Adventurous play versus risk

It is great seeing emphasis being given to adventurous play for children. The evidence is clear – kids thrive in all sorts of ways when they get the chance to play. Play naturally provides the curriculum for teaching thinking, communication and physical skills that young children need. It also seems to be good for health: not just the exercise but it seems that a good layer of dirt gives the work out a developing immune system needs. You can argue that adventurous play actually makes children safer because it helps them learn how to handle risk. If they never get to climb trees, walk across wobbly plank bridges or play in the bush, they may fail to learn the basic life skills they will need in a world full of risks and dangers. Hot house flowers are just not as rugged.

Sure, children will get a few more scrapes and bruises playing out-and-about, but they will gain so much confidence and competence. Their imaginary treasure hunts will give them the sense of adventure that will help them achieve life’s real treasures. They will have so much fun in the process and (I think this is the nicest thing) it aligns with our romantic ideals of what a Kiwi childhood is meant to be like.
However, the notion of adventurous play can collide with a cardinal rule of parenthood – children are too precious to be exposed to risk and that their safety is paramount. Outdoor play, exploration, rough and tumble – they all involve risk. If they didn’t, would they really be adventurous? The real issues revolve around how great the risks are and whether they are worth it.

First of all, risks are real. If today is an average day, ten Kiwi kids will suffer moderate to severe injuries.((Source ACC)) But that rate is half of what it was in the early 90s(( and less than a quarter of the rate during my childhood. We might rail about ‘PC nonsense’ that forces children to wear helmets on bikes or requires padding under playgrounds but, in reality, there are real reasons and real benefits to these policies and procedures.

Sometimes it is hard to assess where the real risks lie and we tend to over emphasise the ones that gain high publicity. The number one fear of parents is danger from adults; the reality is children are remarkably safe from adults in public. The cases when it occurs are shocking and gain nationwide attention but in actual fact the more awful truth is the real risk to children is from adults in our family and social circles. However hard we find risk assessment, we are much, much better at assessing it than our children are. The capacity to evaluate danger is believed to reside in our brains’ frontal lobes, and in children, these parts are remarkably tardy in coming online in a useful way. Some experts caution not to expect much from the frontal lobes until the late teenage years or early twenties. Until then, wisdom would counsel that children need to use our frontal lobes. We need to be the ones assessing what is a reasonable risk and what is not.

If we take on most of the responsibility for risk assessment, then the apparently conflicting ideas –adventurous play and protection – can jostle around in parents’ heads without causing too much cognitive dissonance. Your kids can do the activities, but within your limits and your supervision.

“You can climb that tree, but not this one, and you can only go as high as that branch.” “You can race your bikes around this park but not on the street.” “Play with your mates, but you are not allowed to go off with them without telling me.”

How much risk is permissible for our children is more likely to be decided by our personalities than from analysing accident statistics. Some of you would be more reckless than me but I suspect that most parents are now too risk-averse and their children would benefit from a lot more adventure in their lives. I am talking about returning common sense, not abandoning it.

I suggest we acquaint ourselves with what the real risks and dangers are, that we heed warnings from credible sources and that we tailor our child’s liberty to their maturity. The age at which you were allowed to do things is not a bad starting place – were you less or more mature than your child at the same age? Are the dangers greater now or reduced? Also monitor their activity before you ‘untie the leash’, coaching them on how to handle certain eventualities. Instruct them on where they may go and where they cannot, and when they are to contact you. I cannot guarantee your children’s safety. If bad things happen to your children, you have my utmost sympathy. The reality is that sometimes bad things do happen, but the balancing reality is that the probability is stacked incredibly on the side of your children being just fine.

One final sobering thought – even if you are really good at this, you probably won’t hear what your kids really get up to until their 21st birthday party, at which time you would have forgotten who gave you this advice and so you won’t be able to tell me off!

For more, check out John’s corner.