Friday, December 26, 2014

Risk taking is learning

Are your students or own children afraid to make mistakes?  Children need to know that you can't learn without taking some risks.  And new research is confirming that overprotecting children actually does more harm than good.

I got thinking about this topic after reading a great condensed article in Reader's Digest titled:  The Revolution Will Not Be Supervised. (A longer version of the article is posted here for those who'd like the full read.) The article gives an overview of the safety movement for children's playgrounds that began in the 1970's and how in general it has not really made children much safer.  This was a surprise to me at first, but if you read the article, some of the reasons make perfect sense. One example - modern playgrounds are nearly always blanketed with shock absorbent material like rubber designed to protect children from falls.  Yet, despite this, there's evidence that injuries on these surfaces have not decreased, and for some types of injuries, they may have actually increased.  The reason is simple.  When children know there's a safe surface below them, they are actually less cautious.  This leads to more falls that lead to bone breaking injuries.

Ellen Sandseter, a researcher and professor of early-childhood education at Queen Maud University College claims that safety regulations have transformed modern playgrounds into "sterile, boring places" with no imaginationIt's true that today one playground looks like pretty much any other.  And sadly, if you drive around the town where I live at least, you'll hardly see more than a handful of kids playing on our playgrounds.  If you do, they are never alone.  There are usually parents sliding down slides with their kids in their laps or hovering below their child with their arms outstretched ready to catch them if they fall off something.

Sandseter has concluded that children "have a sensory need to taste danger and excitement."  When we, as adults, strip our children of reasonable opportunities to take risks, then we are taking away an necessary part of their brain developmentAn interesting research fact from the article - children who injured themselves from a fall between the ages of 5 and 9 were actually less likely to be afraid of heights at age 18. In other words, kids who aren't given opportunities to explore heights at a young age are actually more like to develop phobias of high places.

Okay, fair warning here's my "old man, pining about the good old days" moment...

I am amazed how much child's play has changed in just one generation. When I was a kid, I climbed tall trees.  I built forts out of scrap wood and rusty nails.  We built a tree house in an empty lot that was our "secret hideout."  We would climb up on the roof of our friend's house.  One time we even jumped from the roof on top of the bounce house his mom had rented for his birthday.  I threw rocks at things.  My friends and I played "Star Wars" with sticks we'd find. My friends and I would use our pocket knives to carve "spears" and see how far we could throw them.  We cut an old broom stick into "nun chucks" and played Bruce Lee.  We played tackle football.  My younger brother and I played "WWF wrestling", usually until one or both of us was  crying.  We went swimming with our friends, unsupervised by adults.  My friends and I built ramps and jumped them with our dirt bikes.  I crashed and fell sometimes.  I never broke any bones, but I had bruises on my body and scabs on my knees and elbows for most of my childhood.  You did not call them "boo-boo'sYou showed it off to your friends as a badge of how "tough" you were. I played outside until it got dark and my mom and dad had no idea where I was most of the time.  

So what has happened in the last 30 years?

The article mentioned above describes a fascinating counter-culture
Peter Yang/August
experiment taking place in Great Britain called "The Land" that provides children with playgrounds quite unlike those we see in our communities.  Its playground equipment includes lots of lose, moveable parts and even "dangerous" elements like a fire pit and a rope swing over the creek.

From the article:
"Other than some walls lit up with graffiti, there are no bright colors or anything else that belongs to the usual playground landscape: no shiny metal slide, no yellow seesaw with a central ballast to make sure no one falls off, no rubber bucket swing for babies. There is, however, a frayed rope swing that carries you over the creek and deposits you on the other side, if you can make it that far (otherwise, it deposits you in the creek). On this day, the kids seem excited by a walker that was donated by one of the elderly neighbors and is repurposed, at different moments, as a scooter, a jail cell, and a gymnastics bar."
The author of the article's son playing
around "The Land's" firepit (Hanna Rosin)
The concept  of this playground is for kids to explore and take risks without direct adult supervision or direction.  It is designed to encourage creative play and socializing with peers.  The space is staffed by specially trained "playworkers" who closely observe but do not interfere unless needed.  This sounds to me like the type of place I would have loved as a kid.
Camp Pransky.  This little pop-up has
seen a lot of the country

My family likes to camp a lot. We have taken our little pop-up camper from as far east as Maine, as far west as Yellowstone in and as far south as Savanah, GA.  These trips have given our family some of our most cherished experiences together.

Whitewater rafting in the Adirondacks.
I think camping has given my kids opportunities to take reasonable risks and to learn from them.  We have done overnight backpacking in bear country, mountain biking, white water rafting, and horseback riding among other things - all involving some degree of danger.  (Sometimes, even something innocuous like going to see the world's second largest ball of twine can lead to adventure.)  These activities have given my kids opportunities to make choices, adapt to situations, and I think, as a result they gained confidence in themselves.

One of my friend Greg's signature
"teepee" campfire starts
Fire is, of course, a staple of camping.  While we sit around the fire, we usually talk and tell stories about our day.  Everyone is around the fire as opposed to at home where we may tend to be drawn to our favorite, but separate, areas of the house to hang out.  My son, in particular, likes to "play" in the fire.  For example, he likes to find a long stick that he can hold over the fire and once its lit wave it around as you might do to a sparkler until it smolders out.  And while he's never really burned himself (or anyone else) by the fire, I think it has helped him to respect fire and its power.

Similarly, my son was always keenly interested when my friend Greg would split the firewood into smaller pieces to use as starter wood.  One day, Greg decided to teach him the proper technique to do it safely without embedding the hatchet in your foot. Now, this is one of his favorite camping activities and he's gotten quite good at it.

One of my favorite camping memories occurred at Emerald Lake State Park in Vermont.  We had done a lot of hiking and site seeing in the area when Lilly, my friend's ever-quotable daughter, started acting bored and tired of it all and replied snidely, "You can see all this on the internet!The adult rolled our eyes at this and made a mental note to remember this comment for the scrapbook.

Rogan and Lucas cruising on kayaks on Emerald Lake
Later that trip, we decided to rent some kayaks to take out on  Emerald Lake.  It is aptly named as it is a beautifully clear, cold, and deep glacial lake.  We soon came across a rope swing that someone had tied high up to a tree that hung out over the lake.  Despite the element of danger and the fact that it was probably illegal, we just couldn't pass up on the opportunity to give it a try.  We all took turns swinging out over the lake and diving/dropping in.  It was frightening but extremely fun at the same time.  

At one point we each decided to say something clever while we were swinging.  My friend's son, Lucas shouted, "Live Free, or Die!", New Hampshire's state motto which he had taken on as his personal credo.  But, Greg topped us all by turning his daughter's quote around on her as seen in the video below.

I think its important for all kids to take reasonable risks.  After all, we can't wrap them in bubble wrap and protect them for their whole lives.  Life is messy, and it involves skinned knees and bruises from time to time.  In fact, I couldn't imagine childhood without these things.

If you are interested in more on this topic.  Check out this great article, Three Huge Mistakes We Make Leading Kids...And How to Correct Them.  I also would recommend this terrific Ted Talk by Gever Tulley that makes some of my same  points.

5 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Shane! I enjoyed reading the article about The Land when you posted it on FB. Some of my best memories of elementary school are playing with the neighborhood kids in the woods that surrounded our houses. We would take my dad's tools and some wood planks to the woods and fix up old bridges and tree houses in the ravine! I think it is amazing that children these days are so talented with technology, but it is concerning to me that there is very little creative play or risk-taking. I always wonder what type of impact it will have on them in the future. Thanks for the thought-provoking read. Enjoy the rest of your break!!

    EduKate and Inspire