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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Turning parents on to risky play

If you've been following the groundswell of research and opinion online about risky play, you'll know that cotton wool care should be a thing of the past. It's a dinosaur. It's counter-productive. Kids need to be taking risks- it's part of their developmental learning curve. Kids need to be allowed to maybe hurt themselves, in minor ways, now and then.

Sadly, when we remove our ostrich-heads from the sandpit of cyberspace and look around us, we see that not very much has changed. Many carers would still rather stop kids from doing something than take the risk themselves of having to find the Band-Aids and write an incident report. (And explain it to the parents at pick-up time.) Many parents would rather swaddle children in cotton wool than feel the guilt of allowing their child to hurt themselves when they could have prevented it.

So what on earth can we do? How can we get the message across?

Well, not by sitting here on the internet bleating about it- that's for sure. We all know that the people we need to talk to aren't reading this.

To get the message across, we also have to take some risks. As advocates for risky play, we have to risk telling uncomfortable truths about risky play to parents who don't want to hear them. Who may see our comments as a negative judgment on their parenting style. Who may think us lazy or uncaring for wanting their children to engage in play that might hurt them.

And there is no easy way to change human behaviour. There is no quick way to change human behaviour. To achieve change we must be patient, be committed, and above all be brave.

Are you brave enough to try to change parents' thinking about risky play?

Here's a radical plan.

First, you put a large notice in a prominent place. Somewhere the parents can't miss it.


Be prepared to explain yourself when parents comment.

Next you start changing what you display in your daily photos. Parents love to look at photos of their children's daily activities, don't they? And come on, be honest: you censor what you take pictures of, don't you? You only photograph things that make you look like a 'good carer'. A safe carer.

A risk-free carer.

I dare you to decorate a prominent part of your centre with photos of children doing risky things. You know they do those things every day, whether you forbid it or not.

"Why on earth would I do that?! The parents will scream," you cry!

Yes they will. (Many of them will- not all. You may be surprised who supports you.) Some will be up in arms. And that is your moment to talk about the benefits of risk, because you have their attention.

What are you going to say when the parents start objecting to this unsafe environment?

Here's an uncomfortable truth about risky play: children who want to take a risk will frequently do it behind your back if you forbid it in your presence. Share that fact with these parents.

Make a poster of that fact, and display it with the photos of your centre's children sneaking around the corner and playing with sticks. Or shimmying up the shade cloth supports, to the very top. Or standing up on the roof of the fort. When the parents ask awkward questions about what these children are doing, that's your cue to explain human nature. Children are programmed to teach themselves risk assessment. We are getting in their way by stopping them, and there are life-long consequences if we succeed.

Truth is very uncomfortable, isn't it? Are you tearing your hair out and screaming "I CAN'T DO THAT!!!!"?

Yes, you can. You have to start a conversation with even the most resistant parents. You have to make them see that controlled risk is desirable, because otherwise you either get uncontrolled risk or no risk. BOTH ARE DANGEROUS FOR CHILDREN. You're an advocate for children, aren't you? Aren't you?

When I was doing my uni assignment on risky play, I became invisible behind my camera. I wasn't working that day; I was just taking pictures and observing. I'd read the research that found that children take risks out of the adults' sight if they're not allowed to do it in an adult's presence. I simply stopped intervening, until the kids forgot I was an adult. Then this was what I saw.

I saw kids having fist fights.

I saw kids playing with sticks- in this case while running around on the balance beams.

I saw kids piling blocks into wobbly towers, climbing onto them and leaping off...

...and sometimes falling off. And crying. And then pretending they weren't crying, because then I might say "I told you not to do that." (I didn't.)

I saw kids 'misusing' the play equipment.

Go on. Tell me that doesn't happen in your playground. Of course it does.

And yes, of course it's a risk to just admit that children get up to this stuff regardless of our attempts to supervise them and make rules... unless we also made it very clear that this is normal, and necessary for their development, and we are scaffolding it and allowing it because we are good teachers who care about the children's future. We have to make it clear that the children are learning vital things when they do this. We have to make clear to the parents the consequences of a risk-free childhood.

We have to make it clear that we are failing in our duty as educators if we stifle risk.

And so you need a sustained campaign- Rome was definitely not built in a day. Also, Rome was not built by the faint-hearted. (How fair dinkum are you about this? Hmmm?)

(Building Rome may require you to educate your educators, too. If you have dissent in the ranks you'll never win the parents over. It's called 'professional development'- do it. Do it first, if this is an issue.)

The long haul means keeping attention on the issue. Toss a few bombs into each newsletter; make posters of these 'bombs' and stick them on the parents' noticeboard. Referenced, factual, clearly expressed bombs are what you need. Like these:

Children who aren't allowed to take risks are more prone to anxiety conditions later in life. No risk = fear, insecurity, anxiety, lack of self-esteem.
         -Sandseter & Kennair, 2011

Without risky play, children don't learn risk management. (This is not something you want your child to learn behind the wheel of his first car.) 
           -Little & Wyver, 2008; Curtis and Carter, 2000

Risky play teaches analysis skills. (They're vital for academic learning.)
           -The Plowden Report, 1967

Children learn by experience, not by being told. No risk = no experience of risk = no learning about risk = inappropriate risk-taking later.

