Kids Need to Take Risks, But How Much?

When was the last time your child played in the rain, or climbed a tree?

We all want to keep our children safe. But not every risk is harmful. According to experts, supporting children as they navigate some risks builds their problem-solving skills, resilience, curiosity, creativity, independence, competence and judgment. These are highly desirable traits, says Rebecca Dhondt, program director at Smith Memorial Playground in Philadelphia.

In a world where it may not even be safe to walk to the grocery store, sit on our front stoop, or attend school, how do we balance our instinct to protect kids against their developmental needs to explore and grow from their mistakes?

Risk does not equal hazard

First, it’s useful to distinguish between risk and hazard. “You can’t remove all risk from kids’ lives, or why would you ever put a child in a car?” asks Dhondt.

“As parents and teachers, it is our job to set boundaries that ensure our children are safe. We must learn when they need our protection and when to get out of their way,” explains Ken Ginsburg, MD, adolescent medicine specialist, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “We provide edges to push against, but not go past … lots of trial and error.”

Ginsburg encourages “safe risks,” safe spaces for kids to “grow, learn to recover, and build resilience … If we create an environment that’s ‘too safe’ or set boundaries in a way that feels random or inflexible, we risk pushing our kids into rebellion.”

Consider the difference between playing in nature and playing on a man-made structure on rubber matting. A rusty can at the bottom of the slide is a hazard, whereas a tree could be an excellent learning opportunity. “You assess risk dynamically while engaging with the spaces,” suggests Meghan Talarowski, landscape architect and founder and director of Studio Ludo in Philadelphia.   

Adults can test structures, make sure the foundation is sound, or remove rotten branches from the trees.  But the growth value and achievement comes when it’s the child who learns how to judge her own risk.

Dhondt describes a group of 5-year-olds, at different spots on a tree — one’s up high, one is at the middle, and one remains at the bottom. “They’re all where they need to be.” They know where they belong at that moment. The danger, she explains, is when someone lifts a child to where he didn’t get himself.

Fail safely to build resilience in children

“You cannot learn without failure. We let them fail safely,” says Mark Major, director of International Sports Training Camp, Stroudsburg, PA. Major says the camp is designed to encourage participants through “guided discovery” of their potential and “challenge by choice” within a supervised, individualized culture.

He contrasts a gradual, developmentally appropriate, calculated risk-taking with the sort of impulsive risk-taking that can be more dangerous.

When youngsters take ownership in stretching themselves in safe settings — whether it’s climbing a rock wall or touching an inchworm — they stay alert, pay attention to feedback, and begin to overcome the power or intimidation that the challenge had over them.   

Miquon School in Conshohocken calls recess “choice time,” says Principal Susannah Wolf. It’s an active, somewhat open-ended invitation to students to select the spaces and activities that interest them. With a creek running through the middle of the campus and art and music to explore, there’s no charted course. Wolf says students practice taking risks in pursuing different paths. The students know when they’re ready to take their next step.

This “growth mindset” applies to academic risk as well, adds Kristin Sanderson for Miquon. The school supports students who risk trying out a different approach to solving a math problem or a new idea for a presentation. “Do overs” aren’t failures – they’re ways to continue lifelong learning and improvement.

Kids need complexity to thrive

Imagine a place where loose parts nurture improvisation and youngsters team with seniors to make old-time scooters. Such experiences are part of the “culture of possibility” shaped by the acclaimed designer/educator Alex Gilliam in his Public Workshop and its weekly “Stop by and build” sessions in West Philadelphia.  

Gilliam believes that everyday life can be too antiseptic and bland, which may in part explain the disengagement of so many youth and their attraction to phones and videogames. Participating in more complex projects where collaboration and concentration are required, in contrast, raises the level of risk and excitement. This can accelerate learning and resourcefulness.

He provides an example increasingly understood by traffic engineers that at first seems counter-intuitive. Narrowing lanes – rather than widening them – forces drivers to focus more on the task at hand; they slow down and drive more cautiously.   

Manage kids' risks

Playgrounds can foster that same kind of focused learning.

Meghan Talarowski studied innovative playgrounds in London, where the materials and activities are more natural and open-ended than most of those in the US. She found that London play parks had more amenities for the adults as well, including cafes and restrooms. As a result, the pleasure was greater and “dwell time” was much longer there than in American playgrounds.

In London, it’s typical to find boulders and logs in playgrounds, in contrast to the plastic rocks and slides here. Our artificial rocks can easily cost $10,000 each, Talarowski says, because liability in our litigious culture is generally built into the manufacturers’ price. Yet, evidence shows the play value of natural materials is significantly higher than for static equipment, which, because it doesn’t encourage experimentation, results in repeated versions of once-and-done.  

When children are lovingly empowered to explore an acceptable environment, they do so at their own pace, experts find.

A young child told Miquon’s principal, “Today’s not my day to touch the inchworm. I’m not ready.”  

A sixteen-year-old camper completed her first summer at International Sports Training Camp, and tearfully told the director at the end, “I’m so sorry I didn’t give this a shot sooner. Now I feel prepared for college.”

“Every situation is unique,” says Dr. Ginsburg. “What’s considered safe in some communities may not be in others … Some children may be more impulsive than others.”  

Ann L. Rappoport, PhD is a contributing writer to MetroKids.

Categories: Early Education, Education Features, Parenting