Monday, May 04, 2020

Taking a Closer Look at the Process Behind Risky Play

When those of us in the play-based world think of "risky play" we too often think only of the muscle, bones and blood of the playground, sometimes glamorizing the daredevils we've taught. I know I've often made the mistake of noticing the child who is climbing a little "too high," while ignoring the day-to-day risk taking going on all around me. It's not the degree of risk that's important to learning, but rather, like everything else we do, it's the process that matters.

For instance, for several weeks the boy in these pictures called me over to look at him "climb" the tree.  I perceived no danger in him being less than a foot in the air, but that's unimportant because he did. He worked his way up from having not climbed the tree at all. And while I may not have been "inspired" by his efforts, someone else was, using both his example and body to support herself.

Perhaps, tomorrow they will climb higher, but for today, they found their "just right" level of risk.

Our pallet swing is a perfect example of risk as process. Many children, especially our two-year-olds,  would start by simply pushing it, their own two feet on the ground. It didn't occur to them to want to climb aboard. Older kids chose to sit, then stand, then share the space with others. It's a process that some children work through in a matter of minutes while others take years.

With my own daughter, I often couldn't resist the call of my parenting ego to urge or cajole her into riskier play, but I learned to respect her risk assessment process. It's when we compel or help children into situations not of their own making that we most often place them in the greatest danger.

Parents sometimes pushed children on our swings, higher and higher. I didn't tell them to stop, but I always pointed out that the only children who had ever been injured on our swings were the ones being pushed by a parent or those knocked over by a child being swung to heights they could never achieve under their own power.

The process of risk is, in fact, risk assessment. Too often, adults have attempted to usurp the role of risk assessment with meaningless warnings of "be careful." A better way to support our children as they explore their physical capabilities, as they challenge themselves, is to move a little closer and wait for them to request assistance. And even then, my response is often along the lines of, "I won't help you, but I won't let you get hurt."

This boy wanted to reach the trapeze bar. Instead of asking me to lift him up, he wrangled a table into position, climbed on it, then stood there for a long time holding the bar. I think it could have gone either way. Twice he released the bar as if to climb back down, but finally, after much thought, he let himself go, swinging wildly for a moment, then letting himself drop to the ground in triumph.

Feeling full of himself, I guess, he then made his way to the edge of the sandpit where someone had abandoned a broken plank of wood.

When he stepped on the raised end of the plank, his weight caused the lower end to rise from the ground. He spent several minutes experimenting with this, understanding it, figuring out with both his mind and body how it felt. Finally, slowly, he edged his way down, until his weight caused the raised end to dip suddenly downward. When it did, he ran the few steps to the bottom, where he turned around and, after testing the board a few more times, went back up.

I had witnessed the exact same process a few days earlier with an older boy who had found our homemade ladder suspended over the sandpit boat.

Children do take risks, but when left to their own devices, when allowed to freely explore their world, they also perform their own risk assessment along the way and it's more than just an individual process. Often risk assessment takes a village, going "viral" as one child is inspired by and learns from another.

For instance, this two-year-old, after many careful experiments that did not involve any adults warning that he was going to hurt himself, discovered that he could clip a clothespin to his finger. Moments later, his friends were trying it, too. He said, "I thought it would hurt but it only hurts a little."

Here is an example of community risk assessment at its highest level.

I had placed a plank of wood across two tires as a sort of prompt. The younger children more or less ignored it, but when the older kids arrived in the afternoon, their first order of business was to raise one end by adding a tire.

There was much caution at first. The first few children to attempt it dropped to their knees and even their bellies. The ones who stayed on their feet edged their way slowly, often choosing to jump off before getting to the end.

When the third tire was added, some of the children moved on to other things. Two had been enough for this day.

The process here was similar, with children learning from one another, advising one another, and supporting one another.

They figured out that if you went to the very top, your weight would cause the lower end to kick up making it "scary," so they began to hold the lower end down for one another.

There was quite a bit of discussion about what might happen if you did fall from the top. They figured they didn't want to fall into the tires.

As time went on the play evolved, becoming objectively more risky, yet the process remained the same.

There were onlookers, many of whom took on the role of kibitzing, sometimes helpful, sometimes not. At one point a boy said, "The first one to the top gets this flag." The children heard him, paused for a moment, then continued their play as before. External motivation is irrelevant. The process of risk is its own reward.


My new book, Teacher Tom's Second Bookis at the printers! We're offering a pre-publication discount through May 18. I'm incredibly proud of it. And while you're on the site, you can also find my first book, Teacher Tom's First Book, at a discount as well.

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