Podcast: Independent Risky Play is Important - Steve Barkley

Podcast: Independent Risky Play is Important

Independent Risky Play is Important

Parents often receive messages about the dangers that might befall unsupervised children and the value of high achievement in school. They too seldom hear messages that if children are to grow up well-adjusted, they need ever-increasing opportunities for independent activity, including self-directed play and meaningful contributions to family and community life. These opportunities inform youth that they are trusted, responsible, and capable. With “risky” activities, students receive feedback that they can deal effectively with the real world.

Visit Play Outside Canada here.

Read “All Work, No Independent Play Cause of Youth Declining Mental Health” here.

Watch the video on Denmark’s Forest Kindergartens here. 

Subscribe to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast on iTunes or visit BarkleyPD.com to find new episodes!


Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello, and welcome to the parents as learning coaches edition of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. Parents and caregivers play many different roles, and even sometimes conflicting roles as they support children’s development. The pandemic has shown a light on the importance of parents supporting learners. In this podcast, I’ll share my experiences as a teacher, educator, parent, grandparent, and continuous learner that can support your coaching efforts.

Steve: 00:36 Independent risky play is important. I was introduced to the term risky play while working with a group of preschool teachers who described to me that a goal they were working to implement in their program was to increase the experiences students had in risky play. That kind of caught my attention and they went on to describe for me the importance of preschool-aged children learning from the tasks that they take on that have some risk. Balancing, climbing – and the focus being that they learn to identify the risk, manage the risk, and push through it. That introduction from those teachers caused my attention to be pulled when I found an article titled, “All Work, No Independent Play: Cause of Youth Declining Mental Health.” That article is from the Florida Atlantic University, and I have the link posted in the lead in, along with the links to the other resources that I’ll mention in this podcast.

Steve: 02:14 The article began with this statement: “Anxiety and depression among school-aged children and teens in the United States are at an all time high. Sadly, in 2021, child and adolescent mental health was declared a national emergency. Although variety of causes are thought to contribute to this decline in mental health, they are identifying one of the concerns as a lack of ‘independent child’s play.’ Findings suggests that the rise in mental health disorders is attributed to a decline over the decades in opportunities for children and teens to play, roam, and engage in activities independent of direct oversight and controlled by adults. Although well intentioned, our adult drive to guide and protect children and teens has deprived them in some cases from the independence that they need for mental health, contributing to record levels of anxiety and depression. Studies are showing that children’s freedom to engage in activities that involve some degree of risk and personal responsibility away from adults has declined over the decades. Risky play, such as climbing high into a tree, helps protect children from developing phobias and reduces future anxiety by boosting self-confidence to deal with emergencies. Some of the items that impact play being risky are heights, speed tools, the elements, meaning weather, exploring and rough.” As I explored this topic, I came across a website titled, playoutsidecanada.com. Listen in on this short message that I found on the site.

Play Outside Canada: 04:47 I’m Dr. Mariana Personi. I’m a developmental psychologist and a faculty member at the University of British Columbia and the BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute, and I’m a parent too.

Play Outside Canada: 05:02 Play is a basic childhood need, and taking risks is a fundamental part of play. Risky play can have many different shapes, but the basic part is the thrill and excitement of testing yourself and finding out what happens. You probably have memories of climbing higher than you’d ever climbed before, or the thrill of being allowed out on your own for the first time. Many of us remember day spent outside playing with friends until the streetlights came on. But these kinds of experiences are a lot less common for kids today. Parents worry about dangers like serious injury or abduction or even what other people will think about our parenting decisions. These worries shape our decisions and place unnecessary limits on what we allow kids to do. It’s really important to realize the huge benefits that kids get out of taking risks and playing outside. Things like developing self resilience, self-confidence, learning to manage risks. Missing out on these opportunities can have serious repercussions in the short and long term. It’s up to all of us – parents, teachers, neighbors, society, to give kids the opportunity to create those great memories and develop those life lessons that were so important in shaping all of us.

Steve: 06:34 The researchers indicate that children need an ever increasing opportunity for independence, for signs that they are trusted, responsible, and capable. They need to feel that they can deal effectively with the real world, not just with the world of school. Whenever I’ve gotten into these conversations and explorations with folks about how we at school figure out opportunities for kids to have what I called real-world learning experiences, I reflect back to all the values and possibilities that being a child growing up on a farm provided to me. I think back in those days, some of those activities, I shook my head at and perhaps saw them as as punishments at times. But looking back, I realized that we were put into activities that could be described as risky, sometimes around animals, sometimes around equipment, and frequently, with real world consequences or outcomes from successfully or unsuccessfully being able to execute the task.

Steve: 08:00 The researchers report that among many of the constraints that impact independent activity in childhood today include the increased time that they spend in school and on schoolwork at home. It’s reported that between 1950 and 2010, the average length of the school year in the United States increased by five weeks. Homework, which was rare or non-existent in elementary schools, is now common even in kindergarten. Moreover, by 2014, the average time spent in recess, including any recess associated with the lunch period for elementary schools, was just 26 minutes a day, and some schools had no recess at all. I was able to find a article about a school district that tackled that issue. The Patchogue-Medford District out on Long Island New York implemented some major changes a few years back. They doubled daily recess from 20 minutes to 40 minutes and encouraged children to go outside, even in the rain and snow. They brought building blocks, lincoln log toys and kitchen sets back into the classrooms. They gave each child a 40 minute lunch. They added optional periods of yoga and mindfulness training for kids K-8. They launched an unstructured play club for kindergarten through grade five children every Friday morning from 8:00 AM to 9:15. A free breakfast program in classrooms was started so that children and teachers could eat lunch together every morning and the amount of homework was sharply reduced.

Steve: 10:18 The program is called PEAS, standing forpPhysical growth, emotional growth, academic growth, and social growth. As their superintendent stated, it has nothing to do with technology. During the play periods, there isn’t even a tablet, laptop or desktop in use. They describe that the play club has only four adults at it, and they’re there to see that no one gets hurt, but otherwise, they’re under strict orders not to intervene with the children. They’re there simply as safety. It was described that the most emotional moment for many of the adults who are watching the spectacle of the play clubs was the sudden realization that children of much different age groups were playing together. That’s something that rarely happens in our school setting because we separate children so much by age. But at play clubs, kindergarten and first graders we’re playing and collaborating with fourth and fifth graders and vice versa.

Steve: 11:47 Much older children were mentoring the younger ones. Special needs students felt welcomed by others to play with them. What great opportunities for increasing kids’ social and emotional growth being caused by adults stepping back rather than directing more. You’ll find a link in the podcast lead-in to a video of Forest Kindergarten as it’s implemented in Denmark. I’ve been part of forest kindergarten programs and my travels and I’d encourage you to take a look. Besides seeing the kids engaged in what we could label as risky play, there are also conversations with parents who are purposely placing their kids into these programs and identifying what the parents value in the program. The researchers on the Florida Atlantic University article identified that we probably need to consider that as parents and as educators, sometimes our good intentions are carried too far. Our intentions to protect kids and provide what many believe to be better, interpreted as more schooling, both in and out of actual schools, could be the root of a problem. Our concern for children’s safety and the value of adult guidance needs to be tempered by the recognition that as kids grow, they need ever increasing opportunities to manage their own activities independently. I guess it strikes me that as teachers and educators, the behaviors that we need to take on to promote kids might be considered our form of risky play. Thanks for listening.

Steve [Outro]: 14:05 Thanks for listening in, folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter at Steve Barkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs@barkleypd.com.

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