Risky Play(ground) Practice

A recent trip to a local playground reminded me of how much my perspective on acceptable playground play can differ from my other colleagues in the field. What I witnessed was a staff from another summer camp frequently requesting children to "reign in" their actions, from what I assume was a fear for the children's safety. Below are some examples of the scenarios, along with my thoughts.

Scenario #1: Child stands on swing seat

Staff: "Sit down! No standing on the swings."

My thoughts: The child was on an individual swing set and posed no risk to other children. By my estimate, the child appeared to be 8 or 9 years old and seemed perfectly confident, comfortable and in control of the swing. In fact, he wasn't even swinging, but merely standing on the seat, with both hands grasping the chains on either side. I asked in my own head, "how is this action any riskier than climbing any of the other structures on the rest of the playground?"

Verdict: Risk minimal. Let them play!

Scenario #2: Child shuffles up pole that supports swing set

Staff: "Get down. No climbing up the swings."

My thoughts: Why not?! The child was not in the way of any other participants, nor was he in the path of the swings. Again, the risk to this child climbing, or to those around him, was no greater than, say, climbing the monkey bars at the other end of the playground.

Verdict: Risk minimal. Let them play!

Scenario #3: Child climbs up side of playground structure

Staff: "Be careful..."

My thoughts: I've grown to hate this phrase. Why? Because it conveys NOTHING. First, will saying "be careful" change how the child is behaving? Doubtful. Do you think the child is actually trying to be careless hurt herself? Second, saying "be careful" doesn't tell the child what you want her to do. It conveys no direction. If you have an actual concern, simply prompt the child to think about the dangers (i.e. "if your foot slips, do you have a good grip with both hands?")

Verdict: Useless phrase. Let them play!

Let's be reminded of why we have playgrounds. Yes, the obvious reasons are for fun and physical activity. But playgrounds, or playing in general, are for exploring risk and developing skills! Of course we should set some limits to prevent major hazards from inflicting serious harm. But an exposure to reasonable risky play only serves to develop skills in our children, both in assessing and overcoming risks.

No risk? No reward!


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