PlayBoard Northern Ireland is the lead organisation for the development and promotion of children and young people’s play in Northern Ireland.
We are working in partnership with the Department of Education on their play campaign ‘Play Matters’ and we will focus on a number of Play topics over the coming months. This month, we look at Play and Risk Benefit.
A member of the PlayBoard team recently recounted a story from his childhood that emphasised why and how children benefit from managing everyday challenges and assessing personal risk in play.
“In 1981 when I was just 8 years old I participated in a cross-community adventure activity holiday in Yorkshire. Along with twenty other kids from different areas of Belfast, we were whisked off to spend time building friendships and tackle situations where we had to work together and give each other support and encouragement. I was the youngest member of the group. There were lots of activities organised for us, from hiking in the dark to archery and pot-holing and team building. One day we were taken to a 100 feet tall bridge for abseiling, which is sliding down a rope.
The instructor taught us about the special harnesses, and told us once we were strapped in, we were in control. It was down to us, as individuals cheered on by our friends, to get to the bottom. If we didn’t move, the safety rope just let us hang over the side of the bridge and the instructors would not intervene. So, if you agreed and took the decision to do it, you had to do it by yourself. You had to see it through to conclusion. You had no choice other than get yourself down on to the ground.
I remember thinking firstly how cool it would be to tell my friends in primary school that I had abseiled down a hundred foot bridge, but I was terrified. I was asking questions about the harness. How would I climb over the edge? What could I do to prevent myself from sliding too fast? Would the ropes burn my hands? The instructor talked me through every detail of the process but I decided to wait and have a long hard think about it.
My bravado and desire to succeed and tell the tale won through. I approached the instructor again and said I wanted to give it a go. I had thought about it. Mulled it over in my mind, decided that despite my age I could take the risk because I was given all the information I needed to make that decision.
Strapped in to the harness, I then had to climb onto the outer wall. I still remember how quickly my legs went to jelly as I climbed up and peered over the edge. It was 100 feet, but could have been a million feet. The ground had never seemed so far away. I was standing tall over the beautiful Yorkshire dales, home of Emmerdale Farm, with its lush green rolling hills, gently mooing cows and cute jumping lambs, but I was terrified.
So over I went and I just hung there, feet against the wall, legs bent. The instructor just gave me a wink. It was all down to me. I pushed myself off the wall, lurched backwards then downwards and my heart literally exploded in my chest as I struggled to place my feet back on the wall. My breathing became sharp and erratic; my hands gripped the rope like a police dog’s jaws round a burglar’s leg. I willed myself ‘don’t look down, don’t look down’.
I have a sharp memory of trying to slide my sandpaper-dry tongue against my lips as I struggled to concentrate on every movement my arms and legs made. My whole body was quivering, causing the rope above me to shimmer like a freshly plucked guitar string.
Then I pushed back again. And again. And again. My confidence in my ability grew with every lurching leap.
It did feel like it took me an entire day to get to the bottom and I was utterly exhausted but when my feet touched the ground everyone up on the bridge was clapping and cheering. I was only eight and I had abseiled down a 100 feet tall bridge by my own choice, at my own speed, in a way I felt comfortable.
Once the fear and jelly legs had subsided I was a bundle of excited energy. I recall not sleeping that night. I just replayed it over in my mind.
This event has very much helped me in my adult life. At times when a big decision had to be made, possibly life changing, I would have this vivid memory of peering over the edge of that bridge and gazing at the ground below and remind myself of the eight year old in me that took a brave step to expand his horizons.”
Parents and guardians often recoil in horror at the thought of letting a child take and manage risk as part of their play. Although no one wants to see a child injured, creating an environment that is overly safe creates a different kind of danger for children. Growing up in a risk-averse society, such as we currently have, means children are not able to practice risk-assessment which enables them to match their skills with the demands of the environment. As a result, many children have become very timid and are reluctant to take risks. At the opposite extreme, many have difficulty reading the situations they face and take foolhardy risks, repeatedly landing in trouble.
In Play children are consistently testing themselves and the environment. Play is about taking risks— physical, social, and even cognitive risks. Children are constantly trying out new things and learning a great deal in the process. They love to move from adventure to adventure. They face the risk of mistakes and even of injuries, but that does not deter children. They embrace life, play, and risk with gusto, and they are prepared for a certain amount of bumps and bruises while growing up. Even a broken bone doesn’t slow them down for long. Fortunately, they heal fast.
It is important to emphasise that we are not suggesting anything like tight rope walking between skyscrapers in your bedroom slippers or wrestling alligators with your hands tied behind your back. We mean playing in natural environments or in scenarios with an element of danger in which a child must learn to decide how to assess the level of risk. It might be rough and tumble, it might be whizzing around on bicycles or home made wooden karts or exploring in the deep woods with just a torch and a compass.
Overcoming challenge is essential to living a meaningful and satisfying life and we at PlayBoard believe that child have various appetites for risk taking. There are benefits to parents taking a step back and allowing children to enjoy outdoor play which will then enhance their ability to assess risk levels and learn what is safe for them and what is not. Children who are encouraged to risk assess feel enjoyment, excitement, pride, and self-confidence, and begin to trust their abilities to make decisions by themselves.