The Risky Joys of Outdoor Play
I am watching children from my window toboggan down a hill – one that has trees, fences, and a hydro pole all nearby. As I observe the children ‘flying’ down the hill, (all without helmets) and see all of the potential items that many would consider dangerous, I also note that the children are on the hill without adults. To me, this is amazing because often our children are rarely seen outdoors without adults supervising them. Then, I think about risk taking and how important it is as part of children’s outdoor play. I am seeing the children using their bodies to roll, to stop themselves and to guide where they want to go on their magic sleds. I can hear the children laughing and screaming with delight. My regret is that I can’t just go out and snap a video to show you what I am observing. Fortunately, my neighbours, Maya and Justin have allowed me to enjoy their sliding experience.
Allowing children to take risks is a challenge for many adults, especially for those who are risk-adverse or afraid of children getting hurt. Think about how you feel when you view children climbing up a tree or a climber. Think about children climbing up steep hills. Do you embrace these opportunities or hear yourself saying, ‘Be careful”, “don’t fall” or “maybe you should not do this”? Educators are encouraged to provide children with ample opportunities to be in environments where they can take on physical challenges and be allowed to try play that has some risk attached to it. Risk taking contributes to children learning new skills, combining previous skills with new ideas, and discovering how to integrate new knowledge from the risk taking processes. Despite its benefits, many early childhood educators often express their concerns about the strict provincial or site standards and regulations that they must abide by that they believe reduce the children’s play options. Others, have shared their personal concern about a child being hurt in their care and what the response will be from parents and/or their supervisor. Perhaps by thinking about risk as a healthy phase of development, as educators, we can find strategies to help facilitate those play options for children.
Risk taking indoors is more cognitively based, while risk taking outdoors contributes to children testing their physical and social skills and their levels of self-esteem and confidence. When children develop the confidence to take risks during outdoor play, they are much more likely to extend risk taking during their indoor explorations. Often risk and hazard are viewed as synonymous terms (Lupton & Tulloch, 2002), yet they are very different in meaning and in facilitating children’s outdoor play. In 2002, my late colleague, Barbara Crossley and I defined safe risk taking as “the opportunity for the active child to carry out an action involving risk in an environment that decreases potential for harm” (p.141). Meanwhile, Greenfield (2003) described a hazard as an act or experience that children don’t predict, while a risk is an experience whereby the child has some uncertainty about being able to achieve the act. Frost et al., (2012), identify that educators and children should be examining environments to determine the level of hazard.
Level I – Limited hazard
Conditions that lead to minor injuries, such as scraped needs.
Level II – Moderate hazard
Conditions that cause serious injury, such as a broken leg.
Level 111 – Extreme hazard
Conditions that cause permanent disability or loss of life.
Sandseter (2007) has identified six categories of risky play that she advocates children have exposure to. They are: Play with great heights such as climbing; 2) Play with high speed, such as running; 3) Play with dangerous tools, such as hammers; 4) Play near dangerous elements, such as cliffs; 5) Rough-and-tumble play with others; and 6) Play where the children can “disappear”/get lost or explore on their own. These categories help educators view the space and experiences extended to children. The information is also valuable to share with parents as they identify the variety of risky play that children require in their daily lives. Children need to make a choice whether to take the risk or not. Adults and children benefit from collectively examining the play space on a weekly basis to determine if and what hazards are present and how to eliminate them. By role modeling this with children, they begin to distinguish between risk and hazard.
There are short-term and long-term effects for children who do not experience risk-taking. Among the long term effects is that when children do not experience the lessons/learning gained from risk-taking when it is either positive or unsuccessful, they will show poorer risk judgement in the future (Little &Wyver, 2010). The short-term effect is that when children are prohibited or discouraged from taking risks, they will create their own risks and challenges, often being more dangerous with opportunities for injuries than if risks were encouraged (Gill, 2007; Greenfield, 2004). In our book, Playing and learning in early childhood education (2012), (http://www.amazon.com/Learning-Playing-Early-Childhood-Education/dp/0135125464), Diane Kashin and I identified that when risk taking is limited, children will: create ways to bring challenge to their play; change the quality of their play experiences, resulting in the increase of unsafe risk occurring; reduce their desire to engage in curiosity, creativity and challenge in their play; and not gain the healthy kinesthetic and physical skills that build their confidence, judgment, competence and self-esteem. Often, children want to engage in risk-taking; it is the environment that stops them.
There are many strategies that early childhood educators may use to begin the dialogue with colleagues, parents and children on risk taking. Here are our top ten ideas.
- Parents may require support to encourage children in being able to take risks. Provide parent information about the relationship of risk taking to child development and learning in newsletters and on web-sites.
- Invite parents to engage in outdoor risky play times with children and staff. This allows staff to highlight the types of play that are supporting risk taking opportunities.
- Educators and children create pedagogical documentation that visually shows children engaged in risk taking play. Include key points on how the play in the photos support risk taking.
- Educators examine their philosophy on and feelings about risk taking. As a group, they take inventory of the personal feelings of the team and then collectively develop strategies that will balance positions and roles during outdoor experiences so that children’s risk taking adventures will be encouraged and supported.
- Educators engage in observing children’s skills and then create opportunities for them to advance risk taking. Scaffolding experiences support children’s success in their risk taking play.
- Educators create challenging environments by providing a range of heavy loose parts such as ropes and rocks, differing terrain, offering materials that allow children to create large structures, and offer play spaces that allow for freedom to explore.
- Educators become conscious of their language with children during the outdoor exploration. They reduce the natural instinct to say “No! That is dangerous” and determine if the act is dangerous or if children are being overprotected.
- Educators examine procedures and practices at least every six months to ensure that they are addressing hazards and risks appropriately.
- Educators engage in professional development that shares current research on children and risk taking.
- Educators reflect upon on the following:
- How do adults help children make the decisions about the risks they wish to take?
- How do adults support children in helping children learn from their risks, especially with those that are not successful?
- How do you offer children support for some of their explorations without reducing their enthusiasm for their potential idea?
- How do you communicate with families about the value of children’s risk-taking and how often do you have such communication?
- How do you continue to develop your knowledge and comfort for risk-taking?
Ultimately, the outdoor play environments provides children with appropriate levels of risk that encourage them to think, take on new challenges and integrate their experiences with new learning ideas.
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