By Gill Connell and Cheryl McCarthy
Kids Are Born Risk Takers
Kids are born risk takers, not because they don’t know any better, but because they have to be. Some measure of physical, cognitive, emotional, and/or social risk is involved in learning anything new. And for little ones, pretty much everything is new.
So, if risk is necessary for learning, by default, so is courage. Yet in today’s risk-averse culture, we’re often not giving little ones the opportunity to practice courage. In my experience, there are many ways to accomplish this at home, in the classroom, on the playground, or wherever little ones play. Here’s a great example:
Rough ‘n’ Tumble Play
Some time ago I was working with a group of teachers who were struggling with the issue of overly aggressive roughhousing on the playground. But unlike others who have asked me how to stop it, this preschool asked a different question: “How can we make it safe for the kids to roughhouse?”
Wow. Great question.
You see, rough ‘n’ tumble or roughhousing is a great life lesson for all young boys and girls. It teaches children how to control their own aggression (not become more aggressive, as many adults think), respect others, and stay within the often unspoken boundaries of social propriety. (If you’re interested in the topic, I’d highly recommend The Art of Roughhousing by Dr. Anthony T. DeBenedet and Dr. Lawrence J. Cohen.)
But the issue remains. How do you make rough ‘n’ tumble play safe (or at least safer)? Note: Nothing can 100 percent guarantee safety for each child in every situation. As I often say, all safety is “local.” Only you know a child’s temperament, maturity level, experience, and capabilities, so safety is ultimately your call. But some strategies may help. Here’s what we did:
The Rough ‘n’ Tumble Mat
First, the preschool invested in a new mat, which we called the “Rough ‘n’ Tumble Mat” to isolate the play.
The teachers introduced the idea to the children and started a dialogue with them about the benefits of having a dedicated place for rough ‘n’ tumble. But this was more than just a safer place to play. It was a teachable moment. After all, keeping children safe and teaching children to think about safety are two very different things. So we decided the little ones might benefit from taking a Safety Safari.
The teachers took the children on a field trip all around the preschool, stopping at different locations and encouraging them to decide whether or not it would be a safe place for their new Rough ‘n’ Tumble Mat. For instance, “Would the Rough ‘n’ Tumble Mat be safe if we put it by the stairs? Or by the tables? Or near the swings? What would happen if we put it here?”
At each stop, the children were given the chance to envision what might happen, anticipating and discussing the consequences of each potential location. In fact, this “think safety” strategy worked so well, the children wound up doing almost all of the surmising themselves and ultimately team problem-solving each location until they agreed the Rough ‘n’ Tumble Mat belonged in an empty corner away from anything sharp.
Together, they all put the Rough ‘n’ Tumble Mat in its new home. And then they took it a step further. All on their own, the little ones created their own rules of engagement. For instance, they decided that only two children should be allowed on the mat at a time. They talked about respecting each others’ choices to play or not to play, and created a “trigger word” to signal when someone wanted to stop. The teachers encouraged them to talk about reasons why someone wouldn’t want to play or might want to stop, and soon enough the children were able to empathize with what those feelings might be like.
Over time, and with some practice, the Rough ‘n’ Tumble Mat became a favorite place to play with fewer and fewer negative incidents. The play was still big and boisterous, yet somehow in setting their own boundaries for risk, and understanding a tiny bit more about the courage it takes to engage in rough ‘n’ tumble play, the children’s respect for each other seemed to solve many of the safety issues.
And one more thing: Getting children to think about safety will not only help them understand what to look out for, they may well think safety is their idea. And like the rest of us, when kids believe it’s their idea, they’re bound to believe it’s a good one!
Gill Connell is a globally recognized child development authority, specializing in the foundations of learning through movement and play. She provides developmental expertise to parents, preschools, schools, and companies such as Hasbro, Inc., based on her 30+ years in preschool and primary education. She is the founder of Moving Smart, Ltd., which offers resources, tools, training, and workshops.
Cheryl McCarthy is a former vice president of intellectual property development for Hasbro, Inc. She is a 30-year veteran of the world of children’s play, specializing in young children’s storytelling and entertainment. As executive producer, she managed the creative development of properties such as My Little Pony, Candy Land, Mr. Potato Head, and many other beloved children’s icons. She is currently the creative director at Moving Smart, Ltd. Cheryl lives in Attleboro, Massachusetts.
Gill and Cheryl are the authors of A Moving Child Is a Learning Child: How the Body Teaches the Brain to Think.
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