Friday, June 03, 2016

Everything I Need To Say

On Wednesday I wrote a post entitled The Inherent Risk of Risky Play. A reader who I very much respect took issue with my use of the word "risky," suggesting that we instead refer to this sort of play as "challenging."

When we label children's challenging activities "risky play," we are colluding with fearful parents and risk-averse authorities and the industries that prey on them, like lawyers and insurers.

Honestly, the entire time I was writing that post, I was musing on my use of the words "risk" and "risky." I have my own issues with the word and have myself suggested that a more accurate way to describe it would be "safety play," because after all, a big part of what the children are doing through the process is learning how to keep themselves safe by developing the habits of risk assessment while simultaneously developing the physical skills that will keep them safe not just today, but throughout their lives.

I also contemplated making the post a bigger one, by riffing on the idea that, as this reader put it, "Life is risky. Walking down the street is risky." I even considered whether or not to include non-physical risky behavior like performing in front of an audience or telling someone "I love you" for the first time. For many, the emotional pain suffered from the risk of shame or rejection is far worse than any bloody owie. Indeed, I've seen surveys of American adults in which public speaking is a greater fear than death.

I did consider including the reader's point that the real "villains" in the contemporary propensity for bubble wrapping our kids are those "fearful parents" and "risk-averse authorities and industries that prey on them," most notably the lawyers and and insurers.

Ultimately, however, I decided to stick with the word "risky" because I choose to keep the post as concise as possible and it is a word that communicates exactly the sort of play I was trying to describe. I had faith that most readers would largely share my understanding of both the denotative and connotative definitions of the word. For most of us, most of the time, the word "risky" suggests physically challenging oneself with heights, speed, rough and tumble games, potentially dangerous elements (like sticks, water or fire), potentially dangerous tools (like knives, hammers or power drills), and "disappearing" or getting lost.

Speaking as a writer, were I to have used the term "safety play," I would have lost the benefits of the communicative efficiency offered by the alternative and it would have required several paragraphs to first "define" the term before using it. The same goes for the word "challenging," which incidentally is exactly the word the corporate education reformers are using to describe their high stakes standardized tests, their standardized curricula, and even the rote-based homework that children hate so much. "Challenging" is a good word, it's a legitimate replacement, but it does not communicate as clearly or fully, I think, as does "risky."

Speaking as a teacher at a school set up to support risky play, I worry that an attempt to "cotton wool" this sort of play with softer-sounding words will mean that some of the parents who choose to enroll in our school will not fully understand what I'm talking about and will opt to join us without their eyes being fully wide open to the real potential for injury. I don't want them to ever forget that aspect of risky play: the risk. I tell them that they should expect their child to come home with blood stains. This is vital to running a school like ours, a cooperative in which we rely on parents to also serve alongside me as teachers. I need them to be capable of wearing their fearfulness on their shoulders, allowing it to be present, not ignoring it, even as they go about the business of supervising with minimal interference.

Risk is a real part of risky play, even if our worst fears are rarely realized. There is no margin in ignoring or obfuscating that with alternative words which leave us open to being accused of "not warning me" of the inherent dangers, or worse, forgetting about them. I find myself comparing it to the way I fail to see the advantage in using alternatives like "hands-on learning" or "experiential learning" as stand-ins for the word "play." I'm glad that the word "risky" invokes the reality of the potential for injury, but at the same time, like the word "play," it evokes the thrill and joy that drives us to engage in it in the first place. The alternatives simply can't offer that. Speaking only for myself, I'll take "play" over "learning" any day, just as I'll choose "risky" over "challenging" in a heartbeat. One sounds fun, the other sounds hard. In the world in which I live and work, at least, the word "risk" has both a light and dark side, which has the virtue of being the truth about this sort of play.

On Wednesday evening, during the orientation meeting for our summer program, during a discussion about risky play, a veteran parent spoke up, "One of the things I've learned from being a part of this school is that I can't let my fear drive me to make kids stop taking risks. If I'm really concerned, instead of making a kid stop, I might just say, "What you're doing worries me," or "That doesn't look stable" or "That's a long way to fall." I'm not telling the kids what to do, but it does at least make them stop for a second to consider whether or not they agree with me. Sometimes they do, and they fix what worried me, but most of the time they just say "I'm okay," so I move a little closer just in case."

Of course, I share the concerns of the reader. I have no interest in colluding with the fear mongers, but I guess, for now, I've come down on the side of owning the word "risky," because it says everything I need it to say.

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Anonymous said...

I'm glad you chose to stick with "risky." After all, that describes the experience of the kids. They feel that they are taking risks.

And they like it.

That edge where it is scary but I'm going to do it anyway is a tremendous booster of confidence. Like my girl jumping out of a tree on a hay bale. It was scary, but she was exhilarated after she had done it.

And I like the story of the veteran parent. To use the word "risky" also posed the challenge to him. Am I going to let fear drive me, or shall I let my kids decide? It's a real challenge for parents, an honest one, one that we face day in day out.

Thank you for al this.


Fran said...

Hi Tom,
Thanks for sharing this post. I currently deliver a forest and nature school program for children ages 2.5 to 4 years old. The affordances of the forest provide opportunities for children to take risks at a variety of levels. When I use the term risk, the children are challenging themselves to go beyond their level of comfort with support from others around them(both adults and peers). When I first implemented this program, the educators were hyper vigilant in using the phrase ” be careful”, for everything the children were doing. The educators appeared to be influencing the children’s ability to make decisions based on their own personal fears.  I banned the phrase with some success. What emerged as a replacement was ”do you need help” before the child requested help. This need to protect the children from any harm is deeply rooted in our philosophy as educators. I began to take the approach of voicing my own concern of what made ME uncomfortable, as suggested by a parent within your cooperative. The children understand my concerns then evaluate whether or not changes are required. It is a wonderful respected reciprocal relationship that strengths our trust with each other and themselves.

Arthur Battram said...

Hi Tom,

Thank you for your respectful and thoughtful responseto my advocacy of 'challenging'.

No matter how much grammarnazis like me protest, words get humptydumptied all the time. (One that really grinds my gears, for example, is 'I could care less' when the meaning being conveyed is the exact opposite: 'I couldn't care less'. Ugh.)

You've reminded me that the debate is finely balanced. Observers might wonder why we are debating it all: risky or challenging, we're both advocating the same thing aren't we? YES, WE ARE.

And newsflash, I've changed my mind! I wasn't aware that the 'the corporate education reformers' had hijacked 'challenging'. I loathe them, so if they’ve grabbed it, I've dropped it.

That said, I'm happy to leave the last word to your veteran parent: well said, sir.