Note: Risk and play experts Steve Smith and Joe Frost participated in a panel discussion at the international Children & Nature Network conference held in Austin, Texas in April. Please also see Dr. Frost’s excellent commentary, “Breaking Down Legal Barriers to Nature Play,” posted in The New Nature Movement last week. — Richard Louv
Recent stories on Free Range Parenting reveal polarized societal views on risk-taking for children, yet research shows that it’s a healthy and necessary part of childhood to have the opportunity to take risks, make mistakes, and developmentally grow from those experiences. How do we make sure that we’re allowing children opportunities to take age-appropriate risks, without unintended consequences?
One concept that will help you guide your child towards age-appropriate risks is to look through the lens of developmental stages of risk assessment, as follows:
Recognition: The foundational skill, and the first which children need to develop and demonstrate, is the ability to simply recognize hazards. Being able to distinguish sharp rocks or a beehive as hazards is a basic, essential skill. Until a child can consistently recognize hazards, they can’t move on to the later stages of evaluating or managing them.
Evaluation: This is a more refined skill that recognizes gradients of hazards, such as steeper slopes, sharper rocks, or slippery surfaces as more hazardous than flat slopes, less sharp rocks, or less slippery surfaces. Another element of evaluation is the ability to recognize consequences. For example, knowing that falling into a river can lead to drowning, or running into traffic leading to injury or death. A child who has this skill can consistently articulate why something is a hazard, and the consequences of failure: “If I don’t make the leap from this log to that rock, I will fall into the river.”
Management: This is an even more advanced skill of making choices about how to appropriately engage with or avoid the hazard. For example, choosing to wear shoes around a dock full of splinters, choosing to test how deep water is before diving in, or choosing to avoid something altogether because the consequence of failure is unacceptable.
My friend Stacy, a mountain climber and mother of two, shared a story that she described as music to her ears: “As a parent who has introduced her children to activities with an arguably high level of risk (rock climbing, skiing, backpacking in high alpine environments which in all likelihood are on their way to morphing into mountaineering), a conversation overheard between my two sons (while performing some crazy martial arts moves up in a tree).”
Older Brother (9): “No, I’m not going to do that because the consequence is too high. If I fall I’d break my back. My skill level isn’t high enough.”
Younger Brother (7): “Ok, let’s go down and try it on the ground.” (paraphrased)
Stacy’s willingness to gradually introduce her children to experiences with real risks has clearly taught them the ability to recognize, evaluate, and manage their own risks as a result
How does a child move from one risk assessment stage to the next? A child can grow through experience, feedback, and the opportunity to reflect on their successes and failures. This is where parents or teachers play a crucial role. According to University of Iowa psychology professor Jodie Plumert, when children are very young they are obviously reliant on their parents to assess risks and supervise them, but as they get older, the responsibility for staying safe transfers to the child. Her studies show that “parent-child conversations are the bridge to (learning those skills).”
It may be most effective to take a guiding, questioning approach rather than lecturing about safety or solving all problems by imposing rules. If a child has a negative experience, it might be helpful to help them build upon it by asking three simple questions:
- What happened? (recognize)
- Why do you think that happened? (evaluate)
- What could you do to keep it from happening again? (manage)
Because we care about children, and due to shifting societal norms, we can tend to over-protect them. Researchers have shown that by sheltering our children too much, they fail to develop “proprioceptive sense” (ie. muscle and joint control) and even a simple game such as tag can ironically become dangerous because the children lack the basic skills to “play gently.” Some schools have even started banning tag games because the kids are reportedly unable to self-regulate and are unintentionally seriously injuring each other, according to occupational therapist Angela Hanscom. These children have not been given a chance to develop the risk assessment skills that Stacy’s young sons are already learning. This can lead them to not only have a stunted ability to assess and manage risks, but to lack resiliency, defined by Angela Lee Duckworth as “having a positive response to failure or adversity.”
The good news is that you can help your children develop abilities to manage their own risks. If you allow them to develop those skills, you have allowed them to have the full and rich childhood that will provide them with the resiliency they will need to succeed as adults.
Note: This article is not offered as legal advice.
Breaking Down Legal Barriers to Nature, Joe Frost
A History of Children’s Play and Play Environments, J. L. Frost (2010) New York & London: Routledge.
Play and Child Development, J.L Frost (2012, 4th ed.) New York and Hong Kong: Pearson.
The Developmental Benefits of Playgrounds, J.L. Frost, P.S. Brown, J.A. Sutterby, & C.D. Thornton, (2004). Olney, Md: Association for Childhood Education International.
From C&NN’s Research Center
Photo by Norman McGee