The Joy of Risk

I have been reading Rae Pica’s new book, What If Everybody Understood Child Development.  I was asked to respond to her chapter on risk called, Bubble Wrap Not Required for a book study group http://blogs.dctc.edu/dawnbraa/2015/09/14/book-study-expert-commentary-for-chapter-4-week-3/

Here was my (unedited) response:

Rae Pica focuses on parents’ fears of anything negative happening to their children. I’d like to think about parents’ hopes for their children. We want children to be resilient. Resilience requires taking risks. We want children to be joyful. Nothing beats the joy of successfully taking a risk. Risk is a part of being alive and children need to know how to deal with risk.

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But it’s not risk alone. Resilience comes both from risk and persistence. You have to try and you have to fail. The risk might be physical. It might be emotional. We know that children will get hurt. We know they will cry. Our job isn’t to keep them from falling. It’s to help them up and hug them when they do fall.

Let’s be clear that risk is different than hazard. Risk is something that a child can see and assess such as climbing high. EachJ Club October 5 time a child reaches higher, she can look down and decide if she has reached her limit. Once she has reached her limit, she can climb down. Next time, she will probably go a little higher, but she will be the one to decide.

A hazard is something a child cannot see or assess. For example, if there is a slide on a playground, the child will assume she can go down it. She will not notice if the slide has a gap that could catch the drawstring from her sweatshirt and asphyxiate her. Adults need to minimize hazards as much as possible and minimize risk as much as necessary.

While our first impulse as adults may be to protect children, we need to look at the big picture. Children are ultimately safer when they learn to assess risk themselves. For example, open bodies of water pose a risk for drowning. We could make sure children don’t have access to water, and as long as they are in our watch, they would not risk drowning. But the day they find themselves by a lake or river without us, are they safer? It is much better to first expose them to shallow bodies of water where they can have fun and then teach them how to swim as they get older. The same is true for other risks. It is better to climb a tree and get a few scrapes than it is to not climb at all.

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Children need to challenge themselves when they take risks. It is important to let children climb on their own so they can assess the risk they are ready for. If an adult puts a child up in a tree, the child has no control over the situation. Children also need to use their body to back out of a situation they decide is too much for them. If a child climbs and gets stuck, the adult should verbally help them down. Reassure the child that you are nearby and talk through the steps the child can take to get down. Only help them physically if falling is imminent.

As a teacher, you can help children learn to assess risk as they play. If a child does something that seems risky, don’t stop them right away. Instead move closer and see if the risk is reasonable. If you are not sure you can ask the child for their assessment (“What’s your plan?” “Are there any sharp corners you need to worry about?”).

You can also do a risk-benefit analysis. Decide what the risks are as well as the benefits. If the risk is reasonable and there are benefits, just stay nearby and watch for changes in the situation. If the risk seems too great decide if there are any changes that would make it safer while still allowing the child to get their needs met. If a tree branch seems weak, is there another branch (or another tree) that is safer?

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It is important to keep in mind that playing, even risky play is relatively safe. There was a study in the UK that found that the sport of badminton results in twice as many injuries than playing on playgrounds. Most other sports resulted in even more injuries. There are benefits to engaging in sports, of course, so the benefits outweigh the risk, so why not playgrounds? And tree climbing didn’t even make it on the chart.

One of the most dangerous things for a child to do is ride in a car, but we have agreed as a society that it is worth the risk. Children do end up in the emergency room for falls 20 times the number for non-fatal car accidents. However, it is extremely rare for a child to die from a fall. Children under the age of 5 are more than 10 times more likely to die in a car accident than from a fall. Children 5-9 are more than 80 times as likely. In other words, children may get hurt, but almost all will be minor injuries. Meanwhile, children learn how to deal with risk and ultimately stay safer.

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Getting out of bed exposes you to countless risks. But if you stay in bed, you risk letting life pass you by. Just watch how children run to greet the day, ready for anything. It may be risky, but it is joyful. Maybe instead of trying to make the children more like us, we need to be more like them.

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Seeing the Trees

This summer, I took a break from writing this blog while I finished the first draft of my book, Teaching with the Body in Mind. The book covers a lot of the same topics as the blog. I now will get back to posting weekly.

 

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While I was working on the book, I read several studies. One thing that really struck me was how small the sample sizes were for each study. One of my favorite researchers is Michelle Tannock who does a lot of work on rough-and-tumble play and attitudes about it. One study of Tannock’s that I often cite found that close to 80% of incidents of rough-and-tumble play was done by boys in this particular setting. Reading the study again, it really struck me that she studied a class with 17 students.

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When I think of my classroom, and how much it varies from year-to-year, I can’t help thinking how different the results would be. Last year there was a lot more rough-and-tumble play than this year. Last year, the girls were responsible for much of that play. My gut feeling is that the boys still did the majority of the play, but it really can vary.August 12 047

 

Most studies on rough-and-tumble play find that the boys engage in more of the play, and a few boys are responsible for most of the play and particularly the more forceful play such as pushing, tackling, etc. The problem is that many in the Early Childhood Education field (sometimes even the researchers themselves) talk about what boys tend to do and what girls tend to do. When referring to boys, the conversation often slips into the few, most physical boys. In most research, the most physical boys are outliers on one side along with a few boys who engage in very little rough-and-tumble play.

 

After all, I could describe how boys behave by talking about Stan. He spends most of his time outside playing a marimba or drumming on buckets. He will spend a few minutes “fighting” the teacher with a pool noodle. He does not attack other children, just the teacher. Inside he will play on the mat, but rather than pushing and grabbing others, he usually plays “pile on.” One child goes on the bottom and three or four others pile on top. They just lie there on top of each other until then bottom person asks everyone to get up. Stan describes the way boys play about as accurately as well as using Greg as the model.

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Greg likes to tackle others (who he is playing with). In the classroom, he often runs and dives onto the floor. He is almost always playing physically and he can rarely sit still. The truth is, most boys aren’t like Stan or Greg. They are somewhere in between. So are most of the girls in my room.

Statistically, the boys in my room probably play rougher. Statistics can be helpful. As I’ve written in the past, knowing the statistics of the expulsion rates of boys vs. girls points to a need for systemic change in early childhood education. Especially when you consider boys tend to play rougher.

However, in the classroom, the statistics don’t mean much. When I watch Bart playing in my classroom, it doesn’t matter if he’s more likely play rough. I won’t learn about Bart by looking up statistics. I need to watch him. I don’t teach children. I don’t teach boys and girls. I teach Bart, Francine, Greg, Tina, Stan, and all the others who have names and personalities. I need to figure out how to be effective with each child and it will be different for each child.

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I don’t call a birch tree a pine just because it is growing in a pine forest. Teachers have to see each tree. Researchers look at the forest.