Are you getting the idea? You have to be strong, persuasive and succinct. Nobody is going to read a whole paragraph- parents are busy people. You need sound bites. In bold. In a box.

Let's go back to those photos. Across the top of your pictures of risky play, put appropriate sound bites about risky play. Underneath, you need a succinct analysis of what the children are learning by playing that way. (You might also want to add how you helped to scaffold their risky play, if you have the sort of parents who do stand and read the noticeboard.)

Fist-fights? Superhero play? This teaches concepts of power, self-control and empathy. You are scaffolding this by talking about it at mat time and encouraging the children to make their own rules around it. (Well, you are, aren't you?)

Playing with sticks? That child was showing an important marker of mental development by using a stick as a symbol of a sword. And of course you guided the play by replacing the sticks with pool noodles, didn't you, and discussing cause and effect? Did you poke holes in the mud with sticks, to see how easily they penetrate soft surfaces? Did you discuss what happens if sticks go in eyes? Did the children make rules for using sticks? Did the need to use sticks as swords diminish once it wasn't a way of rebelling?

As for those wobbly blocks- the children are learning vital lessons about balance, control, building rigid structures, risk factors, cause and effect... and you'll discuss that too, won't you? I found the children were so keen to talk about what they'd been doing in the playground and do their own risk assessment, as long as they could see the photo of themselves doing it.

Look, it's not going to happen immediately. You can't walk into your centre with a different attitude to risky play next week and expect that everyone there will go along with you. But you can't sneak it in, either- you have to make it an event.

Have you got the guts to do it?


  1. Brilliant post Candy & I am glad that I do post all photos & actually seek out the wobbly, risky looking ones. I had a parent actually tell me today that she is trying to go by my mantra 'If they can get up, they can get down' when observing her child climbing etc.
    I agree totally get the parents on board & it will all fall into place. Kierna

    1. Thanks Kierna. Good on you for not censoring your photos! And you're so right- children left to their own devices will usually stop themselves before they get too high or precarious.

  2. I agree with all except for the fist fighting. I'm all for letting kids be kids when it comes to challenging their own skills but children who use aggression to get their way and get away with it will be more likely to continue this behavior. Physical aggression is a far easier way to get your way than reasoning and compromise and once a child learns this they will be more likely to fall back on that behavior and as he/she grows up they will become a bully. Children need to be taught how to get along and compromise through talking and communication skills. Physical aggression (fist fighting) is never okay and an adult should always intervene and work with the children to resolve the issue in a non-physical way. If they do it behind your back anyway, teach the others to speak up and tell on the child who is hitting them so that child can be given a consequence. Physical violence is not tolerated in proper's called battery and as an adult they will face legal action.

    1. Anon, I'm not for a moment suggesting you should let children bully each other. It's not hard to recognise the difference between superhero play or experimental 'fighting' play and serious aggression, but unfortunately some EC professionals don't discriminate between them and ban it all. The experimental and role-playing fight behaviour can be very functional in a developmental sense, and all parties involved will be involved voluntarily; bullying, on the other hand, involves an aggressor and a victim and calls for immediate intervention.

      I could make this much more clear if I showed you some pictures of the expressions on the children's faces as they engaged in the fight I mentioned above (but I can't, as it would breach confidentiality); both parties showed enjoyment in their expressions at one stage or another and were clearly working something out in a mutually agreed manner. It is so important that we look at faces before jumping to conclusions.

      I hope this has cleared the matter up for you. I understand that some are put off by any violent behaviour from children, even mock-violence, but my point of view is that children have to work through what they see around them for themselves. Banning behaviours only drives them underground; better to let the experimental behaviour play itself out with supervision (rather than around the corner), take pictures and then discuss it with the children afterwards.

    2. Thank you for clarifying. It is not so clear above which led to the confusion. Role playing "fighting" is completely different. My children regularly have light-saber battles, shoot nerf guns & pretend guns at each other & all that & we consider that perfectly normal in our house.

  3. Hello Aunt Annie! I teach at a parent cooperative and as part of our mission, we include parent education. We had an occupational therapist in as a guest speaker a few years back. She explained that roughhousing is very important because it teaches children where the ends of their bodies are -- it teaches them how to become gentle. Without it, they cannot regulate their bodies appropriately, i.e. when to use a gentle touch and when to apply greater force because they have practiced it during play. It was a game changer for those gathered including myself.

