"By engaging in risky play, children are effectively subjecting themselves to a form of exposure therapy, in which they force themselves to do the thing they’re afraid of in order to overcome their fear. But if they never go through that process, the fear can turn into a phobia."
Ellen Sandseter, a professor of early-childhood education at Queen Maud University College
In the 21st century, we have provided so many opportunities for our children. At the same time, we have become so protective of them that we have denied them some essential skills.In her article this month in Atlantic Monthly , Hanna Rosen points out how over-protective we have become of our children, especially when they play. We keep a constant eye on them, assure that they are in safe environments, and too often, catch them before they fall. As a result, we do not give them enough opportunities to fall down, scrape their knees, and even fail. If we catch and protect, we are not giving them opportunities to solve problems, to develop resilience, and to work through difficulties, Moreover, we are not giving them some wonderful opportunities for creative exploration.
Hiking in the Ho Rainforest in Olympic National Park this summer inspired me to create a space in our yard where our five year old daughter could use her imagination as she played. We spotted a section among trees that seemed to call one in to explore, create, and imagine. Once home, we gathered random objects to create what I called an "imaginarium":
- instruments were created with
- the top of an old firepit turned upside down and two old metal hooks became drumsticks
- a peanut bar jar filled old nuts became like a maraca
- old parts from benches, a defunct lawntractor, pvc plumbing pieces, and more became whatever our daughter wanted them to be
- I built her a climbing wall when she was two and we moved that and a slide down to the imaginarium
- when she had an idea, we would try to find something that she could use to create it. Pulleys and cord with clips become messaging systems.
She LOVES to take her friends to her imaginarium when they come over. They don't know what she is talking about when she mentions it, but once they see the space and random objects, they let their ideas flow freely. They can get dirty, silly, creative, and totally lost in a world driven by their imaginations and curiosity. We do not set rules there. They make them up. We do not hover to be sure they don't fall. They take care of each other. It is my favorite space in the yard and it is one that Mother Nature herself inspired.
And what of mud? Who doesn't love to jump in a mud puddle? Yesterday my daughter said we really needed to take a walk. She said that it was my "day off" and she planned our adventure. We grabbed our dog and hiked for about an hour and a half. Between snow and rain the past week, the ground had plenty of wet spots, but it was a beautiful Spring day that called us to hike. As we reached the end of the trail I spotted a very large puddle. I asked my daughter if she would like to jump in it. Her eyes lit up and she inched over. Then she looked over her shoulder at me as if to be sure I was serious that she could jump in. I nodded. First, she tiptoed in, then with relish, she jumped away. Her smile was beyond measure. It didn't cost a thing. It didn't require rules or safety guidelines. The time outdoors simply involved a sense of adventure and some time. There is so much to gain from the outdoors.
Let's encourage children to get outdoors more, to create, experiment, dare, and take risks. We must let them fall, pick themselves up, and feel the sense of accomplishment that comes with each of these.