Risky Play and the Institution
Institutions have long played (and will likely continue to play) a significant role in education starting in early childhood and extending beyond the university. These meeting places all share the common goal of educating the youth and preparing them for the lives they will live after the institution. Given that time spent in these organizations is time spent learning, and training the mind, wouldn’t children be their best selves if they spent all their time there?
If your answer is no, then you admit that there are also drawbacks to these institutions. One of these drawbacks is that institutions are inherently risk averse. Many of the organizations are very large, and have deep pockets, which makes them lightning rods for litigation. In order to ensure their survival, whether they are school districts or major city governments, they must take steps to reduce risk.
“Most playground injuries are skinned knees or elbows, but sometimes accidents do occur,” Stringer told The Post. “We owe it to these kids to make sure they’re as safe as can be.” — Former NYC Comptroller, Scott Stringer speaking on the millions of dollars that NYC paid out to settle children’s injury claims from playing at city parks.
Again, Stringer says, “[we] owe it to these kids to make sure they’re as safe as can be” — Do we though? Making a playground “as safe as can be” means removing all the playground equipment and installing padding on the ground. It means ensuring that kids don’t partake in “risky play.” Might this innocuous environment have consequences?
Why is risky play important?
Play is the work of the child. It’s how children learn new skills. For decades now, we’ve had research that points to the need for children to engage in risky play in order to learn how to take and manage risk. Play helps children “develop intrinsic interests, learn how to make decisions, problem-solve, exert self-control, follow rules, regulate emotions, and develop and maintain peer relationships.” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3499858/) In the aforementioned article, risky play is “defined as thrilling and exciting and where there is a risk of physical injury.” It means children are reaching the edge of what they are currently good at, stretching their abilities, and yes, sometimes getting injured in the process.
Risky play is vital for development, however it inevitably comes with the risk of injury. This means institutions have a disincentive to allow it at all. This is a completely logical and reasonable decision on their part, but it means that any child who spend vast amounts of time in a risk-averse institution or other setting (as parents sometimes set up risk averse environments at home too), children are less likely to develop these basic skills to interact with others and build their own self-efficacy. In this respect, institutional learning may accelerate academic learning, while actively hampering development in other areas. As such, the riskiest behavior in the long run turns out to be risk averse behavior in the short run.
Where do we go from here?
Institutions must look inward to see if there is a solution that will allow them to better support child development in the area of risky play. I personally do not see a solution given the current systems in which they operate.
Decentralization in education can have a significant impact. If your child goes to a small, 15 person preschool program where parents have developed personal relationships with one another, does this seem like a situation where a parent would want to sue the school if their child breaks an arm? That would mean they’d likely lose their own child care as would all the other families, providing both a financial and social disincentive. Will a lawyer take up the case if they know the school doesn’t have deep pockets? It’s probably not financially worth it.
Increasing parental involvement is another. We need to provide further incentives for parents to partake in these activities with their children. This may come in the form of simply educating families that there are indeed tangible benefits of letting your kids play at the park. It may mean raising stories about the capabilities of young children in other cultures, such as Japan where they even have a TV show called “Old Enough!”, where very young kids demonstrate remarkable feats of self efficacy. My organization is even playing around with options that make a game out of engaging in activities with your kids.
Educating kids DOES NOT mean cutting off all the things in this world that might harm them in the hopes that one day they will reach an age where they are suddenly, if by magic, able to navigate these dangers. Educating kids properly helps them manage risks. It means providing them with necessary context. “I know you’ve done that before, but I wouldn’t climb up there now because it’s wet. That makes it slippery and you could fall and get hurt.” Make sure the risk is manageable, but allow them to explore and yes, accept that they will get hurt.
A parents job is not to keep kids from getting hurt. It’s to guide them toward the point where they can navigate the world, knowledgeable about the risks they’ll encounter, and provided with the experiences that make them confident that they can manage the fallout when they do fail.