A recent New York Times article posed the question, can a playground be too safe? After reading the article, I started reflecting on my experiences as a teacher and what a rebel I was in the classroom. I let children climb up the slides. I let them go down the slide head first and on their belly. I let children stack blocks higher than their height. I even periodically allowed children to use their running feet inside the classroom! I wondered, what do children learn by being allowed to explore and try new things, even if it seems a bit dangerous? What do they need before they can take these risks?
The first thing children need is a secure attachment with their caregiver. That attachment and security is the foundation for all learning. Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff, a pediatrician and expert on early childhood research, states that “there is no development without relationships.” A child who does not have that secure attachment may not feel safe enough to take those risks. Have you seen that child on the playground who is nervous about going down the slide? Have you heard that parent or teacher say, “It’s ok. It’s fine. Just go down the slide!” What could be said instead to help this child feel safe? How about, “You look worried. Are you nervous about going down the slide? Would you like me to hold your hand while you slide down?” Having an adult who has a relationship with the child, who can sense the child’s feelings, is vital to the security of the child. Once that child feels safe, then the child can explore.
A responsive caregiver will support and encourage a child in their exploration. The caregiver who consistently says, “Don’t do that. You might fall!” or “You can’t hang from those monkey bars. You might get hurt!” is telling the child there is going to be failure, not success. Does that caregiver want to keep the child safe? Absolutely. But there can be safety in taking risks. Before allowing the child to climb up the slide, make sure no one is coming down the slide. Going up the slide may be a risk, but it’s safe as long as there’s a caregiver actively supervising.
What do you remember from your risk-taking childhood? Do you remember the feeling of accomplishment after you’d done something you didn’t think you could do? Did you feel pride? Did you want to shout to the world that you accomplished something amazing? Pride is a wonderful feeling for a child to have, and when a responsive caregiver acknowledges your achievement, it’s even better! “You climbed up the climber all by yourself! I’m very proud of you!” Are you picturing that child’s face with a huge smile? Oh, what a feeling!
In addition to their social and emotional development, children’s cognitive ability is enhanced by taking risks. Think about the child who is climbing a climber. She gets to the top and looks down. The caregiver, who is actively supervising near the climber, says, “You are up high!” The child responds, “I am taller than you!” Just in those two short sentences, the child has learned about distance, height and possibly added some new words to her vocabulary. Not to mention the emotional benefits of that brief interaction.
What about climbing up the slide? Children can be involved in the decision to climb up the slide. Is there anyone who is trying to go down the slide? Is it safe? As the child climbs up, he has to decide if he needs to use his hands. Can he climb up using just his feet? Once he gets to the top, then what? Is there a bar over the entrance of the slide and he has to duck so he doesn’t hit his head? How does he turn himself around? He’s learning to use his brain and his body by balancing, utilizing different muscles to climb the incline, using his eyes to watch for other children and climbing stooped over.
Some risks are worth it. What risks do you allow your children to take? What do your children learn?