Friday, July 12, 2024

Hiding, Disappearing, and Getting Lost

People are often surprised when I say or write that safety is our number one responsibility when it comes to our work with young children. After all, human babies are born uniquely vulnerable compared to other species and they stay that way for quite some time. Psychologist and author Alison Gopnik argues that adults caring for the young is so important for the survival of Homo sapiens that we are among the only species to have evolved grandparents to compensate for how long they remain in a state of relative helplessness.



I don't want the children in my care, or any child, to be injured, which is why I have always started each day by removing and mitigating hazards in their environment.

If there is a rusty nail sticking out at eye level, I pound it down.

If I find broken glass on the playground, I remove it.

If the railing surrounding a high place is wobbly, I shore it up.

It's common sense to identify and remove hazards. But keeping children safe does not mean removing opportunities for children to explore and play with risk. Indeed, brain science tells us that children need risk, genuine risk, if their brains, and the pre-front cortex in particular is to develop properly. If for nothing else, children must experience risk in childhood if they are going to grow into adults who know how to keep themselves safe. 


I want children to be safe, not just for an hour or a day, but for a lifetime, which is why I allow children in my care to play with self-selected risk. It's why I refer to all those bumps, scrapes, cuts and bruises as "learning ouchies." Each bandage, each ice pack, each body part that requires a loving rub or a kiss, represents a moment that a child has challenged themself in order to learn an aspect of the most important lesson there is; to keep themselves safe in this world; to learn their limits, to learn about consequences, and to learn about healing.

Norwegian professor and researcher Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter is considered one of the world's leading authorities on the value of playground risk taking. In her doctoral thesis, entitled, delightfully, Scary Funny, she identifies six categories of risk that young children must explore in the quest of experiencing the "exhilaration and fear" that we all need in order to develop properly: great heights, rapid speeds, dangerous tools, dangerous elements, rough and tumble play, and (perhaps the one that frightens us adults the most in today's climate fear about children) disappearing or getting lost.

There are children hidden in the branches of all of these trees and not an adult (other than me) in sight.

I've been thinking quite a bit about that final one in the afterglow of my recent trip to Iceland to take part in the Play Iceland experience. Most play-based settings I've observed on this side of the pond do a decent job of allowing children opportunities to explore the other modes of risk taking, but we tend to freak out about the idea of children disappearing or getting lost. Even the extremely risk-friendly Woodland Park playground is designed to allow adult eyes on every corner.

In contrast, I've never visited an Icelandic preschool that didn't include places for children to experience the exhilaration of disappearing, at least momentarily. The playground pictured in this post is large compared to most American preschool playgrounds and it features stands of trees and patches of shrubbery ideally suited for children to "get lost." As I toured the place, both outdoors and indoors, I came across children, both alone and in groups, playing in out of the way corners, in the branches of trees, and pretty much anyplace that provided them a respite from the adult gaze that follows our children for the entirety of their young lives.

Everywhere I looked, I found these worn places behind rocks and amidst trees where a generation of children have experienced the thrill of being "lost."

Sandsetter writes about exhilaration and fear, but as I've spent time in Icelandic preschools, I get a sense that for many children, these moments of disappearing and getting lost also contain an element of relief. There is a special kind of freedom that I recall from my own childhood that comes from being away, finally, from the critical eyes of adults.

Most impressively, I think, was that other than this intrusive tourist, stumbling across them in their hiding places, the actual adults responsible for them were emphatically not hunting them out. They were not constantly counting heads or calling their names. They left the children to be lost, trusting that they would allow themselves to be found when the time came to reveal themselves.

Do the children in our care have these important opportunities disappear or get lost, and if not, how can we provide them? Perhaps it is as simple as adding blankets under which they can hide or large appliance boxes or rooms where they can simply shut the door. It's a start at least. It's something we should all be thinking about, especially if we want children to grow up to know how to keep themselves safe.

******

Getting "lost" or hiding is just one of the many ways that young children need to explore risk, or challenge, in their lives. 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 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.

Thursday, July 11, 2024

The Only Way to Learn to Keep Yourself Safe is to Take Risks


I was watching a boy playing around under the swings as a classmate was swinging. It wasn't a particularly risky activity in my view. I mean, I was standing right there, taking pictures, discussing it with him, and it didn't set off any alarm bells for me in the moment, although after the fact, while going through the photos, it occurred to me that it was something that would be scuttled in other settings. My lack of concern probably stems from the fact that it's far from the first time this sort of thing has happened.


Many schools have removed their swings altogether, so maybe the very existence of swings is shocking to some. 


I imagine that in some dystopian future we'll become notorious for being the only school left with a swing set, let alone not having a set of rules about how the kids can use them. That's because, in our decades with swings, we've never found a need for safety rules. The reason is that the kids, the ones that live in the world outside our catastrophic imaginations, haven't shown a particular propensity to hurt themselves or one another.


Oh sure they get hurt like all kids do, like all people, but most of the injuries don't come from what people call "risky play," but rather from day-to-day activities, things you would think children had mastered. For instance, the worst injury we experienced during my nearly two decade tenure at Woodland Park came when a boy fell on his chin while walking on a flat, dry, linoleum floor. He needed a couple stitches. Another boy wound up with stitches when he fell while walking in the sandpit. 


