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Ever heard of risky play for kids? You’re not alone if you haven’t. It means a lot of things to a lot of parents, so the best way for me to explain is to start with a story.
It snowed the night before. My daughter and I walked to preschool. We tasted the fresh powder and admired the crystals on the tree limbs along the way. It was an incredible morning and I was happy not to be in a rush.
She wore a puffy snowsuit and snow boots when I dropped her off. A big smile came to her face when she saw her friends at the classroom door.
Later that day, I returned for pick-up and she still had a huge smile. “How did it go,” I asked her teacher. “She took her shoes off and ran around in the snow. All the kids were yelling, ‘she is going to get cold!”
We both laughed. I felt a huge swell of pride. It was me who had taught her how to run around barefoot in the snow. Others might call it “risky play for kids.” I understand that, but I just call it normal.
I said thank you for letting her run without boots. Her teacher continued that it was outside of her comfort zone too. She continued, “but I know who she is.” Meaning that she has express permission to push her edges and that we encourage risky play in our home.
My daughter is 2.5 years old and enjoys testing her limits. I am excited to help her push past them.
The sight of my daughter sad or hurt brings me to instant awareness. Alert to remove her from further danger. It breaks my heart to see her silent and without breath after a fall. It pains me to hear her scream while tears rush down her cheeks when she is frightened. I offer her my open arms and love when she needs me.
However, it is impossible for me to prevent her from getting hurt. Nor should I try. And this is what risky play for kids is all about.
Resilience is taught in the balance between protection from severe danger and the opportunity for failure. To try a new skill, test, fail, and try again is growth. Permission to attempt risky play exposes children to a degree of danger or risk. But the experience of overcoming these challenges teaches new skills and confidence. Over time this becomes self-reliance and resilience.
The challenges that are permissible in schools, camps, playgrounds, and parks lead with caution at the cost of growth. The language, expectations, and social norms of children’s supervision imply “Be careful. Don’t do that.” Which actually means, “I am worried. You aren’t capable.”
Risk-taking in play is a fundamental precursor to competent children. It may seem counter-intuitive, but they must have a chance to get hurt to learn not to get hurt. Parents and caregivers won’t always be there to watch over our precious little ones.
What follows is a guide to gaining confidence in your children. A prerequisite for them to feel more confident in themselves.
A great wild nature play location has a lot of variables to navigate. These variables are what make them alluring, and also increases risk. It is crucial to set clear boundaries and expectations when at play in a new setting.
Look around for hazards such as water, steep drop-offs, or poisonous plants. Determine how far they can explore before needing to check back in. Come up with an animal call that you can use to bring everyone back together.
These basics allow your child to have a clear understanding of what is expected of them. It is likely that they will push up to and beyond these boundaries. With a groundwork set, you can assess what you are willing to let slide and what is non-negotiable. As you continue to add risk you will learn where expectations need to be more firm and what is flexible.
Not all risky play is equal. The best choice of activity will depend on the age and temperament of your child as well as the play setting. Also, understand your own comfort level with risk. First, identify your personal edges and only add risk to areas that will not cause you undue anxiety. If you are afraid of heights the tallest tree in the yard may not be something you are ready to encourage climbing.
Start small with activities that you are confident in yourself. Develop and explore from there. This also means you get the chance to push your edges! Lead by example and join in the fun.
Why do we tell our children not to throw rocks? It is a wonderful experience to stand on a rocky creek bed, choose a target, and let them rip. This activity can last for hours, builds hand-eye coordination, and to hit the target is pure joy.
Reduce risk with reminders not to throw near other children, adults, or wildlife. Also, add the responsibility to monitor that no one enters their target area.
There is no outdoor space with more soft and rounded edges than a modern playground. This is an ideal location to build foot strength and agility by going barefoot. Feeling the earth and obstacles barefoot will also increase their awareness of space.
