Risk and Reward in Outdoor Play – Teach. Play. Love. Episode 30

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Outdoor play offers so many developmental benefits – including healthy risk-taking. But bold, physical risks might make you feel uneasy. How can you encourage your child to bravely step outside their comfort zone, without letting on that you’re worried? On this podcast episode, early childhood experts Rachel Robertson and Claire Goss cover how to help your child try new things, build skills, and discover what their body can do – all while encouraging a love of the outdoors.

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Resources: Risk and Reward in Outdoor Play

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Rachel: Hi, Claire, we're back together again. How are you today?

Claire: Hi, Rachel. I'm great. I'm a little warm. It's hot summer here, finally.

Rachel: Yeah, finally, it's summer. So, it is good. We can all get outside and enjoy the weather. I know in different parts of the country, it's gotten really hot, it's a little harder to enjoy it. But we're all feeling a sense of summer, a sense of doing those kinds of things, summer activities, being outdoors, and enjoying nature. And I know that this is a topic that's really important to both of us. What we're gonna talk about today is healthy risks, and getting outdoors, and how those two things can come together and support children's development.

Claire: I spent a lot of time outdoors as a kid. My family, the default vacation was camping. The default response to, "I'm bored" was go outside. So, even though I had a pretty small yard in our little suburb, I just made the whole neighborhood our play space and I was on my bikes, I was on roller skates. I was playing badminton, kickball, Wiffle ball, all kinds of things in the dirt, in the trees, all over the place. So, I know, Rachel, you had a very similar childhood.

Rachel: Yeah, I think a lot of adults can look back and think about their childhoods and realize we spent a lot more time outdoors than the average child does now, and that was my default. Also, I had the very stereotypical, go outside and don't come back until the streetlights are out, until you are called for dinner, not in any kind of negative way, just knowing that was the right thing to do. That was what was healthy for me, that's what I wanted to do, and my parents supported that for me. And it's become harder and harder to allow children to do that and support that. But when I look at what's happening now, and I read about what's happening now and the differences in childhood compared to my own experiences, I even more value those outdoor times I had day-to-day. And also, I was very involved in camping programs, both as a child, but also as an adult because of those early childhood experiences, and loving camp and going on long canoe trips. I went on a 10-day canoe trip, I portaged a canoe across a small town. I'm still proud of that. And I did those things as an adult and lived at a camp, an overnight camp, and I was the camp sort of social worker helping children with homesickness, and engaging with others. And it was all good, and I see the goodness of that for children, for myself, and then those children that I worked with when I was a professional at a camp.

Claire: I wanted to talk about outdoor play, not just because of the time of the year but this topic was actually inspired by a conversation that I had with our producer, who mentioned that she's back to going to playgrounds and being outdoors in parks. And sometimes it makes her feel uneasy watching her kids take some pretty bold physical risks on various equipment or outside in the park. And I realized that a lot of parents feel this way when their kids are suddenly not indoors after a long winter. So, I wanted to connect that, make that bridge between outdoor play and risk-taking, you know, what do we know about what's good about being outside for kids?

Rachel: Well, we know that there's a lot of developmental benefits for being outdoors. Not only does it help with mental health and emotional health for all of us to be connected to nature, it also is such a great way to explore science phenomenon and a whole bunch of STEM things can happen outdoors, loose parts, creativity, imagination happens much more outdoors. There's just a world full of unstructured toys. Basically, when we're outside we can make up things, challenge ourselves. And connecting really to the topic of today, there's just so much opportunity for healthy risk outside whether it is at a playground with equipment, or it's just out in natural world, you're at a park, or you're on a hike or something together. Kids are often picking up a stick or wiggling something or really interested in climbing higher or challenging themselves or looking at rocks or figuring something out outdoors, and there's such good natural risk. But again, what you were saying, and our producer was talking about taking kids to playgrounds, there's a lot of natural, healthy risk, safe risk there as well.

I'm remembering when my oldest daughter, Hannah was little, we would go every day to one park, because she wanted to go the whole monkey bar row. And every day, she maybe could do two or three, and then slowly, she added to four or five, that's what we're talking about. That's a good example of healthy risk, a personal challenge. There wasn't a lot that could go wrong. Sure, she could have fallen and bumped and bruised herself a little bit and she probably did. But that is worth it for that personal challenge and growing her skills and taking that risk. And of course, the physical development that also always develops cognitive development too.

