The Hidden Risks of Avoiding Risky Play

The Hidden Risks of Avoiding Risky Play
The Hidden Risks of Avoiding Risky Play

Because of you I never stray too far from the sidewalk
Because of you I learned to play on the safe side so I don’t get hurt
-Kelly Clarkson


My mom jokes around that this should have been her mother’s anthem. These words ring true, at least to some degree, in the heart of every parent. Keeping our children safe is one of our primary tasks. It can be downright terrifying at times to watch our children branch out into the world.

Sometimes however, our valiant efforts to keep our kids free from any bodily harm in the short term, can lead to some significant consequences in the long term. We mistakingly think that by providing a risk-free life, we are saving our kids from hurt. We are unaware that a risk-free childhood doesn’t provide children with the physical and mental feedback they need for proper growth and development.

One thing we have observed with our children over the past seven years of nature immersion is how quickly they become sure-footed. Our rule of thumb in nature has been to allow them to try what they are able to try. For example, if they are physically able to climb up onto a large rock, then we let them. But if a younger sibling is trying to copy an older sibling and can’t pull something off, we don’t attempt to help. We simply say, “You’ll be able to do that when you are older.” 

Kids are smart. They don’t want to get hurt. Remember the innate sense your child had as an infant to progressively move from one complex movement to the next in slow increments? When a baby goes from rolling, to pushing up, to rocking, and then finally to crawling, they get some bonks along the way. This feedback, though momentarily painful, is imperative to building this proper sequence of movements.If children are given ample time outside, they don’t lose this incredible sense that they have about their bodies and their capabilities. They will challenge themselves, in appropriately incremental ways, in order to gain the next small set of skills. We have seen this time and again with our toddlers who will test their limits balancing by starting on a small curb and then move on to something more difficult to balance on, like a fallen tree limb. Initially, they might ask for a finger or a hand to hold. Eventually, they conquer this new set of movements without any help and then progress on to something more difficult.

I’ve noticed over the years that nature helps immensely with this slow progression. Take tree climbing, for instance. There are not many trees small children can climb without assistance. Apple trees are a type that come to mind. When we go to the apple orchards in the fall, our kids can skillfully climb these trees beginning around the age six or seven. Apple trees are low to the ground and have many criss-crossing branches. They are filled with juicy incentives, testing little bodies as they stretch and reach for the best apples! Once within the branches, an apple tree will feel like a secret hideout for a young child.

Apple trees are perfect for beginners. Sometime around the ages of 12 or 13, kids are able to branch off (pun intended) into more challenging tree climbing. At this point, they are probably tall enough to reach the lowest branches of the taller trees and they have enough upper body strength to pull themselves onto the lowest branch. If their bodies have had six or seven years of practicing in the apple trees, they are going to be sure-footed and ready with the proper skill set for the next challenge.

So, what happens if we skip over the risky play? What happens if we skip the fallen logs and the apple trees? It is certainly possible (and sometimes even encouraged) to let childhood go by without these types of experiences. Keeping our children indoors on even terrain for most of their childhood might keep them from having some scrapes and bruises. But without the varied terrain and experiences that nature supplies, kids miss out on the feedback loops their bodies need for increasingly complex movements. In the long term, they will more clumsy and much be prone to accidents. Additionally, their bodies won’t have experienced the ligament stretching and bone strengthening it needs. Both of these things can lead to significant injury. 

We have five young kids and have been spending about 1,000 hours outside with them each year since 2011. They have climbed trees, walked on ice, jumped off cliffs, ridden waterfalls, and put in hundreds of miles of hiking. In all of those experiences we have only had one ambulance ride, and it was solely due to some broken playground equipment. 

Standing back and observe our children in situations where they might get hurt can cause a lot of anxiety. What I’ve learned throughout our time in nature is that the small, incremental risks our children take are actually a really good thing. Failure is one of the best teachers. If we learn that we fall when we do a certain movement with our body, then we can adjust so we don’t fall the next time. In order to keep our children the safest, we need to let them experience reasonable risks, on a regular basis, as they grow. Their development is far too complex for us to orchestrate this, but their little bodies know what comes next. All we need to do is to place them in the right environment, and the best environment for childhood growth and development is unequivocally the great outdoors. 

When children go outside they naturally want to challenge their bodies. Challenge is integral to development. As physical movements grow more complex, so do the connections within the brain. This innate drive to move in different ways actually makes kids smarter! Providing children opportunities for risky play will make their bodies and brains more competent!

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