This is part two of a three-part series on risk-taking and risky play. Part one of this series touches on the basics of risky play in early childhood. Part three will discuss the long-term benefits of letting young children push their own boundaries.
When you feel like you’re the only parent on the playground who isn’t hovering over a child, it’s easy to feel self-conscious and worry about what the other parents think. “Do I look like a bad parent?” “Is anyone else’s kid climbing up things or leaping off of things?” “Are people giving me the stink eye?”
How Early Childhood Teachers Prepare Children To Take Healthy Risks
I spoke with Kelsey Elizabeth Carlson, who has a master’s degree in education with a Montessori emphasis, about how to help your children choose adventures even in situations where doing so seems like an unpopular choice.
Although Montessori education emphasizes “following the child,” that is, the child’s interests and intrinsic motivations, the resulting atmosphere is not a free-for-all. Instead, Carlson underscores the need for clear boundaries. When children have boundaries and know what to expect, they feel safe. She says that parents and caregivers should establish boundaries before play begins. For example: “You can play by the creek, but you can’t go beyond these two trees.” “You can play anywhere in the playground, but you have to stay inside the playground (no going into the parking lot or into the woods).”
Leverage Communication To Keep Children Safe on the Playground and Elsewhere
The communication piece also comes into play when a child is in the middle of a challenging activity. For example, if a young child wants to climb a tree for the first time, it may be helpful to say, “When you go up, you’ll have to come down.” You can also ask children what the plan is for getting back down to encourage them to consider the risks for themselves.
Avital Schrieber Levy, also known as The Parenting Junkie, puts it very well when she asks adults to imagine driving a car. Just as you are about to merge into traffic, change lanes, or make a turn, the person in your passenger seat yells: “BE CAREFUL!” Would that be helpful? Probably not, although it does happen sometimes.
Instead of doing something similar to your children when they’re focusing on a challenging bit of play, Schrieber Levy suggests giving them helpful information. Back to the driving example: What if your passenger in that situation simply said: “There’s a vehicle coming up in your blind spot”? That would be helpful to you as a driver. Similarly, giving your child helpful information, such as “that grass is wet” or “that boulder is wobbly,” may help them continue playing in a safe way.
Other public play spaces, like those at children’s museums and zoos, can be full of adult peer pressure just like playgrounds. You may realize that these spaces are designed with exploration in mind. Still, you may be unsure about the specific rules and behavior expectations in a given space.
A big part of designing early childhood spaces is preparing the environment, and a children’s garden is no different. It is a play space, not a “keep off the grass” space. People who design outdoor play spaces for children have to prevent hazardous conditions, but they don’t try to remove all risk in the space. As the organization Play England explains in its position statement on managing risk in play, these spaces are designed to be as safe as necessary for children to freely play there, but not necessarily as safe as possible. One way designers accomplish this is by ensuring that inherent risks, such as falling from a modest height, are easy for a child to notice and recognize. On the other hand, play space designers work to eliminate invisible hazards, such as opportunities for little fingers to get pinched.
Learn To Read Environmental Cues to Guide Risk-Taking Activity
Look for cues in the environment to help you guide your children. For example, inside the children’s garden at Denver Botanic Gardens in Colorado, there is a small, seasonal creek. Beside the creek are several boulders that children love to climb. The tallest one peaks at least six feet off the ground. You won’t see any signs saying not to climb these boulders. However, a rock wall further down the path does have an obvious sign that says both “Do not climb” and “Steep cliff.” Take a cue from signs like this one and initiate a discussion about situational awareness, and why it might be OK to climb one set of rocks but not another.
In all play situations, a big part of keeping children safe is trusting them to know their own limits and to explore within given boundaries. As long as the environment is not too hazardous, try giving your little ones more room to explore and take some healthy risks.
Getting your children outside on a regular basis is easier when you have like-minded people to go with you. Connect with a group of local parents and caregivers who get it. Learn more about Hike it Baby’s mission and how you can get involved.
About the Author
Sarita Li Johnson believes in unstructured play, inquiry-based learning, and road tripping as much as possible. You will often find her and her two roadschooling children somewhere between Denver, Colorado, and Morro Bay, California. Follow along on Instagram @thelandlockedmama.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and not necessarily the opinions, thoughts, or recommendations of Hike it Baby.
Image courtesy of Jessica Campbell.