Tuesday, November 14, 2023

The Other Kind of Risky Play

I've been writing for the past several days about "risky play" by way of introducing readers to my new 6-week course, Teacher Tom's Risky Play. This is a story from the archives about an important epiphany I had as a parent.

We raised our daughter in Seattle, close to some of the best skiing in the world, so when our daughter Josephine was about three we figured we ought to introduce her to our area's favorite winter sport. We started with the cross country brand and had a lot of fun on that first outing on a flat, powdery beginner's track. The next time we went, we figured we'd up our game with something a little more challenging. Right out of the gate Josephine hit a short hill, fell, cried and made it abundantly clear that she would never ski again. No amount of parental persuasion could get her back up on those skies.

Indeed, she never showed a propensity toward being a daredevil, remaining forever cautious about physical risk despite my best (and I now know misguided) attempts to urge her otherwise. There was the time a group of fathers took our daughters to Camp Orkilla with their "giant swing" that hangs kids (and willing adults) some 30 feet up in the air from the branches of Douglas Firs. Sure, several of the girls backed out, usually in tears of shame, but Josephine, knowing herself by now, happily said, "nope," although she stood at the front as she cheered on her friends. She never felt comfortable on her bicycle even if she did once manage a three mile ride before declaring at the end, "Now I've done that, but I'm not doing it again." After one particularly agonizing hour during which she kept bringing herself to the edge of attempting a sled run, summoning up the courage to almost let herself go again and again before finally backing out altogether, she said to me, shaking her head, "I just don't like the feeling of being out of control."

It was sometimes frustrating for me. I'd never been a full-on daredevil, but I'd enjoyed my time on skies and bikes and sleds, and wanted my girl to experience those things as well. Sometimes I let that frustration get to me. During one of those moments, I used the word "brave" in my attempt to be persuasive, to which she replied, "I am brave! I get in front of audiences and sing and act!" That stopped me right then and forever.

Sometimes the respective temperaments of parents and their children don't match up. I had a prejudice in favor a narrow definition of bravery, one I'd learned as a boy, having admired my physical risk-taking peers and attempted to imitate them. I had looked around at my own child's cohort of friends, those who climbed to high places and ran pell-mell down steep hills, and found my own child lacking. Life can be hard for the timid and, like all parents, I didn't want life to be any harder for my girl than it had to be. But in that moment, she made me see my prejudice for what it was.

I had always known her to be outgoing with other children, but now when I watched her make new friends, include others, persuade them, and otherwise show an innate mastery of her social world, I saw not just a precocious child, but a brave one, a child engaged in risky play. What I'd not understood, being of a different natural temperament, was that this was her version of climbing to high places or running pell-mell down steep hills. Indeed, in surveys about "fears" Americans typically place "speaking in front of an audience" at the top, often ahead of death itself, but this is the type of risky behavior to which she was drawn. From the time she was in preschool, she took every opportunity to stand before an audience and perform for them, right up to today where she continues to sing in public.

And I also know that each time she does it she's nervous. Nevertheless, like every daredevil, she puts that fear on her shoulder, trusts in herself, and gives it her best, which is, in the end, the definition of bravery.


We often forget social-emotional risk taking when we discuss risky play. We aren't all physical daredevils, but that doesn't mean that risk, real risk, isn't vital to our development. We live in an era of "bubble wrapped" children and helicopter parents, yet we know that healthy exposure to risk-taking through play is essential for proper brain development, self-confidence, and physical competence, not to mention social-emotional and intellectual development. My brand new 6-week course, Teacher Tom's Risky Play, is a deep-dive into the value and importance of risky play, or safety play, and an exploration of how we can overcome media fear-mongering and catastrophic imaginations, and work with regulators, to create "safe enough" environments in which the children in our lives can engage in the kind of appropriate risk-taking they need to thrive, both today and into the future. To register and learn more, click here. We'd love for you to join this inaugural cohort! Registration closes tomorrow, so if you've been wavering, now's the time!

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