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Does COVID-19 Mean the End of Risky Play?

My son loves to climb. Seriously. He climbs the lattice in our living room, the door jams, our daughter's crib rail and trees are his favourite hang-out spot. He is a proficient and confident climber and likes to challenge himself to new and exciting heights.

When we are out and about, I often get comments such as "Are you OK with him climbing that tree?" or "He is up really high..." and sometimes "That kid is giving me a heart attack!". I usually tell them that my son climbs higher at home and that he is actually being conservative! People mean well but I often find myself wondering when risky play became a thing of the past.

Risky play is an essential part of child development, and especially that of an active child's development. Risky play is defined as experimental play that tests limits within reason. It is play that can be described as thrilling and exciting! The benefits of risky play are immense as it helps to shape children's knowledge and awareness of their environments and helps to instill children's confidence in their bodies and in themselves.

I had a conversation with a fellow caregiver the other day regarding new stipulations surrounding daycare and elementary school openings in September. This provider told me of all of the new regulations that she, as a home daycare provider, have to now follow in order to get the green light to reopen to her families. As it stands, she has had to nix her wading pool, her sand box and her outdoor climber. She has had to invest in a new deck for her backyard because it was deemed too high off the ground and she had to install a soft, padded area to her back lawn as grass was deemed "too rough" for children to play on. Now that she is planning on reopening after the pandemic has slowed, she will have to implement new sanitation methods, edit down her playroom toys and she will have to discourage the sharing of particular toys in favour of turn-taking with periodic disinfecting.

My teacher friends have communicated similar changes to their programming. Come the fall, they have been told that class sizes will be reduced (not a bad thing), desks will be spaced further apart to encourage social distancing, there will be a "no touch" policy and recess time will be staggered and limited in order to decrease the number of children in the yard at one time. Teachers of young children, especially those in a play-based, kindergarten room setting are no doubt wondering how on earth they are going to implement these measures while still adhering to curriculum.

As a big proponent of risky play and the Reggio Emilia approach to early learning which touts the benefits of learning from the natural environment as a "third teacher", all of these new regulations worry me. I always believed that our educational system was lacking more outdoor learning opportunities for children as well as flexible learning environments for children within the classroom. The reality of an international pandemic has only worsened these regulations.

Though I do believe that we all need to be cautious and safe in order to preserve our own health and the health of others, I also believe that fear and fear of liability are now dictating the course of our children's access to education. And I'm absolutely not okay with that.

Preserving our children's right to risky play is a central tenant of this website. Children with exceptionalities and those who are extremely active require risk to their play in order to test their limits (within healthy boundaries) and in order to release latent anxiety, anger and tension. Natural, risky play, play that allows children to climb trees, get messy and, sometimes, get a bruise or a scrape, is paramount to our development as human beings. I would argue that it is exactly what makes us human and not sterile robots!

So what can we do in a world that has been immeasurably impacted by the Coronavirus? How can we preserve our children's right to risky play while also providing them with the education that they deserve?

For those of us who are privileged enough to choose homeschooling or a private provider, this may be the answer. Small class sizes mitigate risk and a home school environment or private institution may provide a similar, or oftentimes better, curriculum than what you could find at a public school. However, many of us simply do not have the option but to send our children to public school whether it be due to work, finances or logistics.

To those parents who find themselves grappling with a "new normal" and a new face to our children's education, I advise the encouragement of risky play in and around the household.

Does your property have a tree that would make a great climbing apparatus? Does your playroom wall have enough space to add a few climbing rocks? Can you create a makeshift balance beam for your child's room or invest in a pikler triangle? All of these examples are great ways to encourage your child to use her or his body to move, climb and experiment with risk.

Psychologically, caregivers can also encourage risky play during everyday activities by way of their own attitudes and reactions. Oftentimes, as caregivers, we find ourselves anticipating the worst possible outcomes in order to preserve our child's safety and, sometimes, this can actually be at a detriment to the child. Have you ever found yourself reacting more to your child's scraped knee than your child? By self-regulating our own reactions to life's bumps and bruises we are showing our children that it is okay to push limits and that natural consequences are oftentimes survivable! This breeds confidence instead of anxiety and resilience instead of weakness.

Risky play, play that encourages curiosity and limit pushing, is what makes life worth living and exploring. As an advocate of accessibility to education for active littles, I truly hope that the COVID pandemic hasn't put an end to risky play for our children. Perhaps when we realize that life itself is game of risk versus reward, of taking chances, making mistakes and learning from them and of and getting messy, we will realize the importance of risky play in our children's social, emotional and physical development and work to preserve it.

Because all children deserve to engage in risky play.

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