    1. Thanks for that, Lesley! Yet another vital role for risky play.

  4. I can't see no problem with risk play the only think it can backfire something goes wrong and a parent complains that they child is hurt.I don't think a parent will accept it when you tell then well it risk play. Sad part is you can allow risk play in child care and then that child goes to school might not understand you are not allow to punch your friends but in child care you are allow.
    You might have parent that would say hey that is great but end up turn against you when their child is hurt .I guess that why some centre will not go there fear of been sue by a parent or have full investigation take place due to a child want to play with stick and was allow stick it in their mouth and fall over .... or a child got a bruise from a fist fight with a child and the staff thought it was a play fight.
    I would love to see toy guns and plastic swords for the children to play with but they are not allow.
    It sad but today parents can be nice one min and next they can trash your centre or take matter further to child safety

    1. Anon, supporting risky play doesn't mean a free-for-all where anything goes. It's very important that carers scaffold the experience (that means providing a supporting framework) so that, while the children feel they still have autonomy, they also take responsibility for making their own play rules based on empathy and experience. So, for example, if some children wanted to play with sticks I might gather them around and ask them if anyone has ever been poked by a stick, did it hurt, does anyone think we need some rules about sticks- and then help them to make a set of rules which they will enforce themselves with the support of the EC professional.

      Certainly children are not just 'allowed' to punch their friends. Again, a whole network of learning is involved here in which children make and enforce their own rules. If rules are simply enforced from above, the play goes underground and the children have less chance to explore the concept of empathy for themselves. At 4 the children are just starting to develop 'theory of mind', ie they start to understand that other people have feelings and thoughts different from their own, and this is a very important time to encourage thought for others not by forceful imposition of rules but by encouraging empathy for and cooperation with each other. THAT is what EC teachers do. They are not meant to just stand around while the kids thump each other.

      This post was about a specific aspect of risky play- the way to communicate about it with parents. I would have to write a thesis to explore every aspect in a single post! I will try to add some more informative posts so you can find out more about the way it is implemented with the kids.

      Hope that sets your mind at rest a little.

    2. Anon, here's the link to my other post on risky play that explains how I implement it:

  5. How timely to receive this link. I'm doing Post grad studies in Early Childhood and I'm a big advocate in getting kids outside to play and be kids. My son is one of those kids who loves to take risks and I encourage that. I think the risky outdoor play lets them connect with nature and understand the world around them.

    Oh and I'll be checking out s few of those references for my uni assignment ;P

    1. Risky Teacher, if you want to head over to my Facebook page and ask there, I can probably find a way to send you some more information about useful research articles.

  6. Really well-made points, illustrated with great images. I'd add a few comments. 1) settings need to make sure they don't set their benchmark at the level of the most anxious parents 2) settings may do well to revisit their mission statements and marketing materials. Especially if they begin "we offer a safe and secure environment..." 3) If I may be so bold, people may be interested in my website, which has quite a lot to say on the topic of risk and childhood.

    1. Excellent points, Tim. Revisiting the mission statement, promotional pamphlets and policy documents is really important!!! So many of them do say exactly that, and the definition of 'safe and secure' really needs attention because it is NOT safe to provide a cotton wool environment- but parents often don't understand that.

      Also, the squeaky wheel syndrome is a recurring problem. The most anxious parents tend to make the most noise. Knee-jerk reactions are common, especially in centres where the finances are running close to the wind. As I said, to be advocates for children we too have to take some risks, and displeasing anxious parents is one of them.

      Oh, and I frequently link your articles on my FB page, so my followers have no excuse not to be familiar with your writings!

  7. Love that "settings need to make sure that they don't set their benchmark at the level of their most anxious parents". EXACTLY! Don't fall into the trap of 'pleasing' the parents at the expense of what you know to be in the children's best interests! Somtimes we have to take the hard road with parents to secure what is best for children. And yes, how do you define "safe and secure"? An important definition to be discussed amongst the members of a centres management and community. Important that everybody is on the same level of understanding regarding this. Risk taking CAN happen in a safe and secure environment, just depends on your definition. Cheers AA for a great post! :)

    1. Thanks, Karen. Yes- we do have to take the hard road. These are really important professional development discussions which centres need to ensure happen, for the good of the children.

  8. This is a wonderful post, Candy. Thank you! I just shared it with our preschool director (who is definitely on board with this idea). What I hear from so many teachers & caregivers is that they know what the children need, but convincing parents is the hard part. I love your suggestions on how to handle that. I think it can be very hard, especially when your business can be affected, to stand up for what you know to be right. But ultimately, one has to go with their heart especially when one is this committed to children. Loved the post (as usual). Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Gina. It does take a sturdy backbone when enrolments are feared to be on the line. But we have to remember that our brief is to do what's best for the children, and that we can't please everybody!

  9. this is a brilliant post on a very important issue. thank you for all of the research and quotes!

    here's a piece i wrote a while back called " BE CAREFUL!" that is more about letting even younger children take risks and how to delete "be careful" from your parenting vocab.

    thought u might enjoy.

    thanks again for this post!!!

    jennifer lehr

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