Since my move to rural Northland I have had the opportunity to see children’s play from a different perspective. Most of my early childhood experience has been at various settings in the city of Auckland, and I have definitely noticed that children play differently here. Northland children climb trees every day, they play with mud, and in the rain, they are barefoot most of the time, they climb on TOP of the monkey bars – they take a lot more risks than what I am accustomed to compared to my experience in Auckland.
I recently observed a group of children engaged in sustained play for an extended period of time (several hours) with only a hill and three gym mats. The play (completely child initiated) involved placing the gym mats length-wise down a hill and then sliding, rolling and somersaulting down the hill onto the mats. This resulted in pile-ups, wrestling and lots of unbridled laughter. There were a few moments when a push and an angry word was exchanged, however the children knew the rules of engagement and quickly corrected the offenders and reminded them that it was not okay to play like that, without much interference from a teacher. At the end of the play I noticed muddy, grass-stained trousers, a few friction burns, one stubbed toe and a lot of grinning, out of breath, smiling faces.
I thought back to some of the centres that I have worked at in the past. I know that there are centres in Auckland that do empower children to take risks beautifully. However I know that in many centres this type of play would have resulted in numerous parent complaints and nervous teachers.
I myself had to challenge my thinking and remember back to when I was a child and this play would have been the norm. I found myself having to force myself to stand back and to be the observer.
Why is the play different here?
I have reflected after experiencing play in Northland, as to why play is so different here. The short answer is, the adults.
One of the biggest dangers facing our children and their play is our imaginations. As adults are incredibly gifted at the art of worrying, 99 percent of which will never come into fruition. We see all the possible scenarios of “what could happen” and then we deem the situation as being too risky. When I was growing up, my Dad used to tease my Mum when she asked us to put a jumper on and we objected that we weren’t cold. He used to call a jumper, “the thing that your mother asks you to put on when SHE is cold” Are we passing our worries and fears onto the children in our settings?
The truth is that they are already being careful. The instinct for self preservation is strong in humans. It is a pity that we feel that we must teach them to live within our catastrophic imaginations – Tom Hobson.
Types of Risky Play
Risky play is an innate urge that we all experienced as children. Ellen Sandseter, a professor at Queen Maud University in Trondheim, Norway, identified six universal categories of risky play that attract children. If you think back to your childhood, you were probably intrinsically motivated to play in this way. You probably notice these types of play with the children in your setting.
- Great heights, climbing trees, and other structures – We have all had the urge as children and even as adults to swing really high, climb a tree or perch on a tall climbing box. As an adult you might like to climb a mountain or look out from an observation deck. There is something magical about seeing things from a bird’s eye view, to feel the exhilaration of climbing or the slight feeling of danger of being up really high. There is often a feeling of “I did it” as a climb challenges our courage and persistence.
- Rapid speeds – Think about that rush of Adrenalin that comes with going really fast! It causes our heart to beat a bit faster, and our bodies to feel excited. It is such an addictive feeling of pleasure that many adults I know still haven’t out played this urge!
- Dangerous tools – Children love to use real tools just like… Mum, Dad, Granddad, Uncle. When we allow children to use dangerous tools like hammers, drills, saws, knives this tells our children that we trust them and reaffirms the message that they are capable, confident learners.
- Rough and tumble – All children love a game of chase and fight playfully. Our playgrounds are full of super hero games and “goodies” and “baddies”. Children often enjoy being the one being chased or the one underneath in wrestling–the position that involves the most risk of being hurt and requires the most skill to overcome.
- Hiding away or getting lost – Hide and seek is an evergreen game played my most children. In fact, our interest in this game starts when we are infants playing “peek a boo”. Children enjoy the thrill of temporary, scary separation from their friends or the adults in their lives – only to relive the joy of rediscovery.
- Dangerous elements – Most humans have a fascination with fire on a primal level. Children also enjoy being buried in the sand or being submerged in a large body of water.
What are the benefits of risky play?
Think about the last time you were challenged by something… really challenged.
It might be that you were challenged with a weight-loss goal that took months of sacrifice and gruelling exercise to fit into a pair of skinny jeans or a difficult assignment that you grappled with until you and aced it! You might have thought, “this is too difficult, I should just give up!”
But, how good did feel when your hard work and persistence paid off? The feeling of accomplishment, joy and pride in your achievement which made you feel invincible and on top of the world.
This is the feeling that we deprive our children of when we see them struggling with something such as climbing a tree, jumping from a high box or an infant learning to crawl over the edge of a step and we “rescue them”. How would we have felt if during the midst of our struggle our lecturer, partner or colleague had said to us, “that is too hard, stop doing this, this isn’t safe, you will hurt yourself”? How different would this have been if that same person had said to us, “I can see that you are feeling frustrated/nervous, I am here to help you if you need me” or “I can see that this is important to you, let’s think of a plan.”
