Risky Play – A Good Thing?

Risky Play - A Good Thing? | HSLDA Blog

Risky Play - A Good Thing? | HSLDA Blog

My kids and I took a Friday off from school recently and took a drive “up north” (as we say in Michigan) to pick my husband up at the end of his staff retreat. We proceeded to drive down the coast of Lake Michigan, exploring some cute towns, meandering into a used book store, and having root beer floats.

During our adventure, we came across a playground on the Lake Michigan shoreline. My kids oohed and aahed at the site of two towering slides. They had “unsafe” angles and were made of aluminum that I know from experience can blister bare legs on a hot summer day. The kind of slides I played on as a kid.

It isn’t until you see a playground like this, a relic of the past, that you realize your own childhood has become a thing of myth.

Parks and playgrounds look nothing like the ones I used to play in. In my elementary school, a teeter-totter was an old, long slab of wood (with splinters) and no handles. We spent countless hours putting 10 people on one end and one child on the other and smacking that thing on the ground so that the child would fly into the air, and hopefully, land on their feet on the plank when they descended. I was often favored because I was little for my age, and, would fly especially high. I worked to learn the art of flying, and more and more people piled on the other end to see how high I would go.

Risky Play - A Good Thing? | HSLDA BlogOnce I did not come down as planned, and the little boys in my school ran to the out-building, grabbed the old military cot kept there, tried to load me onto the “stretcher,” and carry me into the school. Today’s parents would have sued and lobbied for a playground monitor. My parents nursed my bruises and didn’t overact. Wounds were a part of life.

Besides the “unsafe” playground, there were the woods behind our school. And when in the 4th grade I asked for a pocket knife so I could use my knife to skin the bark off of trees in those woods at recess, I was given one as a birthday gift. We finished our lunches in minutes so we could head off into the trees with our knives and conduct wars between the Cowboys and Indians, burrowing big holes, covering them with ferns, and attempting to capture our “enemies” by having them fall into the holes. The 21st century anxiety-ridden mother in me wants to know why someone didn’t stop us.

Risky Play - A Good Thing? | HSLDA BlogAbout the time I was enjoying these dangerous pastimes, Joe Frost, and others like him started a crusade to make playground equipment safe. These safety advocates largely succeeded, and the result is that your child can visit nearly any park in the country and find almost the exact same playground equipment, with a manmade soft surface underneath, instead of the pesky hard earth with potentially hazardous rocks and sticks.

Which is good news right?

But even as we try to keep kids safe from getting hurt, there is a lot of evidence that our over-protection prevents them from learning to analyze risk and learn to take responsibility for wise choices.

Hanna Rosin, in The Overprotected Kid, writes that Joe Frost himself started to realize there was another side. In 2006, Frost wrote that it was an erroneous belief “that children must somehow be sheltered from all risks of injury…. [L]ife is filled with risks—financial, physical, emotional, social—and reasonable risks are essential for children’s healthy development.”

Risky Play - A Good Thing? | HSLDA BlogRosin also cites David Ball, a professor of risk management who “found some evidence in studies that long-bone injuries…are actually increasing. The best theory for that is ‘risk compensation’—kids don’t worry as much about falling on rubber, so they’re not as careful, and end up hurting themselves more often.”

In other words, strip away the obvious risks, and there are new ones, particularly the inability to assess risk and respond wisely.

I remember being a young mother given to fears every time we visited a park, walked near a lake, or played in the waves. I know that injuries from falls can be very serious.

But on a chilly Michigan day as I watched my kids navigate the big slide with such joy, I had to believe they were getting something essential to their fullness as human beings: the opportunity to take a risk.

rachelle reitz signature

Photo Credit: All images courtesy of Rachelle Reitz.

5 thoughts on “Risky Play – A Good Thing?

  1. I’m old enough to remember being allowed to go crawdad fishing in the creek behind our house after a rain, but I was forbidden to go to the reservoir where the creek emptied. The scary, purple-clawed mud bugs lived there. The big boys in our little neighborhood brought home such fearsome creatures that I qualed before their snapping claws. A slice of bacon and a length of string brought hours of muddy, risky fun! THANKS MOM!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have recently witnessed the “playground” rules being overbearing and a bit ridiculous. I worked for an after school program for a short stint while homeschooling my children. I was instructed to make sure the kids didn’t climb up the slide, hang from it, put any sand or bark on it, or climb on top of the structures. The children weren’t allowed to jump off the swings, be on top of the horizontal ladder bars, play dodgeball or have snowball fights. I was shocked! I truly felt for these kids who had been in school all day and should be able to just run around and have fun.


    • Lisa-How horribly boring and I have to wonder how children under these strictures can ever grow up to be creative thinkers, explorers, inventors, enterpreneurs.


  3. Yes! Now all the fun stuff we played on has been chained up as ‘historical exhibits’ so the kids can’t climb the rocket and make it shake, rattle & roll, or see how fast they can go on the merry go round without flying off. *sigh* My kids no longer enjoy the playground because it just isn’t challenging enough.

    Liked by 1 person

What are your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s