Sadly, when we remove our ostrich-heads from the sandpit of cyberspace and look around us, we see that not very much has changed. Many carers would still rather stop kids from doing something than take the risk themselves of having to find the Band-Aids and write an incident report. (And explain it to the parents at pick-up time.) Many parents would rather swaddle children in cotton wool than feel the guilt of allowing their child to hurt themselves when they could have prevented it.
So what on earth can we do? How can we get the message across?
Well, not by sitting here on the internet bleating about it- that's for sure. We all know that the people we need to talk to aren't reading this.
To get the message across, we also have to take some risks. As advocates for risky play, we have to risk telling uncomfortable truths about risky play to parents who don't want to hear them. Who may see our comments as a negative judgment on their parenting style. Who may think us lazy or uncaring for wanting their children to engage in play that might hurt them.
And there is no easy way to change human behaviour. There is no quick way to change human behaviour. To achieve change we must be patient, be committed, and above all be brave.
Are you brave enough to try to change parents' thinking about risky play?
Here's a radical plan.
First, you put a large notice in a prominent place. Somewhere the parents can't miss it.
THIS CENTRE SUPPORTS RISKY PLAY
Be prepared to explain yourself when parents comment.
Next you start changing what you display in your daily photos. Parents love to look at photos of their children's daily activities, don't they? And come on, be honest: you censor what you take pictures of, don't you? You only photograph things that make you look like a 'good carer'. A safe carer.
A risk-free carer.
I dare you to decorate a prominent part of your centre with photos of children doing risky things. You know they do those things every day, whether you forbid it or not.
"Why on earth would I do that?! The parents will scream," you cry!
Yes they will. (Many of them will- not all. You may be surprised who supports you.) Some will be up in arms. And that is your moment to talk about the benefits of risk, because you have their attention.
What are you going to say when the parents start objecting to this unsafe environment?
Here's an uncomfortable truth about risky play: children who want to take a risk will frequently do it behind your back if you forbid it in your presence. Share that fact with these parents.
Make a poster of that fact, and display it with the photos of your centre's children sneaking around the corner and playing with sticks. Or shimmying up the shade cloth supports, to the very top. Or standing up on the roof of the fort. When the parents ask awkward questions about what these children are doing, that's your cue to explain human nature. Children are programmed to teach themselves risk assessment. We are getting in their way by stopping them, and there are life-long consequences if we succeed.
Truth is very uncomfortable, isn't it? Are you tearing your hair out and screaming "I CAN'T DO THAT!!!!"?
Yes, you can. You have to start a conversation with even the most resistant parents. You have to make them see that controlled risk is desirable, because otherwise you either get uncontrolled risk or no risk. BOTH ARE DANGEROUS FOR CHILDREN. You're an advocate for children, aren't you? Aren't you?
When I was doing my uni assignment on risky play, I became invisible behind my camera. I wasn't working that day; I was just taking pictures and observing. I'd read the research that found that children take risks out of the adults' sight if they're not allowed to do it in an adult's presence. I simply stopped intervening, until the kids forgot I was an adult. Then this was what I saw.
I saw kids having fist fights.
I saw kids playing with sticks- in this case while running around on the balance beams.
I saw kids piling blocks into wobbly towers, climbing onto them and leaping off...
...and sometimes falling off. And crying. And then pretending they weren't crying, because then I might say "I told you not to do that." (I didn't.)
I saw kids 'misusing' the play equipment.
Go on. Tell me that doesn't happen in your playground. Of course it does.
And yes, of course it's a risk to just admit that children get up to this stuff regardless of our attempts to supervise them and make rules... unless we also made it very clear that this is normal, and necessary for their development, and we are scaffolding it and allowing it because we are good teachers who care about the children's future. We have to make it clear that the children are learning vital things when they do this. We have to make clear to the parents the consequences of a risk-free childhood.
We have to make it clear that we are failing in our duty as educators if we stifle risk.
And so you need a sustained campaign- Rome was definitely not built in a day. Also, Rome was not built by the faint-hearted. (How fair dinkum are you about this? Hmmm?)
(Building Rome may require you to educate your educators, too. If you have dissent in the ranks you'll never win the parents over. It's called 'professional development'- do it. Do it first, if this is an issue.)
The long haul means keeping attention on the issue. Toss a few bombs into each newsletter; make posters of these 'bombs' and stick them on the parents' noticeboard. Referenced, factual, clearly expressed bombs are what you need. Like these:
Children who aren't allowed to take risks are more prone to anxiety conditions later in life. No risk = fear, insecurity, anxiety, lack of self-esteem.
-Sandseter & Kennair, 2011
Without risky play, children don't learn risk management. (This is not something you want your child to learn behind the wheel of his first car.)
-Little & Wyver, 2008; Curtis and Carter, 2000
Risky play teaches analysis skills. (They're vital for academic learning.)
-The Plowden Report, 1967
Children learn by experience, not by being told. No risk = no experience of risk = no learning about risk = inappropriate risk-taking later.
Are you getting the idea? You have to be strong, persuasive and succinct. Nobody is going to read a whole paragraph- parents are busy people. You need sound bites. In bold. In a box.
Let's go back to those photos. Across the top of your pictures of risky play, put appropriate sound bites about risky play. Underneath, you need a succinct analysis of what the children are learning by playing that way. (You might also want to add how you helped to scaffold their risky play, if you have the sort of parents who do stand and read the noticeboard.)
Fist-fights? Superhero play? This teaches concepts of power, self-control and empathy. You are scaffolding this by talking about it at mat time and encouraging the children to make their own rules around it. (Well, you are, aren't you?)
Playing with sticks? That child was showing an important marker of mental development by using a stick as a symbol of a sword. And of course you guided the play by replacing the sticks with pool noodles, didn't you, and discussing cause and effect? Did you poke holes in the mud with sticks, to see how easily they penetrate soft surfaces? Did you discuss what happens if sticks go in eyes? Did the children make rules for using sticks? Did the need to use sticks as swords diminish once it wasn't a way of rebelling?
As for those wobbly blocks- the children are learning vital lessons about balance, control, building rigid structures, risk factors, cause and effect... and you'll discuss that too, won't you? I found the children were so keen to talk about what they'd been doing in the playground and do their own risk assessment, as long as they could see the photo of themselves doing it.
Look, it's not going to happen immediately. You can't walk into your centre with a different attitude to risky play next week and expect that everyone there will go along with you. But you can't sneak it in, either- you have to make it an event.
Have you got the guts to do it?