If they are used to wearing shoes all day it will take time to reduce some initial sensitivity. Start with the softer spaces and build up to mulch and then rocky trails and creek beds.
“Balanced and Barefoot,” by Angela Hansom is one of my favorite books on child development. It highlights the benefits of being barefoot and the balance of risk-taking.
No tool in the adventure arsenal can inspire more awe than the knife. The basics are rather quick to master and whittling has a calming effect. As their skills grow so does their ability to take on more sophisticated projects. Most importantly, a child’s confidence grows when shown the trust that they are capable of using a knife. For younger children try using a vegetable peeler on a softer wood like cedar or cottonwood.
Proper expectation setting is key to a no or low cut experience. Children have a natural reverence for the knife but will need guidance to use. Focus before unsheathing. Check your “blood bubble,” and that no is too near you. Always carve away from yourself. Never leave a knife sitting out unattended. Explain but more importantly demonstrate, demonstrate, and supervise.
No greater act exemplifies childhood like climbing a tree. However, the proliferation of standardized playgrounds has directed play to sanctioned areas. Tree climbing is a fringe activity, discouraged by many rules and regulations.
But we are underutilizing a wonderful play companion. A good climbing tree allows a child to practice caution, navigate unpredictable obstacles, and build strength. Not to mention the bark and leaves of a treetop offer a much nicer smell than any plastic equipment!
My daughter and I like to dance barefoot in the fallen snow on our patio. When our toes are red and aching, we hop back inside and dance around until we warm back up. The last time we did this she had a little more pain in her toes. “Daddy can’t help me,” she exclaimed, jumping in place and out of breath. “That’s right, you’re on your own to warm yourself up,” I confirmed. This game is what prompted her to run around barefoot at school in the introduction.
It is not necessary to go barefoot in the snow to build resilience in your children. I use the above example of overcoming challenging environments as an extreme. The point is to create positive associations with discomfort. Make it a game, come up with a song, and laugh together during the experience.
Like going barefoot at the park or woods, it is important to add challenges incrementally.
Try this tongue twister out before embarking on your next adventure into the cold, hot, or rain. “Whether the weather is hot, or whether the weather is cold, we’ll weather the weather, no matter the weather. Whether we like it or not!”
By the way, if you’re looking for quick tips on how to treat frostnip in kids, click here >
While children are engaged in risky play, what we say and how we say it is very important. “Be Careful,” is often said when danger is perceived. Often because the caregiver is nervous, not the child.
Use encouraging and observant language when offering guidance. “Do you see the rock you are about to step on, does it seem slippery?” “How is your grip, do you need me to get closer?” “I see some thorns over here, have you noticed them yet?” “Do you see the person over there? Where could you throw the rock to be safer for everyone?”
These phrases encourage children to heighten their awareness and create their own solutions. One goal of these risky activities is to build self-confidence and maturity. Phrases like“Watch out!” “Be Careful!” “Don’t do that!” take the power from the child. Depriving them of the growth opportunities implicit in taking risks.
Much of the guidance around risky play for kids here may seem oversimplified. But little by little, the suggestions above are taken for granted. Replaced by organized activities and perceived as a waste of time. Consider this another voice in the rising chorus of parents who want to slow things down.
In the face of all the duties and expectations of parenting, you have permission to keep it simple. Find a wild place around your home, step out of your shoes into the mud, and play.
Children will find the obstacles that they need. Our job is first to get out of the way and let them explore. Let them imagine. Let them challenge.
Looking for more creative ways to get your family outside? Visit www.wildnatureplay.com to learn more.
Paul Humes is the founder of Wild Nature Play, a project to inspire families to get outside. When he is not sitting by the creek with his own daughter, he is sitting by the creek as an outdoor educator. Or sitting at a desk managing programs that get kids to the creek. Or writing blogs about how best to get to the creek.
Visit www.wildnatureplay.com to set up a time to talk with Paul. He would love to help you get to the creek, mountains, park, or hidden nature area with your family.