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Go for it!

Research suggests kids can benefit from taking age-appropriate risks

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Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, Summer 2014

Children learn something every day.

From the moment they get up in the morning, until their heads hit the pillow at night, children are engaged in all sorts of activities, including many that will help prepare them for life.

Some of that learning takes place in the classroom. However, a lot of it takes place at home or when children are out and about, playing at the playground or park.

Researchers have been busy looking at how play affects the development of children, from preschool to youth. And their findings may come as a surprise to some.

Simply put, these researchers say that kids who take age-appropriate risks while playing stand a better chance of growing into skilled, knowledgeable and confident adults. On the other hand, removing age-appropriate risk from a kid's life can negatively affect his or her healthy development. 

This may go against the current trend where parents "bubble wrap" their kids in order to protect them from the various dangers - real and perceived - lurking outside the home. But the reasoning is pretty straightforward, according to Dan Bailis, a professor and social psychologist at the University of Manitoba.

He explains that when children have the opportunity to experience some age-appropriate risk in play, they learn about managing risk, and develop skills and confidence. In other words, risk and reward go together, a fact not always appreciated by some overly protective parents.

"You usually can't secure rewarding experiences in life without accepting some risk," says Bailis. Yet some parents find the thought of their child being hurt while playing so unbearable, they take extra measures to head off the slightest possibility of injury. The result is parents and their kids start behaving as though risk and reward were simply the opposite of one another - seeing a risky situation as one with no reward, or a rewarding situation as one with no risks.

"It takes effort to rein in that emotion, but you have to remind yourself: to steer a perfect course of avoiding risks, you would have to steer clear of the rewards in life, too," says Bailis.

Of course, risky play is not the same as hazardous play, according to Dr. Lynne Warda, Medical Consultant for Child Health and Injury Prevention with the Winnipeg Health Region.

"Risky play presents children with challenge, thrills and exhilaration. It requires creativity and problem-solving" explains Warda. "For example, climbing trees and balancing on raised surfaces like a peg fence can teach children to negotiate heights and how to get down safely."

Risky play can lead to cuts, scrapes, bumps and bruises, which are normal and acceptable minor injuries. This is different from hazardous play, which should be avoided," says Warda.

"With hazardous play, there are sources of harm that are impossible for a child to see or assess, such as sharp edges, weak structures that could collapse, or have traps for fingers or heads," she says. "There is no learning or benefit involved with hazardous play, and it can result in serious injury like concussions, fractures, hospitalizations and death."

When children participate in age-appropriate risky play, they develop confidence, decision-making skills, and independence and learn how to persist in problem-solving. Research has shown that this helps them problem-solve on the playground and in later life. Experiencing risks also helps children develop common sense to deal with challenges.

My experiences with my children underscore the point. My children were both climbing before they could walk. When my daughter leaps from the picnic table to a pile of leaves, my heart also leaps. My son decided to learn to ride a two-wheeler bike at age two and taught himself cartwheels at age three. As a parent, my first instinct is to try to protect them from harm. But protecting them from harm doesn't mean not letting them climb or fall off a bike. It means ensuring that the situation is not hazardous so they can take risks and learn.

Wendy French, one of my work colleagues, has had similar experiences. When she took her then- three-year-old daughter, Jenn, to the Children's Festival many years ago, she found that she was more excited to play on a little hill than do crafts, watch jugglers or sing along with the music.

"While she got a few scrapes and bruises, she was so proud and had a huge smile," says French. "As her mother, my first instinct was to say, 'You might get hurt.' But I realized that there was no real danger. What I should have said was, 'Wow, look how high you can climb!'"

This year Jenn is climbing a much bigger hill - Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. "As her loving mother, I found out the possible risks - injury, altitude sickness, to name a couple," says French. "I still want to protect my child. But I also want Jenn to learn about the world. The risks she took when playing have helped her know her abilities and make good decisions. I want her to climb, reach her dreams and use all the confidence and skills that she has developed over the years." 

The importance of understanding risk is important for child development, explains Ron Blatz, the Executive Director of Discovery Children's Centre.

"If we are going to raise a generation of children who know how to make good decisions and manage risk, we need to start while they are young," he says. "Start with small risk and allow them to grow in their skill of assessing and managing risk. It's the same reasoning we use when letting children take swimming lessons, so that one day, should they need to, they could save their lives with the skills they have learned."

Children need opportunities to challenge themselves to develop decision-making skills. Without these opportunities, they may take inappropriate risks in other parts of their life. This is seen among young teens. When they are not given the chance to take socially acceptable risks, such as skateboarding or other thrilling forms of play, some teens will turn to reckless behaviour.

Bailis says there is actually more at stake than just doing or not doing an activity.

"The decision is also a measure of the young person's level of freedom and responsibility, and the parent's manner of conveying authority," he says. "In the end, most parents want their kids to be responsible while engaging in an activity that carries some risk. The lesson from research in social psychology is that young people will exhibit more care and responsibility when they have had a larger role in making the original choice. That doesn't mean complete freedom for kids to live and learn from their mistakes, but it can mean having an age-appropriate, two-party dialogue with children and youth to reach a consensus about how the activity can be pursued and what some mutually agreed-upon limits should be."

We all want our children to grow up and be able to succeed in whatever they choose to do. While my son likely won't be an Olympic gymnast, I am glad to know that his cartwheel experience will help him persevere in the challenges of life that come his way.

While we want to protect children from hazards, protecting them from risk is harmful in itself. Children are born to experience thrills and danger, but this doesn't mean they need to do dangerous things. It just means that they need to have opportunities for thrilling and exhilarating play that allow them to feel that they are taking a risk.

Without the freedom to play and take risks, children aren't being children and have a harder time growing up! And none of us want that.

Sarah Prowse is Manager of Physical Activity Promotion with the Winnipeg Health Region and the Chair of Winnipeg in motion.

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