Thursday, July 22, 2010

outdoor play: when benefits outweigh the risks

These three intrepid 3 year old master builders solved the problem of how to make a tower of milk crates tall enough to reach the sandpit shade cloth by cleverly creating a system of steps:

They were justifiably proud of themselves when they reached the top:

And when you've reached the top?

You might as well jump!

As we walked up to the sandpit to see what these little guys were up too, we asked ourselves "should we be worried about this?" 

As teachers it can be tricky to give kids the opportunity to overcome risks and challenges through outdoor and adventurous activities when we live and work in a fear based society.  

While we don't want children to come to harm, our fears can lead us to overreact to risky play.  If we remove risk from play, we are not encouraging children to persist at challenging tasks.  If we remove the challenges we are not developing resilience in our children.

So as we approach the sandpit, we are:
  • assessing the hazards involved 
  • considering what we know about these children and their capabilities
  • trusting the children's ability to make their own decisions about a particular risk
  • relinquishing control

So what did we do?  We reminded the boys to look before they leap and helped them to remove objects that they might land on.  And we shared their joy.

And the boys?  They had the opportunity to:
  • build
  • solve problems
  • face and overcome challenges
  • assess risk
  • feel good about their achievements
  • work together
  • take turns
  • have fun!
None of us should blithely ignore dangers or be unconcerned with risk, but we need to lower the fear factor, not raise it. 

I think Lynn McNair from Cowgate Under 5's Centre on I'm a Teacher Get me Outside of Here put it beautifully:

If we want 'confident individuals' willing to embrace risk and challenge then we need confident adults who have a deep understanding of the issues surrounding risk and play which goes way beyond a narrow 'health and safety' agenda.


  1. I loved this post. really made me smile and so pleased you didn't stop their activity!! How can kids assess dangers if we take away any chance for them to think about it for themselves. Sencible risk assessmnet and Safe risk taking is important!

  2. It's hard to come up with a definition of play that does not include risk.

    Yesterday, 3-year-old Lachlan was using a glue gun. After a time I heard him crying. I said, "What happened? Did you burn yourself." He was holding his thumb. Still crying, he said, "I wasn't paying attention and burned myself." Notice that the gun did not burn him, he burned himself and he knew it.

    When children are given space to take risks, I've found that the most important thing they learn is to take responsibility for themselves. Powerful stuff.

  3. This is such a great post. I've been thinking about a post on risk myself. Will link yours up if I get to it soon. It's such an important topic for parents and teachers to consider. Thanks for sharing with such an excellent example.

  4. What a lovely post, and so wonderful to see learning environments in otehr countries where children are allowed to take risks.

    People are often amazed at the activities children here attend, and the 'dangers' that they face, but I love the independence, confidence, responsibility, and initiate that my girls are showing (and so far no one has fallen into the fire or poked their eyes out).

  5. Thanks for the link, Jenny.

    To live is to risk. Today I came across advice for American principals about their outdoor play spaces and it almost made me cry. There was no mention of creativity, fun and joy. It was all about guidelines and standards.

    What is clear is that we still have a lot to do. I live beside the oil capital of Europe - and health and safety here still exists on the zero tolerance, as safe as possible culture (perhaps understandably). You might enjoy reading about this in one of my older posts...

    It makes education look positively dangerous!

  6. This was an intriguing post to me.
    Looks very interesting and am sure that both of my sons would love this.
    Might be willing to let my one son try it, but always have to assess things on a different level for my other son. He has a serious blood disorder called Von Willebrand's and does not have enough clotting factor if and when he gets injured...
    In the event that he is injured, he has to endure getting blood product, and there is always a risk to that.
    We try so hard to seek a balance between protecting him for his health issues and then, giving him the ability to explore and try out new things.
    But it is always a struggle.
    Hard, as you don't want a child to be raised in a bubble, but then, you have to think about the benefits vs. risks. It is something that we struggle with nearly all of the time. I so want for him to be able to explore, to be confident, but then, he has to be more cautious than his brother.
    Well, thank you for sharing. Hope that you will pop by my blog. I would love your input on this if you have any experience with working with a child with either Von Willebrand's or hemophilia.

  7. I wish this was allowed to happen more often! I just seem to see kids being told not to do stuff all the time. I regularly have other parents more worried about my kids than I am, not because I am lax in my supervision, but because I allow them push the conventional boundaries. How do your parents react? From what I have seen, parents can often make this sort of play out of bounds.

  8. Hi Jenny, I wrote a post about you is the link:

    Again, thank you for your perspective! Look forward to continuing to read your blog!
    Have a happy weekend,

  9. So true! But walking that line (risk vs. safety) can sometimes be a challenge. I hope I can be like you, always encouraging risk and standing close to remind and assist as needed. Great post!

  10. Risk taking has been so hard for me-as a Mommy to a toddler boy. I work on it everyday. Thanks for the post and reminding me what he has to gain from being allowed to take risks.The children looked like they had a blast!

