My two-year-old son thinks he’s a 400-pound tiger. He races so fast down the sidewalk to the park that he trips and skins his knees. He leaps from the highest platform on the playground with such reckless abandon we barely catch him before he hits the ground.
For him, it’s the best part of the day. For me, it’s like watching a toddler perform America Ninja Warrior with no harness or safety net.
Some days I feel like we should call the paramedics and ask them to warm up the ambulance at the edge of the park!
Rewind a few decades – back to neon scrunchies and tie-dye shirts – I used to be the exact same way. Fearless. I was rushed to the ER at four years old with a head injury after falling off the fence into the neighbour’s rock bed. I have plenty of scars from a childhood of unsupervised adventures: riding my bike too fast and skidding on the pavement or falling from an old tree branch.
The best part is no one was over my shoulder warning, ” be careful” or “slow down.”
Advocates for risky play make a convincing case why parents like me should loosen the leash a bit or perhaps take it off altogether.
According to the B.C. online collaborative project outsideplay.ca, risky play can “have many different shapes, but always involves the thrill and excitement of testing yourself and finding out what happens.” That includes playing rough and tumble – at heights, at high speeds, with dangerous tools or elements or with a chance of getting lost. Research shows risky play is exhilarating for kids, helps them learn to manage risk and improves their motor and spatial skills.
Matt Leung, a team lead in active play for Calgary-based Vivo, says organized activities and social expectations are taking away from that time.
“I think there’s such a big, big emphasis on raising the perfect child and making sure that our child has access to music lessons and sports lessons, skating, swimming – all of those critical, tangible skills that parents are on some level expected to cultivate in their children that we lose out on giving our kids the chance to develop some of those soft skills: the opportunity to problem-solve and teamwork and develop genuine relationships with other kids just throughout the process of peer play.”
At Vivo’s day camp, play ambassadors participate in child-led activities like leaping off of tree stumps, play-fighting with sticks and climbing on rocks.
“The words ‘be careful’ really don’t have a lot of meaning,” Leung said.
“Instead we really encourage that parents or caregivers ask open-ended questions, get the kids thinking critically about what they are doing and how they can explore their environment in a new way.”
“Really as simple as saying things like, ‘Hey, have you tried this? How could you get up on to that rock in a different way? Can you do something a little bit different with that dowel or that tree stump? And just really stimulating their curiosity and their imagination to try something they haven’t tried before.”
Last week at the park, I decided to give this concept a shot. I even crouched behind a few bushes waiting for my two year old to abandon the slide and come look for me (a silly attempt to facilitate his feeling of “getting lost.”) He played away merrily and I gave up after 10 minutes when my legs fell asleep and the pine cones hurt my fingers. This week, I will give it another crack by omitting “be careful” from my vocabulary at the park. As he bounds from stump to slide, you won’t hear a peep from me. Just a quiet, unavoidable flutter in my chest.