In our conversation this week, Eileen Garcia-Sanchez told me about how they embrace the philosophy of risky play at the San Antonio Zoo preschool. She describes an old storm-beaten tree trunk on their campus, and what she does when a child gets to the top and wants to be lifted down:
I’m not going to walk up to the student and pick them up and put them down. I’m going to walk to that student and I’m going to offer them advice on how they can get down. I’m going to walk through it with them. And I say, “Well, you see how your foot is right here? What if we put our other foot down here?” We like to walk through the risks with the students because when you walk through it with the students, then that helps them build the confidence and being able to conquer it again by themselves. They’ll feel confident in approaching that stump again to climb it.
That can be a hard sell for parents, though. I mean, as teachers, isn’t your first job to keep young learners safe?
Of course we want kids to be safe. But it’s critical that we take a broad view of what safe really means.
- Is a child who stays at home every weekend safer than one who climbs trees or explores creeks?
The sedentary, homebound child is certainly less apt to get a scrape or a bug bite. But they have also lost out on developing awareness about their own body’s capabilities. A seminal paper came out about ten years summarizing risky play research (Brussoni et al., 2012). It’s very dense, but the key finding is this:
Keeping children safe involves letting them take and manage risks. (p. 3134)
Got that? Safety requires risks. That’s the philosophy behind the adventure playground movement – where junkyards full of tools and scrap materials are opened to children in places like The Anarchy Zone in Ithaca, New York or the many junk playgrounds in Denmark.
Importantly, these places are not anarchic (despite the name). There are rules – sometimes a couple set by the park like “no flip-flops”. One Japanese junk playground asks that you supervise your toddlers while they set fires. But mostly, the rules of conduct are set by the kids themselves. They decide how to play, and with whom, to keep themselves safe.
So, why is risky play so important for kids? The key seems to be not the risks, specifically, but the freedom. Autonomy while playing means kids can make mistakes:
- social mistakes, like not taking turns
- physical mistakes, like tripping or getting stuck in a high place
And, crucially, the child has to then fix the mistake – maybe right away, maybe the next time they play the same game. Have you ever noticed how two young children having a hammer-and-tongs screaming argument about something can turn it around quickly? Five minutes after the fight, they’ll be getting along fine, as if nothing happened.
That’s the learning happening. Here’s how Brussoni puts it:
Through play, children learn societal roles, norms, and values and develop physical and cognitive competencies, creativity, self-worth and efficacy. (p. 3136)
Now imagine that same fight, but an adult steps in to break it up. Maybe the adult even takes sides. What has the child learned? Not how to settle disputes, control their body, or come up with creative solutions. Instead, the lesson is “make sure you’ve got the biggest ally on your side.” Or imagine Eileen’s preschoolers, stuck up in the tree trunk, and she simply lifts them down each time. The lesson there? “Someone will always rescue you.”
I’m not saying that children never need to be lifted down from high places or have their fights stopped. (I’ve done my share of recess duty!) But if we don’t give young people some autonomy to both take risks and solve the problems they cause, we are not keeping them safe – we’re making them less safe by stunting the development of both motor skills and decision-making.