Risk-Taking Is Essential for Learning to Be Safe

Looking at bubbles in the ice and a watery landscape underneath.
For as long as I can remember, I've been hearing mumblings of concern over the increased safety-restrictions placed on our children. We like to talk about "when we were kids" and how our lives were so much freer; so much more dangerous. "And we turned out just fine." But when it comes to our own kids we're still terrified, placing ever more layers of armour on them and keeping them ever closer, ever more restricted in their movements. We read great articles about how necessary it is for our kids to explore and take risks. And then we see them heading out without a helment, freak out, chase them down, apply helmet, and tell them not to go out of our sight. Or something like that.

I'm not immune to those struggles, as a parent. But because I teach, and am thinking every day about how to engage people I work with in healthy, dangerous play, I have the opportunity to keep reminding myself why it matters to let my children take risks.

Frozen ditches!
Last week I took a couple of groups of kids out exploring ice. We talked a lot about ice safety, how to recognize dangerous areas, and how to deal with cracking ice, to avoid falling through. We looked down and estimated the thickness of the ice based on bubbles and twigs that were frozen into and floating under the ice. We also cautiously went out on all fours and bellies, exploring the ice, knowing that it wasn't likely strong enough to stand on, but learning to gauge the danger (how deep was the water under the ice? how thick was the ice? how concentrated was our weight? was it cracking?). In some places the ice did crack, and the kids had to safely navigate away from the more dangerous areas as they discovered them. They also stomped around on some shallow areas and stomped right through some of the ice, into the mud.

I feel that this dangerous play is essential learning - it enables the kids to take risks in relative safety and to learn from them. This is not only essential for wilderness activities, but also for life in general, since so much of what we learn requires risk, and it's nice to be able to mitigate the severity of the risks from a place of personal understanding. I feel this leads to greater safety, and in my experience with teaching I have definitely seen that the more cautious risks children take, the more confident they become, and the less severe their stumbles are, when they make them.

PS: Ever hear of belly hockey? The correct rink for this is a 2-inch thick layer of ice over a couple of feet of murky creek water. Grab yourself some nice sticks and a chunk of wood for a puck... and have at it!

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