It’s been fantastic to see more and more news stories recently highlighting the need for children to engage in risky play. The latest illustration of this – Kids Gone Wild – offers some wonderful insights into Danish forest kindergartens run by highly qualified pedagogues. With quite literally stunning images of small children climbing tall trees, whittling sticks with sharp knives and playing together in open water, the report shows the close connection between risk, adventure and learning. It is impressive just how quickly and naturally children learn about risk and develop a very astute sense of their own physical abilities and competence – if they are actually given opportunities to engage in risky play and are trusted by adults to explore the world on their own terms.
It is also telling that in countries like Denmark, with a vibrant tradition of social pedagogy, risk-taking is seen as beneficial for children rather than as dangerous. It is not only that actually bad things very rarely happen when children are allowed to take risks – the pedagogue in the film mentions that in his 17-year work at the forest kindergarten, only once did he have to take a child to hospital (because a parent accidentally drove their car over the child’s foot). In fact, really good things happen within the process. Where children grow up with opportunities to test their mental, emotional and physical abilities, to develop them by challenging themselves to dive a little deeper than they have previously done, jump off a rock that’s a little higher than the last one, or climb a little higher than before, they usually have a very astute sense of where their boundaries are, how competent they are and what is still beyond their abilities. In social pedagogy, this ability to understand, assess and safely take risks is often referred to as risk competence. Children who have had opportunities to develop their physical abilities and motor skills, a good sense of balance and rhythm and to experience their bodily limits will be more risk competent in activities such as climbing a tree than children who have little or no sense of coordination, of gravity, of how much weight their arms will hold. This doesn’t just make a difference when it comes to safely climbing a tree, it affects children’s entire everyday life. Evidence suggests that accidents are more likely to have serious consequences for those children who are not used to taking risks and develop risk competence than for those who have learned how to run without losing control, how to land when jumping, how to fall without hurting themselves. In order to develop risk competence children require opportunities to experience risk situations first-hand in order to make both cognitive and emotional sense of risks as well as their ability to assess and manage such situations.
Whilst more and more research points to the importance of risk-taking and practice examples such as the Danish forest kindergarten show how this can be facilitated safely, unfortunately, research also highlights that culturally we’ve yet to implement these lessons and strengthen the case for risky play. It is important not to underestimate the significance of our collective approach to risk. Protecting children from risks and managing those for them does not simply mean that we do not develop their risk competence – it means that we are keeping them in a bubble of pretend safety, a bubble that is destined to burst sooner or later. Furthermore, by preventing them from acquiring essential skills to understand, analyse, emotionally cope with and master risky situations, we are also limiting our collective resourcefulness as a society. Life in what sociologists refer to as ‘risk society’ relies on us better understanding the many small and large, predictable and unpredictable, visible and invisible risks around us and on our ability to use this knowledge for our collective safety. Enabling children to develop risk competence is therefore not just about their well-being, it also has potentially a profound impact on the shape of our society in the future.
In a world of uncertainty, where the ways in which we solve problems, innovate, collaborate, perceive and think matter more than the hard knowledge we have acquired, we must equip children to not be afraid of risk but to respect it, to not let fear hold them back but to guide them forwards. Admittedly, this is no easy task. It requires from parents, practitioners, policy-makers, regulators and others to take their own risks, to be prepared to let go and let children explore freely.
In the end, the question is this: What world do we want to contribute to? A world where children don’t play outside, don’t take risks, move less, grow obese, are less active and develop more physical and mental health issues? Or a world where children have stimulating play opportunities in their communities, where they can explore and develop their ability to assess and master risk situations, where they learn to solve problems, collaborate and imagine, where their bodies and their minds are active and engaged and where they enjoy a sense of well-being as a result? Which of these worlds is likely to produce the innovators and leaders that our societies will need in the future? We must remember that the choice over the world we want to help create is ours.