Playing It Safe May Be the Biggest Risk of All

By: Dr Justin Coulson

A few weeks ago our whole family jumped into the car for an adventure. Some nearby National Parks were beckoning. We had a hike planned and everyone was along for the ride.

Driving to the Gold Coast hinterland takes around an hour, and by the time we arrived the kids were desperate to get out of the car, explore, hike, and swim. The Purling Brook Falls carpark was only half full when we parked and began the 2km trek to the bottom of the cliffs.

Hiking with 6 kids, aged 3-18, can be a challenge if the hike is anything beyond 200 metres. Fortunately, the mood was buoyant, and the shade provided by the tree canopy was cool. Within 20 minutes we had joyfully and easily strolled to the rockpool at the bottom of the falls, successfully steering the little ones away from the huge lizard they wanted to hold to the left of the path, and the frightening sheer drop they wanted to get closer to on the right of the path.

The water was brown. Unappealing. Dirty looking. (After all, the bottom of the pool was dirt.) The bottom was impossible to see.

“Dad, dad, dad. Can we swim? Can we get into our togs and swim?” The kids
pestered me for an answer. There was no way I was going in there, but they were keen. So why not?

I shrugged. “You bet.”

They dived in and laughed, splashed, and played. They tried to get as close to the cascading water as they could.

For all the visitors who laughed and watched and ‘tested’ the water, no one else went in. Some kids begged their parents, and received a dismissive “Hmmm, not today.”

My 3-year-old wanted to explore. She clambered carefully across the wet, slippery rocks towards another nearby rockpool. I followed her at a distance that allowed me to be near if she fell, but ensured I was far enough away to not be screamed at for encroaching on her risky manoeuvring. My heart was in my mouth as she scaled the slippery and almost impassable boulders. She slipped more than once. She overbalanced and almost fell a few times. The danger was real. And I had not brought the Band-Aids! But she did it. And it thrilled her.

Risky play for children is disappearing. Our sanitised, “keep them safe at all costs” approach to outdoor play (particularly for girls, but increasingly for boys) is affecting our children’s natural desire for exploration, and impacting their ability to manage risk and all that goes with it (including anxiety).

Roald Dahl said that “the more risks you allow your children to make, the better they learn to look after themselves.”

When we visit the playground, I want my kids on the flying fox going as fast as they dare. The speed is risky – and exhilarating. Now and then they crash into someone – or get crashed into. Once, one of my daughters flipped upside down and crashed to the ground when she hit the end of the ride. In most cases falls bring tears. The will be hurt. But now they’re more careful when they ride the flying fox.

I celebrate my toddlers’ efforts to go the wrong way up the slide! It teaches them about conflict resolution. It teaches them about physics, body awareness, and risk. They learn about turn-taking – and the impact of gravity on weight (back to physics again).

There are countless more examples: letting kids walk or ride to school, a friend’s home, or the shops; encouraging them to use a knife to prepare a meal; letting them climb that tree or walk along the top of that wall; saying ‘yes’ when they want to ride a skateboard or scooter on the ramp at the park.

I’m not arguing that we should encourage foolish risks like getting too close to the edge of the cliff. Limits are still important. There is such a thing as unacceptable risk. And we all have a threshold for what is unacceptable. But perhaps we could reduce our cautious reactions and say yes to risky play more often.

Studies tell us that kids who take risks learn about safety better than kids who don’t. They typically get stronger (physically) and improve their coordination when they do risky things regularly. They perceive hazards and dangers better, understand speed – and yes, physics – more capably.

Importantly, children who are encouraged to take risks become more emotionally competent. They learn to regulate their emotions – particularly anxiety – and deal with that little bit of stress that comes with doing things we might think are scary or dangerous.

With the school holidays just around the corner, your children are going to be begging to do risky things. They will want to go fast. They’ll ask if they can go far. They’ll want to climb, wrestle, or do something that puts our heart into our mouths.

In most instances, let them go for it. They’ll learn. They’ll be confident. And almost all of the time, they’ll be fine.

Playing it safe may be the biggest risk of all.

Article supplied with thanks to Happy Families.

About the Author: A sought after public speaker and author, and former radio broadcaster, Justin has a psychology degree from the University of Queensland and a PhD in psychology from the University of Wollongong.