Child development experts around the world are alarmed at the reduction in free play allowed children at home, school, and in the community. Simultaneously, schools are pressured to provide more physical exercise within the school day to counteract rising rates of obesity and diabetes.
How Much Risk is Too Much?
In November, 2011,The National Post reported that schools in Toronto, Ontario had banned almost all balls on playgrounds following an incident where a parent was hit in the head with a soccer ball. Students responded with petitions, protesting the ban and many parents agreed, but school is not the only setting where children’s play is being restricted.
How can the correct balance be struck between safety and the excitement of creative, free play? Is unstructured play really necessary? How much risk is too much? These are questions that have been explored in recent research.
Anushka Asthana, education correspondent for The Observer in Britain, reported on an extensive literature review by Play England in November, 2008, which revealed that half of Britain’s children had been banned from tree-climbing and many had been banned from playing tag. Even hide and seek were considered too risky by some parents. While the potential dangers involved in tree-climbing are obvious, the same study pointed out that falling out of bed resulted in almost three times as many hospitalizations than falling out of trees did.
Evolutionary Reason for Risky Behavior
Children playing at the beach will enthusiastically build shelters for themselves out of driftwood, despite the risk of slivers, scrapes, stings, bumps and bruises. This is independent discovery learning, and their dreams will incorporate this new learning into existing memory networks while the bumps and bruises heal.
The Journal of Evolutionary Psychology reported, in 2011, [points out] that risky play appears to have an evolutionary anti-phobic effect. For example, children have a natural and adaptive fear of heights which protects them from intentionally exposing themselves to dangerous heights. Despite this fear, they tend to take gradually increasing risk with heights and in doing so are able to desensitize themselves and avoid a phobia that would interfere with normal life. In taking risks, with adult guidance, children experience the positive emotion of excitement paired with the experience of coping safely, which reduces the level of fear and anxiety.
Graduated exposure to anxiety-producing stimuli, where the child has control over the degree of exposure, combined with mastery oriented thoughts (e.g.I can do this) is an effective method of reducing anxiety and fear. Thus the child is able to move the boundary between danger and safety, expanding his/her range of experience and ability.
Over-Protection Reduces Resiliency
Well-intentioned, but inhibiting, protection from age-appropriate risky play could result in more anxiety for children as they are prevented from experiencing the gradual exposure necessary to overcome fears that are no longer relevant due to the child’s development of adequate coping skills.
Minor injuries are a normal part of life, are not usually traumatic to children, and could even be educational, as adults provide appropriate care and encourage the child to carry on. Serious playground injuries are relatively rare, and usually due to children’s behaviour rather than the equipment used.
Despite risk of injury, observational studies show that children will seek activities that involve height and speed regardless of adults’ restrictions. The ambiguous pairing of fear and excitement when children are engaged in risky play is motivating; successfully balancing pleasant and unpleasant emotions is intensely rewarding.
Culture and Over-Protective Parenting
Cultural differences influence the degree of protection/restriction provided by parents and early childhood educators. Scandinavian parents tend to encourage a greater degree of freedom to roam outdoors than some other western countries, for example, while in North America there has been a trend in recent years to reduce risk to the point of boredom. While rough and tumble play is stimulating for motor and cognitive functions, sedentary play is dangerously unstimulating, with alarming reports of increasing childhood diseases such as diabetes, heart problems, and psychological difficulties such as anxiety and depression.
Developing Resilience in Kids
The adults in childrens’ lives are a powerful influence on developing resilience, the ability to bounce back from inevitable stressors in life. Resilient children develop empathy, and are less likely to suffer from mental illness. They develop good problem-solving skills, are courageous about trying new experiences, and have healthy attachments with adults.
Excessive restrictions on exploratory play, and parents’ anxiety about normal risk, can have a negative effect on the development of resilience in children, as too many rules reduce the opportunities for children to improve competence and confidence. Inadequate protection can also negatively impact children’s development of resilience; as in most areas of child-rearing, balance is the key.
As a parent, how do you allow or not allow your child to play? Do you think more 'risky play' is a natural and important part of child development?