Increasingly, I find myself bristling when I hear folks talk about "risky play," even when it's framed positively. From my experience, this sort of play is objectively not risky, in the sense that those activities like swinging or climbing or playing with long sticks, those things that tend to wear the label of "risky" are more properly viewed as "safety play," because that's exactly what the kids are doing: practicing keeping themselves and others safe. It's almost as if they are engaging in their own, self-correcting safety drills. Indeed, the only way to learn to keep yourself safe is to take risks.

When a group of four and five year olds load up the pallet swing with junk, then work together to wind it up higher and higher, then, on the count of three, let it go, ducking away as they do it, creating distance between themselves and this rapidly spinning flat of wood that they've learned is libel to release it's contents in random directions, they are practicing keeping themselves and others safe. They don't need adults there telling them to "be careful" or to impose rules based on our fears because those things are so manifestly necessary to this sort of thing that they are an unspoken part of the play.














When children pick up long sticks and start employing them as light sabers, swinging them at one another, they are practicing keeping themselves and others safe. The safety is built into it.







When children wrestle they are practicing caring for themselves and their friends.


When preschoolers are provided with carving tools and a pumpkin they automatically include their own safety and that of others into their play. Adult warnings to "be careful" are redundant at best and, at worst, become focal points for rebellion (which, in turn, can lead to truly risky behavior) or a sense that the world is full of unperceived dangers that only the all-knowing adults can see (which, in turn, can lead to the sort of unspecified anxiety we see so much of these days). Every time we say "be careful" we express, quite clearly, our lack of faith in our children's judgement, which too often becomes the foundation of self-doubt.




The truth is that they already are being careful. The instinct for self-preservation is quite strong in humans. It's a pity when we feel we must teach them to live within our catastrophic imaginations.


******

We live in an era of "bubble wrapped" children and helicopter parents, yet we know that healthy exposure to risk is essential for proper brain development, self-confidence, and physical competence, not to mention social-emotional and intellectual development. My 6-week course, Teacher Tom's Risky Play, is a deep-dive into the value and importance of risky 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 healthy risk-taking they need to thrive, both today and into the future. This is the only time the course will be offered this year. To register and learn more, click here.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Things to Say Instead of "Be Careful!"


Registration is now open for the 2024 cohort for my 6-week course for educators and parents, Teacher Tom's Risky Play. Most of the time we refer to it as "risky play," although some have argued that it wold more accurately called "challenging play" or even "safety play." For many of us, it should just be called "play."


Whatever we call it, most people who read here agree that we need to give children more space to engage in their self-selected pursuits, even if they sometimes make us adults nervous, so we find ourselves constantly cautioning children to "Be careful!"

Most of the time, our warnings to "be careful" are redundant at best and, at worst, become a spur to rebellion (which, in turn, can lead to truly hazardous behavior) or a sense that the world is full of unperceived dangers that only the all-knowing adult can see (which, in turn, can lead to the sort of unspecified anxiety we see so much of these days). Every time we say "be careful" we express, quite clearly, our lack of faith in our children's judgement, which too often becomes the foundation for self-doubt.

Sometimes people ask me about alternatives, such as saying, "pay attention to your body." For me, "pay attention" has the same flaws as "be careful." They are both commands that give children only two choices -- obey or disobey. On top of that, they are both quite vague. Better, I think, are simple statements of fact that allow children to think for themselves; specific information that supports them in performing their own risk assessment. This reminds me of the "good job" or "well done" habit many of us adults have acquired, in that we know we ought not do it, but can't help ourselves. So, in the spirit in which I offered suggestions for things we can say instead of "good job",  here are some ideas for things to say instead of "be careful."


"That's a skinny branch. If it breaks you'll fall on the concrete."


"I'm going to move away from you guys. I don't want to get poked in the eye."


"That would be a long way to fall."


"When people are swinging high, they can't stop themselves and might hit you."


"That looks like it might fall down."


"Tools are very powerful. They can hurt people."


"I always check to make sure things are stable before I walk on them."


"Sometimes ladders tip over."


"You're all crowded together up there. It would be a long way to fall if someone got pushed."


"When you jump on people, it might hurt them."


"You are testing those planks before you walk on them."


"That's a steep hill. I wonder how you're going to steer that thing."

I'm sure you can think of more.

When we turn our commands into informational statements, we leave a space in which children can think for themselves, rather than simply react, and that, ultimately, is what will help children keep themselves safe throughout their lives.

******

"Be careful" is just the tip of the risky play iceberg. We live in an era of "bubble wrapped" children and helicopter parents, yet we know that healthy exposure to risk is essential for proper brain development, self-confidence, and physical competence, not to mention social-emotional and intellectual development. My 6-week course, Teacher Tom's Risky Play, is a deep-dive into the value and importance of risky 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 healthy risk-taking they need to thrive, both today and into the future. This is the only time the course will be offered this year. To register and learn more, click here.


I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share