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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Reaping the rewards of risk

As I mentioned recently on my Facebook page, I'm in the throes of a major uni assignment on risky play. I have to admit that I'm loving the uni work- not so much because of the course itself (in fact the restrictions of writing in an academic rather than a creative style sometimes drive me a bit nutty), but because of the things it's prompting me to do with the kids.

I chose the topic, 'risky play', myself.  I've got a passion for listening to what the kids want and trying to respond. And in one of my workplaces- my favourite one- risk is on the kids' agenda almost every moment of every day. If they're not trying to climb the fence and escape like Violet, they're on the roof of the shed, or up a tree, or playing Kung Fu Panda games, or crashing the bikes into one another and sprawling on the concrete pretending to be in need of an ambulance.

It's a high-energy demographic, and I love it- kids being kids, fearless and gutsy, the way it used to be in the days when parents and carers weren't so damn precious.  When the media hadn't scared the heck out of everyone by publicising and inflating every sad accident, so we'd assume the world was suddenly a more dangerous place than before.  When the lawyers hadn't encouraged everyone to play the blame game for money.

I suppose it's a bit like stepping back in time.  To me, these kids feel real. They're like the kids from my own childhood, fifty-odd years ago.

Of course, the flip side is that while these kids are being 'real' kids, the staff are looking on in horror and begging them to get down, slow down, and (if they won't comply) sit down. All in all, it's a bit of a downer for those high spirits, but I'm not here to blame the teachers; most early childhood staff have been subject to a fear campaign all their lives. They're nearly all a lot younger than me.

They've been taught to be like that, too.  Our training courses are high on occupational health and safety, and low on the pragmatism needed to address energetic children's needs for physical challenge. The correct answer to risk, according to our teachers, has been risk avoidance- not risk management.

So when I had to do an assignment inquiring into children's play, I got the bit between my teeth and decided to look closely at what these kids are actually learning from risk-taking, then see if I could find a compromise between what the kids wanted and what the teachers could cope with. I knew it might be tricky, but I've been surprised by how tricky it's actually been.

Seriously, many teachers get stressed out watching anything that could conceivably end in an accident; they're scared of being blamed, of being called incompetent or negligent.  Many actually believe that it's culpable to let a child skin their knee. (If you think I'm exaggerating, you need to read "No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk-Averse Society", by Tim Gill.  Yes, in some playgrounds running is banned.)

And changing those entrenched attitudes is bloody hard. After two sessions with the kids, first watching what they were interested in doing and then scaffolding some risky play- 'scaffolding', by the way, is uni jargon for giving enough adult guidance to allow the kids to extend themselves to their full capacity- after just those two sessions, I was reaping rich rewards.  Yet it seems that I was the only one who could see them.

Take the 'playing with sticks' thing.  That's just one behaviour that I had to work with, and I had to try to think of a better way without being a Boring Adult suggesting Something Dumb.

No, I didn't let the kids play with sticks; they try that one on nearly every day in some form or another.  It starts out as 'we're going fishing', and ends up as Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker behind the shed. Kids can be quite clever about getting access to the play they want. (That's actually been researched. Yes, they do nod politely to you, promise to stop, then go out of sight and do exactly what they want all over again.)

None of the parents (yes, I talked to the parents) let their kids play with sticks, and so neither did I- but they obviously wanted to play with some sort of sword. I racked my brains....

...and finally was inspired. I provided pool noodles.  Long, challenging to manage effectively when you're little, and with an edge of danger without being lethal (nobody ever lost an eye from being poked with a pool noodle, to my knowledge).

But they do hurt if they hit you hard enough (and these kids are STRONG). Before anyone got clobbered with one, I asked the kids to make some rules about how they could be used.  This is what they came up with:


No hitting faces!

No hitting bodies!

This corner of the yard is for noodle play only!

They still worked out ways to hit with them, of course. One boy lay a noodle on the ground and beat the heck out of it with a second noodle, telling me he was 'killing a snake'. A girl discovered she could 'play the drums' by beating the noodle on the ground. A few kids got 'accidental' (!!)  hits in on other kids, but there were very few tears and no injuries.

They discovered that they could also throw a noodle into the trees, then use another noodle to whack it down. They loved this so much that I was constantly wedging a noodle into more and more tricky forks of the tree and letting them work out how they needed to manipulate the second noodle to free it.

A week later they were still asking to play this game, and begging for the noodles to come out of the shed.

I call that a success.  But in uni terms, I have to ask, what learning is happening here?

Social skills. They made their own rules, and mostly stuck to them. They could figure out that they didn't want to be hit in the face themselves- that was easy- and they also worked out that nobody else would like it either. (And if they did it, the noodles might go away... and they were such fun! Risky play is an awesome motivator.)

