No safety nets here
Here's a look at something from a parenting perspective, as opposed to my usual "educator" hat.
Someone said to me the other day: "It's a miracle your kids are alive". This was in response to a story I was telling about my son playing at the park and getting levelled by a swing! He also took a serious tumble off of his bike going downhill (he is 3 years old and rides a two wheeler with no training wheels) this summer at a provincial park while camping and bashed himself up pretty badly. He also took a major tumble from this awesome climbing rope I put up in my backyard for his outdoor play space.
See, here's the thing ... in a world of "helicopter moms and bubble wrap parents", that's just not what is right for our family. And it seems to me that being overly cautious and protective has become so "normal" in our society that people like me, who don't panic when my kids gets some bumps and bruises, are seen as out of the ordinary, at best and at worst, negligent, irresponsible or uncaring (and so on).
In my observations from being at parks and playgrounds, I am the "odd mom out". Many of the parents micromanage their children's play or I see them go rushing over, whisk their child off the ground and proceed to make a huge deal out of a little tumble. And all of a sudden, the child starts crying louder or harder. (And I don't think that's a coincidence). To each their own! But that is just NOT my style. And it's not because I don't love my kids and I don't feel badly when they fall and hurt themselves; it's because I know there's a very big importance in letting kids take risks, have little hurts and not blowing things out of proportion. In fact, sometimes, even when I'm watching my son take healthy risks, other parents try to "helicopter" him for me!
A friend and I took our sons to our local park this weekend; her son was sliding down the slide feet first on his stomach and mine was going face first on his stomach. My friend and I were not sitting idly by on the benches or playing on our phones - we were standing right below the slide watching our kids have fun and chatting. Another mom, whose son was also playing on the structure, had been micro-managing her child's play since we got there. No matter what he was doing she was telling him to stop or slow down or don't do this or stop doing that. She's the parent; that's her prerogative. However, then, she decided to tell our kids to "slide on their bums". My friend and I were not impressed. If she was a camp counsellor or a teacher at a school and we were not there, I would understand; there's liability involved. But our children were being supervised by us and she decided to intervene and helicopter them. This is not being a village or helping out a parent. Please do not discourage my child from taking risks - which research tells us is important for development - and then helicopter and manage his play - which research tells us is detrimental to development!
When my kid falls off his bike, I say "you're okay - let's get back on". If he scrapes his knee, I say: "Scrapes happen; if it's bleeding, we'll grab a bandaid when we get home" and off we continue. I let him climb UP the slide. I let him balance walk on wobbly trees. He does the monkey bars and the fire pole and I'm not standing there to catch him.
The research is clear; kids today LACK resilience. They crumble under pressure. They give up when something isn't easy. They are meeting developmental milestones later and later in life because we are not pushing them to try things that make them uncomfortable.
The fact is... kids NEED to take risks. All you need to do is Google the term "risky play" and you'll find hundreds of websites with research on this topic!
In his Psychology Today article, Peter Gray, Ph.D explains why a decrease in risky play is a serious problem: “Over the past 60 years we have witnessed, in our culture, a continuous, gradual, but ultimately dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play freely, without adult control, and especially in their opportunities to play in risky ways. Over the same 60 years we have also witnessed a continuous, gradual, but ultimately dramatic increase in all sorts of childhood mental disorders, especially emotional disorders.”
There is a fascinating Ph.D thesis written by Ellen Sandseter that you can find here. Her abstract explains:
"Risky play is a set of motivated behaviors that both provide the child with an exhilarating positive emotion and expose the child to the stimuli they previously have feared. As the child's coping skills improve, these situations and stimuli may be mastered and no longer be feared. Thus fear caused by maturational and age relevant natural inhibition is reduced as the child experiences a motivating thrilling activation, while learning to master age adequate challenges. It is concluded that risky play may have evolved due to this anti-phobic effect in normal child development, and it is suggested that we may observe an increased neuroticism or psychopathology in society if children are hindered from partaking in age adequate risky play."
