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The Upside of Playful Risk

This article is part of 7 in the column Flights of Fancy

Summer is here, time for kids’ action adventure.

Reread that opening sentence. Did you think of movies released in the summertime?

Or did you think of the adventurous active pastimes that kids engage in during summer? Did you think of: Diving off the high diving board into the deep end of the swimming pool? Climbing toward a tall tree’s top and perching there for a while looking down at the world? Crawling in through the window of a homestead that nobody has lived in for years? Riding a bike with no hands on the handlebars down the steepest hill in the neighborhood?

Recalling such activities from our own youth brings nostalgia but also a deeper message. Children relish a sense of daring in their play, a chance to exercise some valor and audaciousness. It’s proper that grownups are concerned about children’s safety, but on the other hand it doesn’t seem advisable to eliminate all risk from children’s activities. This may be especially true for boys (who, studies show, tend to take more risks than girls do) and for those individual kids who have a drive to be daredevils (a trait that varies from child to child).

Proud to live in the home of the brave, Americans have also displayed anxiety and caution in recent years. One factor in this is likely the media. Seeing ever-present violent content in fictional and news programming contributes to television audiences who assume the world to be more dangerous than it actually is. Media scholar George Gerbner called this the “mean world hypothesis,” and it leads adults to wildly overestimate crime rates, for example. An anxious society has sought tighter protections for children, keeping them closer to home and giving them early training in “stranger danger.” Children are used to sign-out sheets at day care and locked doors at home. Such precautions place a premium on caution rather than thrill.

But risky play, like play in general, has later developmental benefits, by allowing a chance to practice leaning into uncertain challenges. Whether kids are swimming or sailing or sledding or skate boarding, these pastimes offer a chance to break new ground through attempting new skills or taking a trick to the next level. This kind of adventure advances confident selfhood much more than do trophies for showing up or praise for trivial matters.

Swimming pools and wilderness hikes are hard to childproof but often provide valuable contexts for children to test their mettle. In considering such forms of play, parents also are called to a challenge: to blend their parental protectiveness with an appreciation that kids need adventure.

Swimming, in particular, is one of children’s truly rapturous activities, I’ve learned from kids in my fieldwork. Swimming holds countless opportunities for authentically challenging stunts and actions: holding your breath under water, standing upside down, trying to find a coin thrown on the bottom of the pool, proving that you can float in deep water, splashing dramatically when jumping in, and generally being able to move in ways that would be impossible on land. Swimming is freedom, similar to what flying might be like if air was water. Swimming is the quintessential opposite of being cautiously constrained.

Swimming remains one “adventure” activity that is accessible for families. A 2016 study counted over 10 million residential pools and 309,000 public swimming pools in America. Add to this the oceans, lakes, and rivers that Americans swim in, as well as all those pools at hotels and motels. The availability of swimming lessons and trained lifeguards can make swimming an activity that has safeguards to set parents’ minds at ease while also challenging young adventurers.

On water or land, children as human beings grow from overcoming bracing challenges; play activities are worthy launching activities for nurturing confidence. It would be shame if American children have summer experiences so childproofed that they miss the exhilaration of playful adventure—or think only movie characters in summer blockbusters undertake heroic accomplishments.


cindy-clarkCindy Dell Clark is a founding member of Child’s World America and an anthropologist who studies American children and families. In 2016 she interviewed families qualifying for poverty assistance in Camden County, New Jersey. Her book on American kids and Santa Claus is Flights of Fancy, Leaps of Faith: Children’s Myths in Contemporary America.

 

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