Making their own rules? That's called 'risk assessment', and if kids don't get the chance to think about that and learn to do it when they're young, because they've been allowed to take NO risks, we'll probably end up with a society full of teenage drivers who haven't worked out that speeding and drink driving with a car full of mates is a bad idea. (Oh, hang on a minute...)

Aerobic exercise. Wow, did they pound those noodles. Boy, did they leap in the air throwing them into the trees. Motivation, motivation, motivation... even kids who were a little over their healthy weight were moving. Because, folks, it was fun. And challenging. And just a little bit scary. (Hey, if we're going to let them do Hallowe'en, why not the odd game of whack-the-noodle??)

Creative fantasy play. What wonderful imaginations children have, if you give them the tiniest chance to show it by moving towards what they want.  (Killing a snake? Playing the drums? I never would have thought of that!)

Problem solving. Cognitive skills from risky play? Would you connect the two? I hadn't thought about that very much till I saw Gary in action, when the noodle got stuck in the tree the first time.

Let me tell you about Gary. He's almost non-verbal, 'probably developmentally delayed' (I quote what I'd been told and what I also believed from what I'd seen of him).  Gary spends most of his time unfocused, throwing things or climbing inappropriately (whether outdoors or in).

But when he saw that first noodle high in the tree, he immediately grabbed another noodle, held it by the very end and used it like a poker to lift the first noodle out of the fork of the tree.  (You try doing that with something that's taller than you are, and flexible to boot. Go on, try it.)

As the 'stuck' noodle went up, he pushed harder so it flew higher- then used the second noodle like a bat to flick it sideways so it didn't fall back in the same fork.

Probably developmentally delayed, you know... yeah, right. Gary's indigenous. I know quite a bit about indigenous issues, but until I saw that, I didn't realise how much our perceptions are based on white norms. Gary doesn't 'perform' well inside, particularly in cognitive tasks. And outside, he's constantly told to stop what he's doing (instead of being praised for his skill in getting so high up in that tree he's climbed 'illegally').

Man oh man, we need to change our thinking around that one. This kid has problem-solving ability that nobody's plumbed yet- not even close. I'm humbled by that experience. We need to get that child outside and give him chances to do cognitive stuff there. He's not learning indoors- for him, it's culturally irrelevant. Put that in your coolamon and smoke it.

There were other activities, too, but this post will go on for a week if I tell all in one go.  Let me just move on to my amazement at the response of the regular staff (remember, I'm just the casual, visiting for an unpaid day to do my assignment).

The facts that the kids actually didn't hurt each other in any serious way, had an absolute ball, did all that learning and showed previously unknown talents went straight through to the keeper without touching a glove.  (Sorry, my US readers, that's cricket-talk. I mean, they totally missed all that.)  All they saw was a new and dangerous tool that might hurt someone, particularly in the hands of some difficult children with behaviour issues. And they saw that the dangerous tool had needed them to be more alert in the playground in case someone got hurt.  They got really, really anxious.

I'm not blaming them for that- I have to accept that this is how my 'experiment' affected them.  They're not trying to be difficult.  I asked them for their honest responses, and that's what they gave me.  Changing attitudes which you've held for years, which might have been taught to you by people you respect very much- parents, teachers, friends- is no easy thing to do.  And we like what's familiar; we're comfortable with doing things the way we've always done them.  That gives us a filter that we don't even realise is there.

When the kids came inside after their 'risky play morning', I put away my equipment before I followed them in.  By the time I entered the indoor area, maybe five minutes after them, every single child was sitting at a table focused on an activity.

Every staff member commented on this.

No staff member connected it to what we'd been doing outside.

Go figure.

And so despite the kids' entreaties, I haven't brought the noodles out again. They're still in the shed. I'm hoping that one day, after the staff have seen them lying there for long enough, they'll get used to the idea of them as toys.  Challenging toys.  Physical toys.  Cognitive toys. Social toys.

Introducing risky play is NOT going to be easy.  We need to be patient... VERY patient... and very, very careful about what activities we allow and how we scaffold them.

Are you up for the challenge?


