New advice from Canada’s pediatricians about the benefits of “risky play” could turn some playground rules upside down.
Zooming downhill on a sled, fencing with sticks, or “crashing into something or someone, perhaps repeatedly and only for fun” are among the activities highlighted in new recommendations released this week by the Canadian Paediatric Society.
Amid rising rates of obesity, anxiety and behavioural issues, the national association says play that includes the “possibility of injury” may actually benefit kids.
That means a shift from making play areas “as safe as possible” to “as safe as necessary,” said Mariana Brussoni, a developmental psychologist and professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of B.C. who reviewed the recommendations.
A playground should be designed to prevent the most serious injuries and death, said Brussoni, who doesn’t include broken arms in that category.
“We have to think holistically, and that means accepting some level of injury.”
The unintended consequence of creating “super safe playgrounds” may prevent kids from developing skills to deal with risk and reduce independence, confidence and resilience, she said.
In later life, this could lead to adults who are anxious about facing any risk, and not just physical ones.
A raft of research supports that position, with injury statistics showing how few children are killed falling out of trees (zero in Canada in the last two decades) compared to falling from play equipment (two) and in vehicle crashes (about 2,000).
“It shows how disproportionate our reaction has been compared to the risk,” said Brussoni.
Of course, there are caveats.
The pediatric society makes a clear distinction between risks and hazards, with risk arising when kids recognize and evaluate a challenge and decide how high to climb or how fast to run, and hazards posed when the potential for injury is beyond what a child can recognize or manage, such as an unsafe piece of playground equipment that could topple over.
Risky play does not mean throwing out seatbelts, life-jackets and bike helmets, or letting kids play on a street with heavy traffic.
As the society’s position statement says, a busy road or rough waters “pose hazards that any responsible adult will recognize as hazardous. Yet some activities, like play around fire or rough-and-tumble play, offer a more nuanced relationship between risk and hazard, especially when taking characteristics of the individual child into account.”
An adult’s role should be to “identify hazards and remove or mitigate them, then to supervise appropriately for the type of activity as well as the child’s skill level, personality, and developmental stage.”
Brussoni said the recommendations represent a “huge shift” and have the potential to change how parents and educators think about child’s play.
While incorporating risky play at schools and child-care facilities could raise concerns about insurance and liability, teachers and child-care workers should be encouraged to “build the skills to do this well,” she said.
At the YWCA’s Citygate child-care centre, that means ensuring the play area is free of hazards and then allowing children to engage in “rough and tumble play,” said supervisor Andrea Williams.
A tree in the yard is a favourite of many kids, who take turns climbing and swinging from the branches.
“Rules like ‘Don’t run up the slide’ can be very limiting,” she said, touching on a controversial point of playground etiquette.
“I find the children themselves are often able to find the balance (as to how much risk they can handle).”
Staff are trained to ask kids questions, such as if they are feeling safe, or if they see hazards, such as a wobbly step.
Parents, too, have become more accepting of the concept of free play and want their kids to be able to spend time outside.
Williams said the new recommendations by pediatricians are nice to hear.
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