Claire: Oh, yeah, there's all kinds of great stuff happening there, right? She's working on her physical growth, her emotional health, she's got that growth mindset going, I'm gonna keep trying, even though I'm failing. She's learning what her body is capable of, her brain is growing, she's increasing her attention, her focus, her confidence, problem-solving skills. I mean, there's just so much happening there. But let me ask you this, did it make you nervous when she took those risks?

Rachel: I certainly get a little nervous when my kids have taken risks. And even now, they're a lot older, and they take different kinds of risks and it makes me nervous too. But I'm so aware of the positive benefits of those risks that I try to think ahead. And this is guidance we give to all parents is think ahead in that situation, what you're comfortable with, what your triggers are, what makes you nervous, and really think about your reaction. So, if parents say when a child takes some healthy risk, or wants to do something, if they're constantly giving the feedback, oh, no, be careful, that's dangerous. That's shaping how children think about things and it will affect their willingness to be outside, their engagement with those kinds of activities, and their willingness to take risks, try new things, try and be willing to fail. And we don't want to negatively impact those things as they're in that very important developmental years because that will affect them long term. We want them to feel brave and bold and willing to take some risks.

So, I always think about helping them think about how to be cautious or careful, building those skills with them, and then really setting the boundaries. There are some things, there are some hazards and there are some things that make me particularly nervous. And so, we work around those and talk about those versus me applying, "Oh, no. Are you okay?" That's not helpful for children.

Claire: I am the queen of gasping, I think. I swear it's involuntary, I gasp, it just escapes me and then my children's head snap over to me. And then I try to act really breezy and calm like, oh, everything's fine, let's be [crosstalk 00:07:52].

Rachel: Right. I mean, that's a very natural parenting reaction, right, to gasp at something. And the other thing is so natural is children looking at the parent to check in. Is this okay? Am I okay? They're looking to us, especially in those early years to check in on that. So, if our face and our behaviors and our communication is all about, "No, this is not okay. You're not okay. This is so terrible and scary and dangerous." They'll start to internalize that. So, we do wanna, even if we do involuntarily gasp do exactly what you're talking about is change that into, "Wow, that surprised me. Oh, can you believe you did that? You fell from the monkey bars, and you just bounced right back up." Instead of, "Oh, my gosh, are you okay? Are you okay?" That reaction communicates to them that there's something worrisome about what they're trying to do.

Claire: Yeah, absolutely. And I know that our primary job as parents is to keep our kids healthy and safe. So, sometimes that feels like a contradiction to the encouraging risks. There's obviously basic foundational safety stuff. You mentioned the word hazards, that's a great word. There's a difference between encouraging risk-taking and ignoring hazards. So, bike helmets are good. When you get to a new space you've never been to before with your children, whether it's someone's house or a play space, playground, review the rules, right? You're gonna stay inside the fence, you see that there's a street over there with cars going really fast. We're gonna stay on this side of that tree, or whatever the rules and boundaries are, you know, you're at a playground, let's check out where the swings are. Right? Oh, there are some 10-year-olds on those swings that are going really high and fast, so you wanna walk around the swing set. Those are just basic safety hazard things. You're not discouraging fun and exploration but it's, you know, totally great idea to lay out those foundations of where the hazards are, and then go out, go play, have fun. Go explore after that, right?

Rachel: Yeah, and that's really good, healthy development, and they're learning, learning and teaching your children about how to assess the risk and the hazard and think about their own physical safety is good. What we're suggesting you do with children is helpful for their development, so they can make decisions and build some autonomy and confidence and personal responsibility in learning about those things themselves. So then when they are taking a healthy risk, and when we're talking about that, we're talking about things like trying to go across the monkey bars or jumping maybe off of a tree stump, or something that is safe, safe distance for them. And of course, this changes based on the age that they are, I think riding a bike is a good example. So, I mean, that's a thing kids really wanna learn how to do. There's some risk in that, they're gonna fall, it's very likely they're gonna fall, they're nervous about it. Just think about if we, as a parent said, "You're right, this is really scary, you're probably gonna fall, so let's not learn how to do this." We don't do that as parents.

