Wednesday, June 01, 2016

The Inherent Risk Of Risky Play

For the record, I don't want children to get hurt on my watch either physically or emotionally. That said, if children don't get physically or emotionally hurt on my watch then I'm doing my job poorly. It's the Catch-22 of working with young children in any capacity, but especially in a school with a play-base curriculum; we are damned if we do and damned if we don't.

Last week a four-year-old boy managed to fall into the gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo, resulting in a 17-year-old silverback gorilla being shot to death in the name of protecting the life of the boy. The parents have been vilified in the media, both traditional and social, for not better supervising their child. The zoo has been likewise lambasted for not better securing the enclosure, but mostly for resorting to  killing the gorilla rather than than opting for non-lethal means. 

I'm sad for the gorilla, the parents, and their son, and have for the past few days been thinking thoughts along the lines of "there but for the grace of God go I." I mean, we are a school that strives to provide opportunities for what is usually dubbed "risky play," and on any given day a child on my watch could get hurt, very hurt, even fatally, and were that to happen (knock on wood) I have no doubt that I would be vilified and lambasted. I have no doubt that there are posts on this blog that would be cited as evidence of my negligence. 

In this case, thankfully, the boy, while certainly frightened and probably suffering minor injuries, has emerged relatively unscathed, even while the gorilla (who some say appeared to be attempting to protect the boy) did not. And while we don't have gorillas around the place, we have had an alligator visit us as well as a boa constrictor, both of which touched and were touched by the children. We also have regular opportunities for kids to explore heights, speed, dangerous tools, dangerous elements, as well as rough and tumble play, five of the six general categories of essential risky play. The only one we don't provide is the opportunity for children to "'disappear' or get lost": we try to be relatively non-intrusive, but as a cooperative the children in our care are always being supervised by at least two adults. 

As a teacher, I count on that supervision. It's our special safety precaution, if you will, and it allows us to perhaps more fully explore the other aspects of risky play because, 1) the kids are well-supervised, and 2) over time, the children's parents who are doing the supervising become increasingly comfortable with risky play, because they are taking part in it. Indeed, some parents come into our school already fired up about risky play, while others are admittedly uptight. Last week, I watched a mom confidently managing 4 glue guns at the workbench when two years ago she confessed to me that the whole idea terrified her. I'm quite proud of that. Whole families learn at our school.

But the point is, we are minding the kids, believe me, but because it's inherently risky play, they will still sometimes get hurt, even badly. We've not had any broken bones, but we've twice sent kids to their doctor's offices for stitches and another handful to the ER as a precaution after bumped heads. All of those children, including those going home with everyday bumps, abrasions, and bruises, were well-supervised.

I don't know anything about the couple in Cincinnati. Maybe they were negligent. Or maybe their child was just engaging in one of the essential types of risky play (disappearing/getting lost) in a presumedly safe place (I know I've always treated the zoo as a safe place) and, by definition, this is a rare extreme manifestation of the risk inherent in that kind of play. It could happen to the most responsible parents on earth: you turn your back for a minute to laugh at a joke or something and that kid chooses that moment.

The risk inherent in risky play is the price we pay for the developmental, learning, mental health, and physical health benefits that come from engaging in it, a notion that is supported by an exhaustive review of the research into the connection between risky play and overall health published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Their conclusion:

The evidence from our systematic review indicates that the overall positive health effects of increased risky outdoor play provide greater benefit than the health effects associated with avoiding outdoor risky play.

I understand how any or all of the six types of risky play might terrify a parent. I can do the catastrophic thinking too, but the odds are actually very much in your child's favor, and the confidence, resourcefulness, and safety learning that takes place through risky play can't be replicated elsewhere. And the health and psychological, not to mention philosophical, consequences of playing it too safe can be debilitating.

A few weeks ago, as our 4-5's class paddled our umiaq out into Lake Union, my brain couldn't help but race over the risk involved as we played with a dangerous element. But then, as we drifted for a moment, looking back toward the South Lake Union skyline, it was fully replaced by a feeling of exhilaration: here we were, a dozen kids and a handful of adults, all of us engaged in risky play together. And let me tell you, that moment alone proved to me that the risk was worth it.

Please don't be too hard on that poor boy's parents in Cincinnati, and the zoo did what they felt they had to do and may well have saved the boy's life. I'm grateful that the boy escaped with only a few cuts and bruises. I'm sad that a silverback gorilla was killed through no fault of his own. There is always this side to risky play.

I don't want children to be hurt on my watch, but they do, often as a direct result of the opportunities we offer for risky play. I just pray that I'm not the one you're reading about next week. I might have to move to Bimini. I guess that's part of the inherent risk in being a preschool teacher.

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Arthur Battram said...

Looks like the attempt, by a few of us in the UK world of play, to avoid calling it 'risky' and instead call it 'challenging' has failed. I think only Peter Gray, myself and Rob Wheway, use 'challenging'.

We don't call mountaineering or bungee jumping or MTBing or soccer, 'risky play'. All are play, all are risky. These days you see disclaimers at the various venues talking about risk, but we don't think of them as risky as such, and they aren't described as such. You won't see the 'Poughkeepsie Risky Mountaineering Club' advertising on local TV.

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.

I'm disappointed that you, Tom, a major advocate for the value and importance of play, have missed the opportunity to 'rebrand' a vital part of childhood in a more positive and affirming way.

Life is risky. Walking down the street is risky. If you are a naive teen, you might take a risk and walk home through a 'bad' area. That teen obviously needs to improve their thinking about risk, says society, and equally obviously, as we grow up we learn to assess risk.

IMHO, the issue is not 'risk', it's challenge. To decide if I'm up to a challenge, like a scary and steep MTB downhill trail, I assess the risk, and I ASSESS THE BENEFIT, therefore I am conducting an informal --yet informed by experience-- 'risk benefit analysis' (RBA). Is it worth it, I'm asking myself; I'm not just doing a risk assessment, because if I only did that, I would tend to want to avoid the risk and stay home under the duvet.

So please, let's talk about supporting children in their life challenges, and helping them to make wise RBAs. That's probably an easier sell than 'risky play'.

Teacher Tom said...

I sometimes call it "safety play" because ultimately what the kids are doing is learning how to keep themselves safe, but I'm not yet on board with trying to re-label this sort of play. I mean, people know exactly what we're talking about, whereas "challenging" might make some people think we are trying to get kids ready for a particularly difficult test or something. Risk is an essential element in this kind of play. I don't think it's wrong to talk about it using the words everyone already knows. I'm not calcified in my position or anything, but I don't want folks to think I'm trying to hide anything. Thanks for offering this point of view: I will be thinking more about it.

Arthur Battram said...

"First in a short series of articles about risk, play and policy.

Last month, the Lawson Foundation in Canada announced a new grants programme aimed at ‘getting kids outside and enjoying unstructured, risky play’. This was just the latest example of how the ‘risky play’ banner has been adopted far and wide by advocates aiming to promote giving children greater freedom and more opportunities for adventurous, outdoor play.

But what does ‘risky play’ actually mean? And is its increasingly widespread use to describe one of the primary aims of the play movement, unproblematic? Or is it, in fact, an unnecessarily (ahem) risky strategy, making us hostages to fortune?

In this series of articles, Adrian Voce, who inadvertently had a role in popularising it, will argue that ‘risky play’ is an ambiguous, contradictory term, open to misinterpretation (wilful or otherwise) and that the whole question of how we manage and promote risk is now tending to overshadow and distort some of the wider issues around children’s right to play."

Tom, meet Adrian...