Encouraging risk-taking on the playground

by DaniGirl on March 31, 2014 · 5 comments

in Mothering without a licence

The boys and I were in the car, on the way to swimming lessons in a snowstorm (seminal Canadian childhood experience, right?) and we’re listening to Michael Enright on CBC Sunday Morning. He’s talking about this National Post article by Sarah Boesveld, about a New Zealand school that “had stopped reprimanding students who whipped around on their scooters or wielded sticks in play sword fights” in the playground, giving kids more freedom to play in an active, creative, energetic way. The article goes on to say,

[The principal] knew children might get hurt, and that was exactly the point — perhaps if they were freed from the “cotton-wool” in which their 21st century parents had them swaddled, his students may develop some resilience, use their imaginations, solve problems on their own.

It’s such a good article. Go read about what happened when a boy broke his arm on the new “unsafetied” playground. Wait, I’ll save you the click. The parent of the boy who broke his arm on the playground confronted the principal and said, “I just wanted to make sure you don’t change this play environment, because kids break their arms.”

533:1000 A tire swing is more fun when shared with a brother

I love this idea. LOVE it. And what I loved even more was that it gave me a chance to talk about it with my boys.

DISCLAIMER: this is not a criticism of any school in particular. This is defintely not a criticism of our school. This is just a discussion of a topic that I find interesting, and relevant, and important. Please don’t bother reporting me to the principal over this blog post. Again.

Ahem, as I was saying, this gave me a terrific opportunity to discuss this issue with the boys. I knew they had been listening, and we have talked about this very issue before.

“So, what did you think about that,” I asked them. “Do you guys have a lot of rules about safety on the playground?”

They said they wished they had more freedom to do things like climb trees and play tag. “Yeah,” one sighed. “There’s a lot of rules. I can kinda see the point of some of them. But there are so many rules that all we can do at recess is sort of walk around.”

I totally get that any school administration wants nothing more than to protect kids. I really, really do believe that they have the kids’ best interests in mind, but I also think that in making these policies they have to consider things like litigious parents and school board liability and all sorts of other factors that are in opposition to letting kids be kids. Kids need to play, and as they get older, kids need to take risks – and sometimes, they need to suffer the consequences of those risks. You decide to play pirate swords with that big branch and take a stick to the side of the head, that’s a pretty reasonable consequence to choosing to engage in rough play. And the bump will go down – eventually.

It’s hard, I get it. I drive the kids to the toboggan hill and watch them slide down (albeit with camera in hand) and bite my tongue instead of tutt-tutting when they start going down face first. I walk them to the park and try my best not to look when they sail off the swing when it reaches its apex. I send them out to ride their bikes around the block and restrain myself from peering down the block after them.

I don’t want my kids to get hurt. But I think about the times I visited the ER as a kid (a concussion from flipping over my handlebars and a sprained ankle from standing up on a toboggan come immediately to mind, to say nothing of arriving on the porch after walking home from the park soaked in blood after taking a toboggan to the nose) I realize that those injuries were probably harder on my parents than they were on me. I can tell you this, though – I was a lot more careful racing my bike after that, I never stood up on a toboggan again, and I learned to walk up the side of the toboggan hill instead of across the bit where people were sledding out of control.

The New Zealand school’s experience is fascinating. The principal observes, “The students weren’t hurting themselves — in fact, they were so busy and physically active at recess that they returned to the classroom ready to learn. They came back vibrant and motivated, not agitated or annoyed.”

This story speaks to the core of how I want to parent my children. I don’t want to discourage them from taking risks because *I* am afraid of the consequences. I want them to learn the natural consequences of their actions, and I want them to understand that getting hurt is a natural part of life, not a reason to stop doing fun things. And I would love to see schools in Canada embrace this brave New Zealand principal’s common sense approach to letting kids be kids, even if it sometimes hurts.

What do you think? We all seem to agree that kids are too coddled these days, but how do we break away from that? I know this is something I need to work on personally, too, because I do tend to coddle the boys when there is a risk of physical injury. I think we need to work on our culture of risk aversion at the family level, so we can broaden that into the school community.

