Roald Dahl said: “The more risks you allow your children to make, the better they learn to look after themselves.” A vital part of growing up is learning to manage risks, and children do this by tackling challenges. During play, children mimic real life, becoming aware of their strengths as well as their limitations, learning fundamental skills and experiencing their own emotional reactions to the outcomes of their actions. Through taking risks, children learn how to be responsible for their own safety.
In this day and age, the fear of lawsuits has created an over-protective society where entertainment providers, including children’s playgrounds, lean towards caution rather than risk. Children are all but bubble-wrapped before being sent out to play. This creates a safe environment, but not necessarily one that allows the development of essential skills that would be acquired naturally through risk-taking play. As such, children are susceptible to either of two consequences: either they become adverse to taking risks as they progress through life, or they lack the ability to take calculated risks and make foolish decisions with troubling implications.
With this in mind, we don’t want to see our children get hurt either. An environment created for children to play, while providing necessary risk-taking features, should not pose any dangers such as concealed obstacles, damaged equipment, exposed nails or spikes, or broken glass as examples. Also, children should not be forced to participate in activities they are not ready to tackle in the hope they will become more confident. Playgrounds should have a balance between safety and risk, providing the necessary challenges to build confidence and problem-solving skills, while protecting them from unnecessary danger.
I was blown away when volunteering in a classroom of 3 to 6 year olds when a six year old felt hungry and came through to the kitchen where I was making tea to prepare a snack. He efficiently prepared a fried egg on toast – using the equipment provided for this purpose, including a two-plate stove, toaster and sharp knives. He also washed up and packed away after himself when he was done, as I stood wide-eyed observing. This was my only role at that stage of my volunteer period– to observe the children at work, nothing more, so it took all my self-control not to jump in and help. The kitchen had been laid out at the child’s level, and the child had been taught the process he had just completed, now unassisted. His environment had been prepared in advance that he was able to carry out a task that contained elements of risk because he had been equipped with the necessary tools and skills to minimise the chance of harm.
Risk-taking play teaches a child to think ahead and plan their steps, so it is important that we as adults allow them the freedom to work through these processes on their own. A child needs to be able to climb a jungle gym in order to assess for themselves how high they feel comfortable to climb, and then to work their way back down again. Eliminating this step by placing the child on the jungle gym at a point you have determined denies the child an important developmental step of risk-assessment. The same applies for taking the child off after they have climbed up by themselves. We should also not transfer our own fears to our children and hold them back when they feel confident in their own abilities to push their current limits a little further.
“The greatest gifts you can give your child are the roots of responsibility and the wings of independence” Dennis Waitley