  11. I really enjoyed reading this post and seeing the great pictures. I like your point that we must stop to think about the individual children - what we know about them and their abilities. My two daughters are so different. I find myself encouraging one to take more risks, the other to slow down a little.

  12. I really LOVE your attitude Jenny!

    We have lots of children who enjoy taking risks like jumping from the top of the slide or out of the climbing tree. We even get the dare devils who like to stand on the very top rung of our 5' high 'A' frames or straddle the top of the 5' high monkey bars and never have we had any one hurt from this. Many times however children have tripped while running and skinned knees or put teeth through lips, so it's very hard to draw the line between safe play and risk taking ... as Tom said "It's hard to come up with a definition of play that does not include risk."
    Donna :) :)

  13. I always feel refreshed and inspired when I come across other adults who are willing to let kids explore and take risks like this.

    It reminded me of one year that I was teaching at an inner-city school, and 3 of us teachers took the kids on a field trip to go fishing. It was the first time most of them had seen a lake, and (if you can believe it) the first time that most of them had a chance to CLIMB TREES!!!

    While one teacher panicked about liability and lawsuits, the other teacher and I just smiled at each other and stayed close enough to catch one of our kiddos that might fall.

    Thanks for bringing back those great memories with this post!

  14. thank you for this post! I hope more people out there understand they rob children of important life lessons when they sterilize the environment!

  15. Thank you for all your comments - knowing when to step in and when to just let them go for it is something I am still learning. I find it really helpful to think of the distinction between risk and hazard. A hazard is a danger that the kids can't see - and this is where our job as teachers lies when it comes to risky play.

  16. Great post Jenny. This is a constant dilemma for me as a parent and always was as a teacher too. I've always tried to get the kids to learn to assess risk and safety themselves. I really think this is an important skill. But it brings up another dilemma about kids being able to think about risk and safety without becoming overly fearful or paranoid. These are tough things for parents and teachers to pass onto children, but I love your approach. Letting them explore their own boundaries with someone right there if needed. That's really all we can do

  17. THIS is what i love.


    way to go.

  18. You speak the truth on so many levels Jen & I love that more and more people, both educators and parents are embracing the taking risk mantra. However, Colleen's comment gives us food for thought. having said that, you do mention that we weigh up the situation knowing our children. Not all children will be able to, or even want to take on the same challenges and risks for all sorts of reasons. That does not mean that we shouldn't still encourage it. For Colleen's son it might mean builing steps with blocks instead and jumping from a much lower height. We won't aalways get it right, but I'd much rather get it wrong occassionally and see a few scrapes and bruises than not try at all.
    Thank you for your ccontinuing inspiration.
    Greg :)

  19. You're right. We need to not be so fearful. They are kids and love to play and have fun. One of my daughters loves to climb and sometimes because of my fear of heights I freak out when I shouldn't. After all, she's only two feet up in the air.

  20. I'm a mother of 2 boys and 2 girls.. One of my boys passed away at age 21 after 18 years of being severely and profoundly mentally handicapped from an accident in our home pool at the age of 3. We were extremely careful with the pool, but regardless, the accident still happened. I can honestly say though that we have coped with the devastation it brought to our family, because we were careful, and it was truly an accident. There are so many things that can pose a danger to our children. We have to weigh them all out, and as good parents instill the right kind of fear for the right things to them. If we never warn that going near a pool especially without mommy or daddy with you, you could fall in and you could die, or warn that if they go near a road a car could hit them and they could die, they might think these big issues are the same danger as falling off two crates they stacked and tried to stand on, they wouldn't be as afraid as they need to be. I agree with this article, I think you need to let kids explore and try new things and not put a fear in them about everything. I like how they encourage you as parents to assess the danger or hazards, to consider what you know about your children and their capabilities, and trust them to make a decision on what they know about a particular risk, and relinquish control. i think when it comes to real safety issues, I'm speaking of course on the side of one who has been through severe heartache, that many of the things said in this article are true, and great advice, you can't protect them from every little thing, and kids have to learn to trouble shoot and take some risks to grow into healthy decision making adults, but you have to be vigilant as parents and not forget that accidents can happen, some out of our control, but some we could prevent. I have a long stairway that leads to my basement, and when my grandkids come over or even other kids that are a little bit older, we shut that door, not because i think my older grandkids can't handle walking down those stairs, but they could be playing or running past and fall down the stairs by accident, i would do the same with a pool. You might have kids that you think you could trust not to go near your pool so you don't instill a fear in them or take the safety measures needed to keep them out of that area, and they could play near one and fall in by accident. We have to realize that while we need to let children take risks, we also need to know that their perception of danger, of the distance down if they fell, or the gravity of a situation is not like ours. Our son Luke that had the near drown accident was all boy, prior to the accident he played hard and climbed trees, and took risks, and I'm glad he got to experience all of that, you just have to be careful that's all. :)

  21. My kids are Country Kids and play out all the time, I am a huge believer in letting kids discover and explore within safe perameters.