Think of the relief of having a confident empathizer who sees your struggle and gently encourages you to achieve your goal without getting in the way or “pushing” their help on you.
We want to send our children the message that we trust them, and will support them with gentle guidance to achieve their goals. We want our children to see challenges as part of learning and that learning is rewarding. We want our children to know that they can achieve anything with the right strategies, help and effort.
These messages although rooted in play, are habits of the mind or dispositions that our children will take along with them for the rest of their learning journey. You see children don’t learn to make decisions by being told what to do. They learn to make decisions by making decisions.
Risky play provides great practice for children on how to regulate their emotions.
In risky play, youngsters dose themselves with manageable quantities of fear and practice keeping their heads and behaving adaptively while experiencing that fear. They learn that they can manage their fear, overcome it, and come out alive. In rough and tumble play they may also experience anger, as one player may accidentally hurt another. But to continue playing, to continue the fun, they must overcome that anger. If they lash out, the play is over. Thus, according to the emotion regulation theory, play is, among other things, the way that young mammals learn to control their fear and anger so they can encounter real-life dangers, and interact in close quarters with others, without succumbing to negative emotions. Dr Peter Gray.
The Gender Debate
The ability to revel in risk taking allows children to develop a growth mindset. By developing a growth mindset, our children will be more likely to try new things, persist with difficulty, put their hand up in class to ask a question or to volunteer and idea. In later years this mindset will stand them in good stead when applying for a job, backing their ideas in a staff meeting, asking for that raise, or even asking someone out on a date.
Not taking risks can lead children to have a fixed mindset about trying new things and they tend to play it safe. There is a tendency for children who are not allowed to take risks in the playground to strive for perfection and for them to give up or not even try if this perceived perfection cannot be achieved. This is particularly pertinent in girls who take less risks in the playground than boys.
Think about your ECE settings. Where are the majority of the girls playing? Where are the majority of the boys playing? Are we sub consciously programming our boys to be brave and our girls to be prefect?
During a TED talk by Reshma Saujani an American lawyer, politician and the founder of Girls Who Code, spoke about how women are underrepresented in STEM in boardrooms and government. She theorises that this is mainly because women are too afraid to try new thing for failure of not being perfect. In fact, a HR study found that men will apply for a job if they only meet 60% of the criteria, however women will only apply for a job if they meet 100% of the criteria. She argues that men and women have been programmed to see risk differently. That men are more confident risk takers because they were encouraged to take more risks on the playground when they children. Girls on the other hand, especially in some cultures are encouraged to look “pretty” to write neatly, “because you are a girl” and to behave “like a lady”. This leads to men externalising their challenges (there is something wrong with the challenge) and women to internalise the challenge (there is something wrong with me).
Does she have a point? Is it time for us to reflect on this and challenge our programming?
That fine line…..
As early childhood teachers it is a difficult balancing act between taking unnecessary risks with someone else’s child and allowing children to not be limited by us and our fears. There is a fine line between knowing when to intervene and when to sit on your hands, zip your lip and allow them to figure it out for themselves.
We have many rules and regulations designed to keep children and ourselves as teachers safe. It is can be tricky to know the difference between allowing children to be challenged by taking risks and hazards. It is important for us to keep our environments safe and to minimise or eliminate the hazards.
What risky play is NOT:
- Letting children do what ever they want without any supervision.
- Letting children put themselves in harms way.
- Not stepping in when a child is doing something dangerous to themselves and to others.
- Being too physically far away to help if needed.
- Ignoring the children while they play.
I conclusion, I ask you to examine yourself. As a teacher your attitude and mindset is key. It is vital that you reflect on your own experiences and attitudes to risk. Is there really a danger? Or are we just saying no because of our own fears, anxiety and our need for control? Remember that as with anything this is a partnership with the child and they are looking to you as to how do deal with the situation. We need to be “doing with and not to”, so instead of “Be careful” we could try fostering the child’s awareness by saying:
- Notice how – the log is slippery, the branch is strong
- Do you see.. the running water, the long grass, your friends nearby?
- Try moving… your feet quickly, carefully, strongly
- Try using your … arms, legs, hands, feet
- Can you hear…. rushing water, the wind, birds?
- Do you feel …. Stable on that rock, the heat from the fire?
- Are you feeling … excited, frustrated, tired, scared, safe?
Help the child to problem solve by prompting:
- What is your plan…
- What can you use….
- Where will you…
- How will you..
- Who will…
(adapted from www.backwoodsmama.com)
I leave you with the wise words of Magda Gerber,
Education begins the moment that we see children as innately wise and capable beings.