The benefits of putting your kids at risk

As a volunteer Outdoor Teaching Assistant in the Evergreen Brickworks School Program, I got a chance to attend the All Hands in the Dirt Forum on innovations in outdoor play spaces. It was an inspiring event and left me rethinking — and writing about — the nature of play:

We’ve all heard the dire warnings about our kids’ health. Too much time spent in front of screens indoors. Perplexing obesity rates. Rising numbers of children struggling with anxiety and depression. Add in our concerns about traffic and stranger danger and it’s not surprising that we believe the best way to keep our kids active and happy is to control how they spend their free-time. So we load up our kids with programmed activities after-school and on weekends and forgo our own trip to the gym or yoga class to get them there.

Despite our good intentions, the research shows that all that hockey, dance and soccer may not be the answer. Playing organized sports isn’t enough to keep children healthy. Very few kids are getting their recommended amount of daily exercise. It’s no surprise. We’re so focused on getting them to scheduled activities we’ve got no time — or energy — left to take them to the park or head out on a family bike ride. Yet, it seems that a return to more time for active, unstructured play is just what kids need.  

With more than 85% of Canadians living in cities, many kids don’t have access to natural spaces. But spending time in a natural environment is good for everyone. It increases the metabolism, boosts the immune system, increases resiliency and reduces stress. Since 1991, Evergreen, a not-for-profit foundation has been working to bring nature to kids, greening more than 3500 school grounds and supporting outdoor education programming across Canada. Recently, educators, landscape architects, designers and academics came together at Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto for the All Hands in the Dirt Forum to share experience and ideas on creating safe outdoor play spaces with boundless play potential.

“A swing is a swing and you swing on it, ” says Helle Nebelong. Nebelong is an internationally recognized pioneer of the natural playground movement was the keynote speaker for the forum. For decades, Nebelong has been designing outdoor spaces in Denmark where children can play freely and explore nature. She says playgrounds filled with fixed equipment not only mean frustrating wait times and boredom for kids — it can also be dangerous. While the prefab playground ladders meet the safety standards, Nebelong says the uniform distance between ladder rungs means the child has no need to think about where she puts her feet. The ability to concentrate on estimating distance, height and risks takes practice and Nebelong says the playground is where that should begin. That’s why in the outdoor spaces she designs like the old rubbish dump she transformed into the Nature Playground in Valbyparken she incorporates mounds of earth and steep slopes. Climbing the slopes teaches children how to navigate uneven terrain and encourages them to work together to get others of different ages and abilities up the hill. Nebelong also takes great care to create spaces that can be used year round and showcase nature’s beauty. Her maze design for the Garden of the Senses in Faelledparkenk encourages people of all ages and abilities to explore the sights, sounds, smells, contrasting textures of nature. Run through a meadow. Pick the flowers. Climb on giant boulders. Run pebbles through your fingers. Or, find a space where you can hide and think.

So how does this enlightened European approach to natural playgrounds translate to your neighbourhood park or child’s school? Given our national penchant for caution, it’s not surprising that The Canadian Playground Safety Standards only assess the risk of new play structures. There’s no formal mechanism to consider the benefits of certain physical challenges or to ensure if children’s needs —forget about their desires — are being met. Still, many are working to change the culture of playgrounds. Preston Stringer, a playground designer at Earthscape works with Evergreen and schools, municipalities and child care centres to build inspiring play spaces for kids. Since some kids like quiet, imaginative play while others love to balance, jump and climb around, Stringer makes sure his designs allow for a variety of experiences. But he is also careful to include structures that encourage all kids to challenge themselves physically — and takes some risks. Using natural materials and recycled elements, he creates “graduated challenges.” At the Millen Woods Public School in Waterloo, he built a combo climbing/balance beam structure, a sort of mini Cirque du Soliel tightrope, made of sturdy logs. Kids can climb up and sit and chat on the beam or practice balancing by walking across. When the playground opened, some parents forbid their children to go on it because they thought it was too dangerous. But now, 3 ½ years later, parents have a different perspective on the climber. After watching countless kids face their fears, build their strength and boost their confidence, parents are cheering climbers on rather than ordering them off the equipment. With only one serious injury, a broken arm, from a fall, parents can see that the benefits far out weigh the risks. Still not convinced? Take a minute to answer Stringer’s simple questions: “What was your favourite thing to do as a kid? Who did you do it with? Why did you love it? Was there an element of risk involved?”

Does your child have the time and space to have the kind of experiences you had as a child? A place where no one makes any demands on them. Sounds like that’s the kind of freedom we could all use.