So, we should apply that to other scenarios, that there's a little bit of risk, like what you said is try something new, see what they're made of, see what they're capable of. Because when they are able to do those things, then they're willing to do other things. And think about how that manifests in school, let's say, if they're willing to take on a new and harder class, or they're willing to try something on a group project, they're willing to maybe present if they're nervous about it. All of those skills manifest from early experiences with taking risks and believing in themselves and growing their confidence and growing their mindset about themselves.

Claire: Absolutely. I always try to encourage parents to think it's so hard to imagine that your little toddler or preschooler being a teenager or an adult someday. But imagine your teenager wanting so badly to try out for the school play, but thinking, that's too big a risk. And you and I know as parents, that's a healthy risk. There's nothing dangerous or destructive about not making the school play cast, it's a bummer. There's a sting of failure, maybe, and it feels that way. But there's nothing dangerous or destructive about that, it's a healthy risk to take. And then fast forward to adulthood, applying for a job, going on a job interview, going to a conference where you don't know anyone and you have to... It's a risk, but it's a healthy risk. And it's that healthy stress we've talked about before, but the foundation of that confidence that teenagers and adults have begins in toddlerhood and preschool years, where you've got a caregiver who says, "I believe in you, you can do this, try again, you can do this, you're a strong capable person." Giving kids the chance to remember that about themselves, is so critically important.

And it can be difficult, you know, sometimes I get so nervous and I can't even help myself. One thing that always made me nervous was sticks in the woods. If my kids would pick up a sharp stick and start walking with it, for some reason, I had this idea that they were suddenly gonna poke themselves right in the eyeball with it. And it's like, I could not get this idea out of my head, that this was gonna happen when really playing with sticks, I guess there's a risk there. But it's not super dangerous, hazardous risk to pick up a stick and hold it while you're walking. Right?

Rachel: Right, the chances of something happening they're there, but they're so slim and so it is a worthwhile risk. And I think it's like doing a risk assessment, what are the hazards? What are the potential issues? And as parents, we're always doing that, so we're always assessing risks for our children, we're supposed to do that. There's some biology happening there about our protecting our children. But we are as a generation of parents in hyper-drive with worrying behaviors, and we need to get a handle on them and be in control of them. I say that to myself, sometimes when I can feel physically being really worried is say, Rachel, you're in charge, do not let your amygdala take over here. And this phrase I love using is amygdala hijack. And the amygdala is the part of your brain that is really unconscious responsive. And that's what's acting, when we're worried about something or when we have a physical reaction to worry. All the time when my kids get close to the edge of something, I can feel it physically, I get so nervous about it. And sometimes it's really hazardous.

So, we went to the Grand Canyon, they were getting close, that's a hazard. But sometimes it's not, you know, that we're walking across a bridge, it's completely safe and I get nervous about that. So, I need to talk myself through that. That's my amygdala. That's my own personal fears. That's my overdrive of worrying as a parent kicking in. But I can use the prefrontal cortex, the part of my brain that's more developed, and make a conscious decision about what's the right thing, what do my children need here? Is this my reaction or is this truly something to worry about? And that's what we want parents to do for their children is not give in to that impulsive reaction and that worry, because we're worrying about everything right now. And that does affect children, when they see that we're worried about everything, they start to internalize that and then they're less likely to feel safe and confident in the world and we certainly want that for them. With the caveat which you were saying earlier, Claire, is that teaching them about health and safety and safe risks and safety guidelines for themselves is really important. That's an important part of childhood without making them scared of the world.

Claire: Yeah, absolutely. And I think every parent can identify with that feeling. You mentioned it's kind of like a gut tingle where you're, like, it's like a parent's sense that something terrible is about to happen. And you're [crosstalk 00:15:21] that is the fight, flight, flee, freeze, part of your brain activating, getting ready to swoop in and, you know, superman, save your child. And most of the time, it's gonna be fine. And I know that it's probably worth touching briefly on different temperaments of different kids and how some kids are naturally from day one more intense about things maybe more likely to take risks right from the start. And so, some of you might be listening to this podcast and saying, "This is something that happens on the daily, my kids are always trying to take risks." And others of you are probably thinking, maybe I could be encouraging my kids to try to take some more risks. So there's a basic temperament there, that we're working with, sometimes there's a mismatch there between the risk-taking parent and the risk-averse child and vice versa.