I’d love to hear your perspective on this, whether in the context of the playground or just in letting kids take risks in general. How do we help our schools feel more comfortable with this kind of philosophy and how do we get back to letting kids be kids, overlooking the risks in favour of the rewards? And I’d really love to hear your perspective as a teacher or school administrator. What are the challenges from your perspective? What can we all as a community do?


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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Anonymous March 31, 2014 at 10:41 am

We have new principal this year. He decided, from day one, that our children will no longer play in the open green space that is our main yard.! Why? “It is UNSAFE”. Huh? Reasons given varied from children running up to the road, strangesr hiding behind trees etc. This is NOTa NEW school. During it’s many years, no chid has been hit by a car during recess or abducted.

I confronted him the first week of school , questioning the logic of this decision. “I am trying to keep your child safe” was his response. I responded that although I appreciate that in theory, I also appreciate decisions regarding my child’s safety to not be made out of FEAR, but out of common sense. no reply.

So, that is where we are at. our bubble wrapped kids are playing on a concrete slab. surprised they have not put down bubble paper on the slab. meanwhile, our lovely open green space remains unused. sigh. I could go on & on & on

2 Delta March 31, 2014 at 12:27 pm

I agree with everything you’ve said! When our children get hurt, it’s harder on us parents. But kids do need to get hurt (hopefully not in any serious, permanent way) in order to appreciate what they’re capable of (and not capable of). Also, by overprotecting them, we’re robbing them of opportunities for self-esteem (hey mom…look what I can do all by myself!). Kids need to understand that it’s ok to fail, fall, get hurt. Then they will come to understand that it’s not the end of the world…they can dust themselves off (figuratively or literally) and try again.

So much easier said than done though. I try to give my own kids opportunities to test their limits and take reasonable risks but it’s so hard sometimes! Thanks for such a great post!

3 Galpod March 31, 2014 at 2:20 pm

I think it’s very natural for us to fear for our children. After all, we already learned the lesson the hard way! And it makes sense to want to spare your child from this pain. I say this as the parent on the babies playground who is known for letting her baby eat sand (it strengthens their immune system) and her toddler fall off ladders (it builds character). All this as I stifle the horrified gasps that I inherited from my mother, and ignoring the looks of disdain from other parents. In short, while I understand the parents who protect their children, I consciously choose not to.
Mind you, New Zealand is the country that brought us the sport of rolling down a hill in a big bubble wrap (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zorbing). Just saying.

4 Jody April 1, 2014 at 6:41 am

I think it’s great that kids are encouraged to be active explorers. I do wish the article weren’t framed as “let’s educate these bad modern parents who wrap their kids in cotton wool.” Childhood is safer now than it ever was, because our playgrounds are better constructed and we wear bike helmets — and I don’t think those are bad things. And actually, childhood concussion can have lifelong effects, so I’ve got mixed feelings about how laid-back we were about that sort of injury in the 70s and 80s.

What I’m trying to say is that I think there’s a common-sense middle ground to all of this and I wish the article had framed the story that way. I don’t think I’m a bad parent because I want my kids to be active, exploring people whose risk-taking does have some reasonable boundaries. Children’s brains can’t fully evaluate risk– they learn it by doing things, but they also need adult rules to guide them along. It’s not one or the other.

5 Mary @ Parenthood April 2, 2014 at 9:46 am

This is an interesting discussion on a topic that seems to be getting a little more attention (maybe you saw http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/03/hey-parents-leave-those-kids-alone/358631/ which has similar themes).

Jody’s response is very typical, but I think important to note that although her thesis “childhood is safer now than it ever was” is the message we are bombarded blwith by society and feels like it must be true (otherwise why WOULD things have changed so much and so drastically?!) it’s not actually supported by facts.

For instance: levels of ER visits and deaths as a result of playground accidents haven’t changed significantly as a result of “safety” measures…

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