On a fall afternoon, I was outside supervising a group of neighborhood kids playing in my yard and neighboring yards. I am a big fan of risky play, so watching them scale apple trees and climb up our rope swing was bringing me so much joy! (And yes, some anxiety. But I do trust them and their ability to know when it’s too much for their body.)
At one point they found a ladder lying on the ground that they worked together to prop up onto a stump in the yard- yay for teamwork! They were using this ramp to climb up and down and hang on and jump off of it, it was great to watch. However, upon closer inspection, I realized that right under the propped-up ladder were several 2×4 boards that were full of rusty screws and nails.
Instantly their risky play turned to dangerous play.
I was able to take a second to gather my thoughts and plan my next move, how I reacted could drastically change the outcome of their work.
There was danger, but nothing was immediate. Courses needed to be changed, but it wasn’t a life-or-death situation at the moment that I needed to swoop in right away.
I offered them some awareness of the situation,
“Hey guys, let’s look around really quick. What do you see on the ground? Boards with nails in them? Yeah, that can be dangerous if we fall on them! What can we do to make this a little safer?”
Their first solution was to move the boards away from where they were playing, but with the number of children and only myself there to supervise them, I didn’t feel like this would be a safe option to make sure all of the boards were picked up and moved without a nail going through someone’s hand or foot, so I had to tell them we needed to find a new option.
After some more deliberation, they decided to work together to pick up the ladder and move it to a different area to prop up and play on again. After moving it, the ladder was taller and in a more risky position to play on, but the danger of it was gone because it was a safer landing than the alternative.
They played with their setup for hours and hours with no incident! And maybe they would have played in their first location for that long with no harm to anyone either, but the danger there was not something I could ignore.
Risky play is important and good and needed, but as a caregiver, it’s my job to determine when risky play turns into dangerous play.
There was so much learning in this situation, both for the children, and myself! I am not perfect and every situation isn’t handled this well every time. But with practice and time, I’ve learned more and more how to differentiate between risky and dangerous play and the best way to approach the changes we need to make in order to keep everyone safe, while still giving them opportunities to learn through risk.
Other helpful articles on risky play: