This is why children need to start taking more risks with play. With being outdoors, with being out of sight for a short while (if safe to do so) and why they need to be allowed to climb trees and scrape their knees.
Ask anyone above the age of 30, and they’ll tell you how different their childhood was from the one that kids experience today. Gone are the days of playing outside all day, taking risks, not being watched by parents and spontaneously stopping by your friend’s house for tea. The internet hadn’t been invented, kids’ TV was limited to a handful of programmes once a day, and our parents didn’t Google every concern they had about our welfare.
Many argue it was a simpler time, and that might be true. But, it was also a riskier time, wasn’t it? Playing unattended, getting up to mischief and not having an oversight from parents meant there were many more opportunities for children to run into danger.
However, there is an argument for allowing our children to start taking more risks with play again, as the ‘right amount of risk’ can actually have some very beneficial side effects.
However, it’s important to understand that when we talk about letting children take more risks, we don’t mean leaving them unsupervised on the internet or wandering off with strangers. Instead, we mean:
- Playing at heights: children love the thrill of playing at heights, enjoying the bird’s-eye view from the top of a tree or the rush of adrenaline that comes with scaling a structure that’s a little taller than they’re really comfortable climbing
- Playing at speed: kids love running as fast as they possibly can, riding their bikes fast or skateboarding downhill – giving a thrill from the fact they’ve almost (but not quite) lost control
- Play fighting: rough and tumble or any sort of play fighting is fun, and an important way of testing social and physical boundaries
- Temporarily getting lost or disappearing: playing hide and seek gives a great kick – a feeling that arises from the fear of being permanently separated from their companions versus the desire to be found
Of course, no one is advocating that children should be encouraged to take risks around deep water or play with knives! But, it’s important to recognise that young mammals of most species will embark on risky play. Monkeys swing from high trees, mountain goats play on steep slopes, and gazelles will occasionally even reverse-stalk lions. The purpose of these kinds of activities is to teach the young (be they humans or animals) to regulate fear, ensuring they can handle their emotions and basic instincts in situations that could have significant consequences. In fact, there’s an argument that children who are not exposed to risk could end up overacting with fear when put into unfamiliar situations, and will fail to adapt or take necessary risks for their own preservation.
Risky play is also an essential way of getting to know the world. Children are surprisingly good at knowing which risks they are ready to take, or how physically or emotionally uncomfortable they are willing to be. Children will stop when it hurts, or they’ll simply change the way they’re playing.
So, if you agree that there are some good reasons for allowing children to take more risks when they’re playing, here are some things you can do to ease the fears you’ll naturally have as a parent…
Know your child
Some children are natural thrill-seekers, which means you’ll need to keep an eye on them so they don’t put themselves in genuine danger. However, other children are naturally very cautious, and might need encouraging to push themselves beyond their comfort zones. Figure out which of these categories your child fits into.
Make sure they’re well-dressed for playing
It may seem like a superfluous concern, but many parents feel genuinely distressed at the thought of their children being cold or falling ill due to inappropriate clothing. So make sure you kit them out in layers and appropriate shoes. And then? Stand back and know that you’ve done your bit to keep them warm and dry. Your kids will enjoy the freedom they have to climb trees, explore forests, roam parks or just pedal furiously on their bikes, for example. If they become damp, uncomfortable or genuinely very cold, they’ll soon stop playing and will come and find you.
None of these risk-taking behaviours would be OK if it weren’t for some genuine boundaries. So, for instance, show your child which trees are absolute no-goes because of their height. Let them know what the consequences could be of falling from great heights, or how dangerous it might be to wander off too far from their group when playing hide and seek.
And, consider setting them time limits too. For instance, you might feel better (and they’ll certainly stay safer) if they have to return to ‘check in’ with you every hour. Set an alarm on their phones or watches, asking them to come back to you so that you know they are safe and unharmed. Be sure to ‘ground them’ if they check in late with you, as that way, they’ll understand how seriously you take those boundaries, and that there are consequences for pushing risk-taking behaviour too far. This is all good practice for teenagehood!
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