For educators and parents alike, it's a natural compulsion to ensure the potential for all injuries on the playground is minimized. As adults, we often underestimate a child’s ability to independently govern risk. It’s not always easy for us to be hands-off and let children engage in risky play on the playground. But with that said, there’s an important distinction between risk—which is increasingly seen as a positive aspect of play—and a hazard.
Where traditional playgrounds made of steel and plastic fall short and have a history of increasing the risk of catastrophic injury resulting in hospital visits, natural playgrounds are one of the best ways to allow children to learn important risk evaluation skills in a controlled and natural environment.
When you were a young child, where was the most exciting place for you to play?
Chances are your favourite memories took place in nature, away from any adults and around friends. Children have a natural appetite for adventure outside the structure of routines. They are full of curiosity and want to make sense of the world around them without constant adult intervention. Your perception may be that being free from adult supervision comes with many elements of risk, but risk assessment and reward are important lifelong skills that we as adults must play a role in fostering for our children.
Children benefit greatly from engaging in risky play that may result in learning injuries (bumps bruises, scrapes). The ability of a child to assess risk is vital for when the time comes that they take their first steps into larger worlds. The life skills learned from learning injuries on the playground translate to higher resiliency and better decision making when they inevitably grow up and venture off of the playground.
Minor injuries, whereby a child makes a full recovery result in important and necessary learning experiences. Mariana Brussoni, a professor at the University of British Columbia and BC Children’s Hospital - featured in the documentary The Power of Play - researches what she refers to as Risky Play. Brussoni describes it as “thrilling and exciting play where children engage in risk without certainty”. These types of experiences at a young age have been proven to have long-lasting, notable benefits for a child’s development.
With acceptable and measured risk comes great reward!
Children should push boundaries and direct their own actions while at play. Being in control leads to feelings of confidence and improved self-esteem, which in turn fosters richer learning experiences. Among the learning skills and work habits outlined in the Ontario Curriculum Guide, students are expected to demonstrate actions of initiative and “the capacity for innovation and a willingness to take risks” (Growing Success, 2010).
A natural playground is a tool to teach risk assessment and reward while minimizing the risk of catastrophic injury. According to the Canadian Pediatric Society, studies show that catastrophic injuries happen more frequently on a traditional plastic and steel playground than a natural playground. We rest easy knowing that the children who play on our structures can jump from various platforms and climb without risk of falling from heights that will result in significant injury. Through their experiences, children gain self-confidence and courage - lifelong skills they can take with them beyond the playground.
When considering a play structure for the children in your community, remember that learning injuries result in stronger, smarter and healthier children. Natural playgrounds are ideal environments for our children to get the skills they need while reducing hazardous outcomes.