Just remind yourself every time you allow your child some independence, and you know they're gonna fall, right, they're running down the sidewalk, and you know that they might trip and fall, by letting them do it, you're saying, "I trust you." And the tumble on the scrapped knee is physically painful but there's also a lesson there, right? They're learning again, what their body is capable of. So, next time, maybe they'll run just a little bit slower or they'll avoid that tree root in the sidewalk in front of your house, because now they've learned something. And it's so much better for their brain development than you yelling, "Watch out for the tree root, you're gonna fall," right? They're gonna learn, they're gonna learn on their own, their brains are so malleable, and they're learning all these wonderful things about themselves when you let them take those risks.

Rachel: Yeah, it's such a good example, taking a walk. Because if you are worried, something you could do as a parent is do that walk together and look for things like the tree roots and ask, what should you do when you get to this spot? What's a way to keep yourself safe when you get to this spot? And so, they're thinking about it, you're talking about it together, and then you're giving them some autonomy to try something, both the autonomy that I trust you and give it a try, and then learn from that try, are so critically important for children. We can't overstate that. And one of the things that we use, strategies we use as educators that I've applied to my parenting is this concept of scaffolding. So, you think of scaffold, like, something you'd use to build a house or a structure. And the concept really just means is thinking about where somebody currently is. So, what your child is currently capable of, and what's the very next step, that's how they're going to grow just like a tiny bit out of their comfort zone.

It's hard to develop and grow if you're just staying right in that safe comfort zone, and it's also scary if you go way too far too fast. So, if you've never done public speaking and all of a sudden you're on stage in front of hundreds of people, way too far too fast. But if you have a small little thing you're gonna do, that's scaffolding, that's the next step, a small risk. So, think about that with your children, whatever age they are, whatever temperament they are, what's the next step? How do you scaffold that so they can build all of these important social-emotional, self-concept, self-confidence, being motivated to try learn new things, growth mindset, all of this comes from just some good, healthy risk and playing outdoors.

Claire: Yeah, absolutely. At our old house, we had a huge, beautiful tree in the front yard. And my then 3-year-old really wanted to climb to this branch. And she wanted...I think she had this romantic idea in her head of standing up there and being the queen of the neighborhood. I knew that that really was legitimately, that was gonna be a hazard. It was too high for her, and I knew her gross motor skills really well, because I was with her all the time. I used that scaffolding concept you're talking about, I said, "Let's go to the playground and practice on the structures. I think it's a great idea you wanna climb that tree, that beautiful tree, I wonder what the view is like from up there. Let's go to the playground and you can practice climbing this structure and that structure." And, you know, over the weeks and months, she got so confident she got so strong, and she also just grew up, right, she got older and her gross motor skills and her cognitive development caught up and then she was ready. And so, it was just wonderful to be able to...you know, she had this goal, and we were able to work together to figure out how to get her there. And it was still a risk, letting her climb it the first time but a great question to ask yourself as a parent when your child is taking that risk is, you know, what's the worst thing that could happen? And then ask yourself, what's the best thing that could happen?

Rachel: I like that.

Claire: And sit with that for a minute and think about whether you're making your decision based on fear as a parent, rather than the actual realities. Sometimes there's a reason to say no, that's too big of a risk. But often, what you said, we're trying to be a human bubble wrap for our kids, because we love them so much and your intentions are good, right? You wanna keep your child safe. But those two questions, what's the worst thing that can happen and what's the best thing that can happen, help us be a little bit more objective.

Rachel: Those are great questions to ask. I think the other thing we wanna think about when we're talking about risk and outdoor play is, we know that children that play outdoors, turn into adults that take care of the environment. While we were both campers, we're not saying everybody has to be a camper to enjoy being outside. You can go to a park, you can go on a walk, you can go to an arboretum, you can go to a garden, you can do all sorts of things to engage with nature. But teaching children to enjoy and love, and preserve, and respect nature is an important part of this as well. We know that it's really good for children. And we have seen a decline, we have seen a measurable decline in how much time children are spending outdoors. It's affecting all the things we're talking about. And of course, it has affected their physical health over the years. And we are seeing at the same time a growth in social-emotional challenges for children, for example, the rates of anxiety are going up, and children at younger ages are reporting anxiousness.

