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Risky Play

We have trees in our kindergarten play space.  They have inviting branches, taunting children to swing and land in their freshly dropped leaves.  We share our play space with the other kindergarten classes.  The branches don't discriminate. Everyone wants to swing.  One day a boy in my class stacked up two milk crates, reached for a high up branch, and swung like Tarzan, landing in a strategically placed pile of leaves.  He was glowing and did it again.  Others joined in but they were apprehensive about the height.  So they made a smaller platform composed of just one milk create.  They swung, landed, and began glowing as well.  When the pile of leaves had been disturbed to the point where the children thought it wasn't going to supply a soft landing, they raked it up again.  The original boy wanted to up the ante.  He added a third milk crate and started climbing.  He stopped, looked down and said, "too high."  Some of these kids were swinging ten feet on a branch while others were just sort of jumping off a single milk crate.  All of the kids were brave.  I was standing right with them, tempted to try it myself, but the branch looked.... I decided just to support the children.  In my assessment, and that of the children, this activity was fun and was rich with curriculum expectations.  Most importantly, it was authentic play; intrinsically motivated by the children.  The only object I (the educator) had provided was a rake.  The activity took off because of the children and continued because of the children.  It stopped because of policy.  More specifically, liability.

Have you experienced a situation like this?  Have you been told to stop doing something you had already assessed as safe and curriculum rich by another educator or administrator?  From the conversations I've had with colleagues, it happens a lot.  And that's O.K.  It is expected that school be safe and administrators must stand up for those expectations.  My first suggestion is to stop the activity when you are asked to but to set up a time to discuss the merit of the activity later that day.  You see liability is often viewed as 'safety in an instant' not 'safety over time.'  If public education is to prepare children for society, children must learn about risk taking.  If we can help those that view certain activities as too risky see how valuable they are in the long run, our children will be better for it.  "Risky Play: Why Children Love it and Need it" is an article found in Psychology today and written by Dr. Peter Gray (2014).  In it he tells us about the benefits of risky play from a very scientific perspective.  He discusses how animals, not just humans, partake in risky play and notes that it has not been removed through evolution by means of natural selection.  "The fact that it hasn't been weeded out is evidence that the benefits must outweigh the risks."  One study Dr. Gray writes about determined that a lack of risky play can cause emotional problems later in life.  Findings such as this led to the emotion regulation theory of play.  In his article, Dr. Gray describes this theory as "the theory that one of play's major functions is to teach young mammals how to regulate fear and anger.  In risky play, youngsters dose themselves with manageable quantities of fear and practice keeping their heads and behaving adaptively while experiencing that fear."  So risky play helps keep us safe in the long run.  The quoted article is a great prop to have in your back pocket when discussing the merits of risky play with those that may side with 'instant liability.' In a play based learning environment, risky play needs to be allowed, and monitored properly, in order to put all stakeholders at ease.

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