  1. I am so lucky that all my co-workers feel the same way as me about risk taking and so my class are allowed to climb & play with sticks etc. Parents are always a little incredulous at the start of the year when they watch them playing outside & we aren't stopping them from doing certain 'risky' things but as they watch they begin to realise their child is not in any real danger & is very motivated & engaged with their peers. I did a post on risk taking :

  2. Great to hear that some centres are embracing the concept! I find that things move a little more slowly out of town. :)

  3. Here is my second attempt to comment! I love the article. I have had a family child care in my home in Maine, USA for about 17 years now. It is a challenging balance to let children play and to keep them safe. Especially, when you are caring for other peoples children in a sue happy society! I try to let them create their own challenges, but to help them think about being safe also. We also have them make their own rules for playing. One of the silly/simple things that I feel is a little challenge for them is the three steps going down into my playroom. The children obviously learn to go up and down them, first crawling and eventually standing and holding the rail. But, they love to jump from them also. They first master the first step and work their way up to the top. When a two year 'dares' to jump from the top they think they are really brave! Off course with younger ones here also ( I have infants through 5 years old) they have to learn to watch for other children. At two, they usually don't know as well when it's safe to jump, so we will watch for them. Parents are interesting, they will automatically tell them not to jump and the child will say, but we can! I had a Quality inspection a few years back and they wanted me to put up a gate because three steps posed a 'risk'. I told them the steps were like a climber, they were part of our curriculum. Every child has learned to jump, because they want to not that we teach them. Thanks for the article. It has inspired me to look for ways to encourage the children to take safe risks.

  4. I love this post so much. I've been thinking about and experimenting with some "risky" things inside the classroom. And your statement here is one of the core issues: "And we like what's familiar; we're comfortable with doing things the way we've always done them. " This statement challenges me to think beyond what I've always done - to try things in a little different way to see if those "risks" have some greater rewards (as you noted above).

    But other teachers feel that challenge in a different way - they want no part of it. Recently I blogged about taking sand out of the container and using it on trays. Someone I greatly respect for how she conducts her classroom told me that she saw that and was glad I tried it...but she wouldn't do it because it was too messy. It is too risky of an idea for her. I know this isn't the gist of your blog post but I think being risky in and out of the classroom is challenging for many of us.

  5. Lisajean, that is a PERFECT example of how regulations are based on fear, not children's long term wellbeing. Congratulations to you for your bravery in standing up and owning the risk as part of your curriculum. No child is going to seriously injure themselves on three steps!

    And Scott, I know very well the level of anti-change sentiment that you're talking about. I experienced a very strong negative reaction once just from rearranging the furniture in my room- and that wasn't even messy or risky!! Personally, I think using trays for each child's sand supply is an awesome idea- have been keeping my eye out for some cheap trays so I can copy... :D

  6. Wonderful post! Good on you for working to change perceptions! I wish our school wasn't so averse to risk, it's sad to see all the things the kids aren't allowed to do.

    Thanks for linking up to the Outdoor Play Party hope to see you again this Friday!

  7. Oh I wish my daughter's preschool director and teachers could read and follow this idea! They are considering removing the one more natural and endless play type of equipment that they have (which is a giant cross elevated just slightly off the ground and made out of whole tree trunks) because one girl slipped off and scrapped her leg. They just don't get that kids need to have their comfort limits stretched and challenged. Great post!
    Thanks for linking up to the outdoor play link up this week! Great post to share.

  8. Abbie, maybe you need to collect a few web addresses, print out some information and present it to them. The coalface is notoriously slow to catch up with current research, so they might need some help. I found that the children's parents were sometimes more up-to-date in their thinking than the staff, and it sounds like you are too!!

    Mama Pea Pod, just give me a nudge any time you want me to link up- I'm not used to this linky thingy!! :D

  9. Hi Annie,
    You are educator after my heart, or a Polar Bear Educator as I call it.

    I hope you will join us for Every Day is a Play Day link up. We know that we have many outdoor play champions as passionate as we are in the blogsphere and think it is great that you as a blogger are sharing your passion about getting kids outside. To make it a little more exciting than a normal link up, you will get the opportunity to win a prize for the best outdoor play post. $200 gift certificate from Polarn O. Pyret.
    Cheers Kari

  10. Thanks for this - I love the way you bring the issues to life, and bring out the richness of the children's learning, through your detailed observations, reflections and descriptions of what happens when children play freely. Thanks for the reference to my book too. It is available for free to download as a pdf. Your readers can find out more about it - and also the link to my publishers' page for the download - from here.

    1. Thanks for the support and for the link, Tim. I think everyone connected with ECE should read your book, to be honest. It also brings the issues to life in a way that's hard to ignore.

  11. This is a message that needs to make it's way to the US. All the bloggers I read with this view are European or Australian. Parenting culture is so risk-adverse over here.

    1. Yes Katey, I feel the truth of what you're saying. But you must introduce yourself to Teacher Tom's blog! He is American, and very pro-risky play. I think if more people read his blog and then worked out ways to implement his style that suited their own demographic, there would be real progress.


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