And while we can't make a claim of exact causation, the correlation of these two, what's happening and how they're happening at the very same time, along with the increase in lessons and scheduling and technology use is pretty suspect. So, there's something going on together here, especially because we know people that spend more time in nature, have more positive self-confidence and reduce stress. So, that's something to think about too, is just getting out, lots of parents asking questions about how to get their kids off technology. Are they scheduling too much, over-scheduling, under-scheduling? If you're asking that question, you may be over-scheduling. Even just the fact that you're asking but thinking about time outside, time playing, engaging in nature is not extra, and it's not wasted. And it's not just something to squeeze in when you have the time, it should be something you prioritize just as much as anything else. And it will help with all of those other concerns about, are they getting enough time outside? How's their physical development? How do I get them off technology?

Claire: Absolutely. And there's a lot of research that supports this idea. I mean, your blood pressure goes down when you're outside. This is a fact. I'm sure all the adults listening can identify with that, right, you're having a stressful day and you stand up and walk outdoors. Even if you work in an urban environment, just seeing the skyline, seeing the color of the sky, your blood pressure goes down and alleviate stress. So, I couldn't agree more, Rachel, just building that habit of getting kids outdoors every day, just so important. And of course, we want future stewards of the environment and we want people caring about the earth, but I also just want my child to be healthy, and have that strategy in their back pocket someday, right? You know what I need, I need a brisk 15-minute walk outside around my office park, or I need to go outside and walk my dog, you know, all these things that we can do. Just getting outside there's that concept of taking a woods bath. We don't all have the benefit of living in the woods, but just being outside, that I'm getting from vitamin D, getting the fresh air, looking at the sky. It's all so good. So great.

Rachel: Last thing, I think I'd like to point out is I see a lot of concerns about this at Bright Horizons is weather. That's a good example of a maybe a risk versus a hazard. So, there is some dangerous weather. I'm not encouraging anyone go out and play in dangerous weather. But let your kids go outside and play in mud. Let them jump in puddles. Do not put them in clothes that they cannot get messy and dirty. Go out there with them, make sure they're dressed appropriately for the weather, send them to school dressed appropriately for the weather. Do not let the weather dictate whether kids can enjoy it or go out or not unless it's hazardous, because they learn so much from those things too. And all the caution about getting dirty or getting muddy you're going out in the rain is also limiting. They love that, it's great for them. They love it if you came out there with them as well but I know some adults don't wanna do that. But making sure that they are prepared for whatever weather situation within the realm of safe weather is happening in that letting that limit when they can be outside.

Claire: Absolutely. Is there anything better than a child coming indoors, you know, all rosy-cheeked and breathless? And in the winter, they're peeling off winter clothes in the summer. My 7-year-old last night just had sweat across his forehead after he played outside after dinner last night and it just filled my heart. He was just so full of the outdoors. He came in, he was filthy, he smelled terrible, he was sweaty. And I said, "Just go hit the shower, it all washes off," right? And it's just so great for him. And then you know what, he slept an extra hour this morning. I think another bonus of being outside, let's just be honest, it makes kids tired.

Rachel: That's a sign of a good day or day well spent when children are like that. We celebrate International Mud Day, that's a day set aside to celebrate mud as a universal experience that is so good for all children and all children have access to. That's something that we prepare parents that children are gonna come home dirty, and that is a good thing, they're gonna really engage with this. So, even that engaging in dirt and soil and mud is there's a lot of healthy properties to that as well.

So, we could go on I'm sure, we're both enthusiasts of outdoors and taking healthy risks. I think I'll sum this up by just saying playing outdoors and exploring nature are so valuable for childhood and I think listeners are hearing that from us. They build all aspects of development, those experiences outdoors, so don't worry that they are an extra activity to work in around lessons or around learning. This is the learning, children will benefit greatly in all areas of development from just being outside and being allowed to take those healthy risks.

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