Our preschool STEM specialist, Robyn Stone, posted this blog entry for preschool families. However, the philosophy of risky play rings true for what we hope all of our students will do: try new things, take some risks and discover great strength in themselves. – Brian Yager, head of school
By Robyn Stone
“Look! I did it,” shouted Harker preschooler Sydney Todasco, age 4, as she balanced on a tree stump, arms akimbo, face beaming. She had finally succeeded in hopping from one tree stump to the next –despite uneven spacing between the stumps and difficulty balancing on wobbling ones. In her previous attempt to do this, Sydney slipped and fell. Presenting me with a bloody scrape, she said, “I am brave.” And she was. Her pride in this bravery stemmed from a sense of purpose. After being patched up, Sydney went right back to the tree stump circle. She persevered in her practice to accomplish a goal she set for herself.
On the Farm (Harker Preschool’s installation of small animals and a garden), Harker Preschool students have the opportunity to engage in outdoor experiences like digging in the dirt, hauling logs in wheelbarrows, feeding live animals, tasting plants and hopping on tree stumps. Engaging in these activities heighten a child’s awareness of their five senses – seeing, smelling, touching, tasting and hearing. Outdoors, children are simultaneously doing deep cognitive work – taking in and processing sensory information – and heavy gross motor work – building coordination between large muscle groups.
Outdoor play is vital piece of child development. Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods,” fears that children are increasingly suffering from what he calls “nature deficit disorder.” “Our society is teaching young people to avoid direct experience in nature,” he writes. “Rapidly advancing technologies are blurring the lines between humans, other animals, and machines … as the young spend less and less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow, physiologically and psychologically, and this reduces the richness of human experience.”
Too often, children are over-protected for fear of bumps and scratches, and prevented from climbing trees, splashing through streams and building forts. With the rough-cut logs for making structures and the uneven tree stump circle, we have created an opportunity for “risky play” for our preschoolers. Psychology Today (April 7, 2014) describes “risky play” as play that “combines the joy of freedom with just the right measure of fear to produce the exhilarating blend known as thrill.”
Indeed, scientists have studied the evolutionary value of risky play – examining other mammals from rats to sheep. Researchers now understand that risky play is a critical piece of emotional regulation. Young children learn how to regulate fear and anger through self-directed, risky outdoor play. Practicing on the tree stumps – falling down and getting back up – Sydney learned how to manage her feelings.
Bumps and scratches heal, as did Sydney’s leg scrape. According to psychologist and child development expert Wendy Mogel, author of “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee,” there is much to be learned about self-reliance, compassion and ethics, from boo-boos, too. Mogel writes, “I meet many parents who are trying so hard to be perfect parents, to make everything just right for their children, that they’re draining away their pleasure in parenting.” She hopes parents simply let their toddlers splash in puddles without first wrapping them head-to-toe in Gore-Tex or turning the experience into a lesson on aquatic micro-organisms.
When my son was a toddler, we spent our days at the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Marin County. In their wonderful outdoor exhibits, we played hide-and-seek in a living tree structure, climbed a giant spider’s web, boarded a wrecked ship and shoveled rocks under a mini Golden Gate Bridge. We spent long mornings digging in the sand with driftwood at Rodeo Beach. We rushed outdoors on rainy days to splash in puddles and rescue worms. Even in a townhouse with a little brick patio, we adopted the whole neighborhood as our backyard. We waded through the salt marsh flats of Mill Valley, discovered crabs, hopped on logs, swung from vines and generally just enjoyed being outdoors together.
Sausalito is a big drive from the South Bay, but I am so happy to share that the San Jose Children’s Discovery Museum (CDM) is building a new outdoor exhibit full of risky play opportunities – from climbing trees to splashing in a stream! Opening Oct. 29, Bill’s Backyard: Bridge to Nature, CDM’s new outdoor learning environment, invites children to connect with nature in a welcoming and safe setting. CDM hopes the new space inspires children to spend time outside climbing, building, digging and getting dirty while exploring the natural elements.
Bill’s Backyard aims to provide an innovative solution to the limited opportunities for urban and suburban families to explore nature. It is a bridge to nature that:
- gives children a chance to explore nature environments in a safe setting;
- demonstrates environmentally friendly backyard features;
- inspires families to venture out to explore parks, trails and wilderness areas; and
- makes it possible for us all to gain deeper understanding of the world around us.
According to CDM, “Our densely urban environment and fast paced lifestyles make it a challenge for children to get outdoors and play. Yet the costs of alienation from nature – known as nature deficit disorder – are far-reaching. “How the young respond to nature, and how they raise their own children, will shape the configurations and conditions of our cities, homes – our daily lives,” notes children-and-nature authority Richard Louv. “Living through drought, solving the challenges of climate change, sustainable energy use – these are issues that are with our communities now and in the future.”
Let your child explore in your neighborhood open spaces or just your own backyard. Or visit CDM’s new Bill’s Backyard exhibit and let your young children experience the thrill of risky outdoor play! To learn more about “nature deficit disorder” and possible cures, read Louv’s book.