I feel like I've found a parenting soulmate in Kristi Pahr, and her blog post: The Importance of Risky Play. Kristi tells the story of her 4 year climbing up a huge rock face all by himself and reaching the top, elated at his achievement. She then explains:
"Other parents looks on, barely containing their instinct to hover, hands in the air, ready to catch him; their urge to climb the rock to save him from imminent peril is palpable, while I stand at the bottom, silently watching him, my heart in my throat. When he safely reaches the top, the tension (almost) leaves my body, and I’m able to cheer and encourage him, mirroring his smile with my own, celebrating his accomplishment with him."
This is my 3 year old son climbing slippery rocks in the woods this summer, on his own!
Balanced and Barefoot is one of my favourite books about the importance of outdoor play. If you are interested in this, I really do recommend you pick up the book. On their website, they also have a great blog. There are many great posts to choose from but one of my favourites is about this very topic, by Timbernook.com.
The following is taken directly from them via this website.
Here are five ways reasonable risk-taking benefits kids:
1) Practice of Independent Thinking and Self-Reflection: When a child considers a risky decision, she practices the process of decision-making in a matter of moments. “Should I jump from this log to the ground?” Once she makes a decision to take a leap, she must evaluate the decision. Taking time to reflect on the outcome of an action taken is incredibly important. Did the risk lead to success? Or, was it not the best plan to take? Thinking about what to do differently next time leads to more strategic, thoughtful risk-taking in the future. Each time she goes through this process, she strengthens her independent thinking skills.
2) Improving Strength and Safety Awareness: In order to stimulate the senses and develop healthy motor skills, children need the opportunity to take reasonable risks. A child’s neurological system was designed to seek out the sensory input it needs on its own in order to reach the next developmental level. By taking daily risks, children start to develop age-appropriate strength, coordination, and good body awareness. On the other hand, when we consistently keep children from taking risks, we start to see some delays in sensory and motor development that may not have been an issue if they had been given daily exposure to these experiences. This can lead to poor spatial awareness and in essence, without an efficient amount of exposure to risk-taking, children can become more accident-prone and unsafe in the long run.
3) Development of Social Skills: Although some risk-taking is done independently, children often take risks while interacting with others. Reasonable risk-taking allows kids to find and utilize their voice among peers. The risk itself might be to share an idea with friends. Reasonable risk-taking allows kids to develop the assertiveness and self-confidence they need to participate positively in social settings. Practice and more practice help the young risk-taker learn to balance assertiveness with respect and compassion. And, while voicing an opinion or thought is important in social circles, over time, children recognize that peers may have alternative ideas to consider.
4) Cultivation of Confidence: A good dose of reasonable risk-taking in play results in a comfortable willingness to make mistakes and learn from failure. For instance, let’s say a boy skins his knee climbing a rock wall, but in the process -- learns that he can still reach the top. This assurance that a child can overcome obstacles quickly translates to other risky-life decisions presented in childhood. Choosing to step onto the school bus for the first time or signing up for the school play are decisions that kids confront with confidence if they’ve practiced reasonable risk-taking. This confidence is key in childhood psychological development. It’s important that kids learn the excitement of success, the coping skills needed to move through failure and frustration, and the perseverance to try and try again, even if it is uncomfortable and hard.
5) Avoidance of Other Risky Behaviors: Reasonable risk-taking keeps kids from participating in another kind of risky behavior—the unhealthy kind. Parents may think they can protect their children by keeping a close eye on them in the house, but too much sedentary time at home may be spent inactive in front of a screen. Playing outdoors requires a good amount of reasonable risk-taking, but staying indoors puts our children at an even greater risk for health issues and motor and sensory delays.
It's instinct as parents to want to protect our kids. We love our kids and want them to be okay. And everyone is allowed to parent as they see fit and do what they think it best. But if this post and research has maybe given you some pause for thought, then the next time you think about uttering the words "careful", "wait", "stop" or "don't", take a second to think about which benefits outweigh the risks and whether or not this might be a worthwhile risk to take!
Who am I?
Hi! I'm Megan. 21st century learner and teacher. I am passionate about DI, assessment, student success and #edtech. My blog is where I share what is happening in my classes, my professional learning and sometimes things that are on the outer circle of education. Comments always welcome!