role is to listen, guide and facilitate solutions – not show our child how much better we are at navigating every situation.

Before you teach or instruct (or even just do it for them!), give them every opportunity to find their own path. And this takes a lot more time than we often give. If you are concerned, ask “what’s your plan?” Then listen. Your child will process the risks and strategies as they talk. It is not an invitation for your suggestions. It is an act of respect for their work.

A child working in the natural playground climbing zone may be slowly walking up the log, and then stop and look around. If we are curious in these moments, we help the child analyze their situation and respect the natural development that is happening. We know that on our natural playgrounds each behavioral setting is safe and age appropriate, and each child will master it when they are ready.

3. Follow their lead.
When they’re not coached, pushed, or placed by adults in situations that are beyond their abilities, they can make the right calls.

Even very young children are learning how their bodies move and what feels safe. Children are more likely to fall from a playground climbing structure when they are helped up by an adult.

They may climb, balance, move toward a step, and slowly examine the edge. When they are trusted to find their way on their own, we can be there to observe and respond when they ask for help.  A child may stand on a stump in a natural playground 30 times before they are ready to jump off. No need to suggest ideas, children will make the choice that feels safe and ask for help if they need it.

When we stop predicting and overriding their judgment, they learn to listen and trust their own risk assessment.

4. Get comfortable with discomfort.
Your own and the child’s.

We need to allow the child to try to overcome challenges and solve their own struggles.
Trust builds a relationship where the children can ask us for what they need, and we can respond based simply on what our child brings to us, instead of adding in all of our concerns or fears.

It’s hard to watch our child stumble, scrape a knee, or experience being left-out on the playground. It hits us hard and makes us want to intervene, but over-reacting ends up leaving our children more vulnerable and often more unsure of themselves as they try to make sense of our over-reaction while in the midst of processing their own.

The child is having their own experience.

When we allow children to experience their world and their feelings, we send the message that we trust them in the world, and therefore they can trust themselves.

Children Learn Safety Through Risky Play on Natural Playgrounds
If you’re interested in nature playgrounds in Texas, Green Space Learning designs and builds custom-designed, high-quality, innovative outdoor environments for young children. Schedule your consultation to learn more.

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