We inhabit increasingly controlled environments where we're keen to protect our children from any potential threat. But risky play can help them learn about the world and how it works, writes Deirdre Rooney
From hovering helicopters to relentless tigers, there's a catchy parenting style out there to categorise most parents' efforts. This year saw the emergence of a new contender - the lawnmower parent. Similar to a tiger parent in terms of their excessive involvement in their child's life, a lawnmower parent ploughs ahead before their child, 'mowing down' any kind of obstacle or adversity in their path. They ensure their little one will never have to deal with anything difficult.
In September, a teacher's essay about her encounter with a lawnmower parent went viral. Posted anonymously on WeAreTeachers.com, she explained how she was called into the main office of the school to pick up an item a parent had dropped off for their child. Thinking it was an inhaler or something important, she met the dad who handed her an insulated bottle of water for his daughter.
The teacher writes: "'Hi, sorry,' the parent said sheepishly. He was in a suit, clearly headed to work (or something work-like). 'Remy kept texting me that she needed it. I texted back, "Don't they have water fountains at your school?", but I guess she just had to have it out of the bottle.' He laughed, as if to say, teenagers, am I right?"
Not impressed, the teacher noted: "In raising children who have experienced minimal struggle, we are not creating a happier generation of kids. We are creating a generation that has no idea what to do when they actually encounter struggle. A generation who panics or shuts down at the mere idea of failure. A generation for whom failure is far too painful, leaving them with coping mechanisms like addiction, blame and internalisation. The list goes on."
Trevor Higgins, a parenting coach at CloudsAway.ie, believes this over-protection, however well-intentioned, does more harm than good for a child.
"This behaviour means that the child never has the opportunity to engage in any struggle or problem-solving, and therefore can't benefit from the learning that comes with such experiences," Trevor says. "A 'lawnmower' parent is removing the potential lessons that can come from taking risks; overcoming adversity and facing problems. As a result, a child can become ill-equipped for their environment."
One way to offset this parenting faux pas is to introduce the concept of 'risky play' from the earliest age possible. Risky play can be defined as a thrilling and exciting activity that involves a risk of physical injury, and play that provides opportunities for challenge, testing limits, exploring boundaries and learning about injury risk.
Carol Duffy is an early childhood specialist with Early Childhood Ireland (ECI), which is the largest organisation in the early-years sector here. It represents 3,800 childcare members, who support over 100,000 children and their families through preschool, after-school and full daycare provision nationwide.
Carol is a keen advocate of risky play, although believes the term itself to be problematic. "The term places a negative connotation on a wide range of play activities; activities that should not be avoided due to 'risk', but embraced to support healthy development, particularly in the early years. Risk and risk assessment is a part of life and something children need to embrace in order to grow and develop in mind and body," Carol says.
"Being risk-aware is far healthier than being risk-averse. A child that feels the capabilities of his or her body, and its limits, is more likely to keep themselves safe than a child who has never learned to trust his/her body or even to recognise risk. For example, a baby learning to walk has to endure the risk of falling over in order to become a competent walker. Only by repeatedly climbing the stairs can you learn how to do it. By challenging yourself to take some risk, you are led to the next stage of development, whether that is physical, emotional or mental."
The newer concept of 'risk benefit' considers the experience in relation to its benefits for the child, and building competence and confidence starts from birth, says Carol.
"Children who develop risk awareness and self-management skills are better equipped to keep themselves safe - skills that will serve them throughout life. Managing the minor scrapes and bumps of childhood helps children to develop resilience, both emotionally and physically. Challenge and its associated risk are vital for this resilience to develop."
Of course, risky play doesn't mean parents should let their children loose with knives or play near a busy road - it is about understanding what your child can do and what they are striving to do, and creating a safe place in which they can reach their goal.
Risky play can be implemented in many ways, all the while with appropriate adult support protecting children from serious harm. It can take place at home, in the playground, and even at preschool. Outdoor play provides ample opportunity for risky play - climbing, sliding and even hanging upside down from a height are all activities which can challenge children. Something as simple as jumping off a wall will make them aware of balance and height, teaching them to make their own judgment calls.
More and more preschools are emerging in which an emphasis is placed on outdoor play, regardless of the weather, as children are afforded the opportunity to explore and move freely without the confines and closed security of indoors.
"Children are excited, engaged and educated by the stuff of the earth - plants, trees, water, stones, sticks and soil," says Carol. "Their interaction with and manipulation of these free materials builds both their bodies and their brains. We are seeing a growth in the number of early-years services that offer outdoor play provision. There is also an improvement in the quality of outdoor experiences being offered to children in mainstream early-years settings."
Irene Teeling founded Natural Start, an outdoor preschool in North County Dublin, after she decided that her previous traditional preschool was not meeting the children's needs - mainly their need for free movement. Recognising the importance of an outside environment, Irene also values the concept of risky play.
"We have mounds where children can run up and down, we have large rockery areas where they balance on rocks, we build dens and use tools to build them," says Irene. "The children deeply desire to be important, to be a valued member of the group, to play a part in something bigger than them, like building a fort, making a bird house. They want to be useful, they want to be noticed by others so they love to hand me the tool I need, and if it's a part they can do, then I demonstrate and give them a turn. In the outdoor school, I find children much calmer and there are less arguments over toys."
The children in Irene's preschool spend most of their time outdoors - a little rain just means they have to wear rain gear. Only when conditions are very windy or extreme do they come inside the classroom. Open since 2015, Irene's preschool is already much in demand, as parents too are learning the value of the great outdoors.
As outdoor play offers more opportunity for rough and tumble, and subsequently accidents, the risks associated with this type of play are enough to scare some practitioners off. With falls and scrapes or even broken bones sometimes the outcome of explorative play, fear of being sued is one of the obstacles hampering widespread implementation in preschools. "While we are moving in the right direction, there are still many challenges to outdoor play in terms of values, attitudes, appropriate play spaces and fear of litigation," says Carol.
"In recent times, fear of danger and overprotection, combined with fear of litigation, has escalated. We have reached a point where many people automatically equate outdoor play with risk and danger, without considering what it is they are fearful of. Risks can be seen everywhere, not just in terms of falls and injuries, but also fears that children may get dirty, wet or pick up germs." For this Carol advises an easy adult solution - simply fit the children in appropriate clothing and get them to wash their hands afterwards, rather than complete avoidance of the experience altogether.
Risky play at home
"For parents at home, it's best to start small," says Carol Duffy. "Watch what your child can do and what they are striving to do, and help them in a way that suits their disposition."
1. "You wouldn't put a toddler into a tree, but tree-climbing skills can be developed from earlier interventions. Afford babies lots of play and movement that supports their balance, upper-body strength, and their understanding of their capabilities. This helps build a strong and capable body and mind for when the time comes that he/she wants to climb a tree," says Carol.
2. "With appropriate supervision and discussion, playing with both small and large amounts of water helps children to recognise both the wonder and the dangers of water as an engaging play material."
3. Younger children can also learn from exploring and messy play, such as digging in the garden and finding creepy crawlies.
4. Limit screen time - this will get them off their bums and seek out adventure. "A parent can encourage their child to try new and challenging activities by breaking the tasks down into bite-sized pieces, praising their efforts and instilling self-belief," says parent coach Trevor Higgins.