Risky play and youth

Play that has components of risk can lead to positive outcomes.

The “Adventure Playground” concept in the United Kingdom provides young people in a Walsh neighborhood with an experiential, experimental playscape and offers those of us in America a unique lessons in youth risk-taking. At first glance, “The Land” is a muddy piece of property littered with scraps of wood, discarded tools and swinging sections of play structure that more closely resembles a junkyard, not a playground suitable for young children to explore. You might cringe as a boy hacks away at a piece of corrugated cardboard with a hand saw. As the clip continues, you may anxiously scan the scene for shredded tire ground cover to catch the fall of the girls swinging from a giant plastic tube suspended in the air. Certainly, we are not endorsing this approach as the next logical step in how youth take risks: American playgrounds and youth programs are not situated for this extreme form of risk-taking, and neither are our risk management departments or legal system. Yet, there are lessons about risk that can be gleaned from this alternative approach.

First, consider the role of adults. At first glance, there are none however if you look closer you can spot similarly dressed “bigger people” crouched nearby or almost out of view. These play spaces are not unmanned, real-life interpretations of “Lord of the Flies,” but rather carefully monitored experiences. Instead, these playgrounds are staffed by adult Playworkers who are trained to be vigilantly observant, assess risky situations and know when to intervene. Take a second look at what actual risk is happening: the boy using a manual hand saw on a piece of cardboard is definitely at risk, but only for a nick on a finger or at most a slash on his hand. When we manage this type of physical risk through our vigilant presence, we either unintentionally or intentionally control social interaction as well. With adults inconspicuously placed throughout “The Land,” a new social dynamic is created and as a result, you hear peers strategizing together and encouraging one another.

Experts attest to the benefit of healthy risk-taking, especially in teens developing their identity and learning how to make decisions. How can you learn from this example and start promoting healthy risk-taking with young people in your life? Creative endeavors, sports and leadership roles all have components of healthy risk. In addition, adults can find ways to take a step back and let youth lead. Michigan 4-H Guiding Principles provides components of effective programming that allow youth to take risk while remaining “physically and emotionally safe.”

What kind of youth spaces can we create that provide opportunities for healthy risk while maintaining safety? In the Michigan State University Extension article Youth maker movement: creating, risk and reward, we will explore how maker spaces allow healthy risk to happen.