This is an excerpt from Nature Preschools and Forest Kindergartens: The Handbook for Outdoor Learning, written by David Sobel, MEd, senior faculty in the Education Department and director of the Center for Place-Based Education at Antioch University New England:
“To say that today’s average American parent is risk averse barely does justice to it; risk paranoid might be more accurate. So it’s not surprising that when promoting kid’s reconnection to nature via active outdoor play, perceived risks and dangers are an often passionate topic and an occasional roadblock.
So first, let’s be clear: nature play can be risky. Children can and do get hurt in nature-based play, as they have throughout human history, and as they always will. Is this a valid reason to keep children away from nature play? Is it truly in their best interest to do so?
All of life is dangerous. Our days are full of risk, and we should be grateful for that because risk is a powerful and oftentimes positive force. Without taking risks, no child would ever learn to walk, run, or ride a bike. No adult would ever take up a new sport, or push themselves to do better at a familiar one. No company would ever create new products, or try different approaches to management. Risks pose challenges and the possibility of failure, but they are also an essential part of progress and success. Thus, the goal shouldn’t be to eliminate all risks from our children’s lives, but to manage them with a wise perspective that considers the full spectrum of dangers to which kids are exposed.
Ahhhh, the challenge of perspective… What is the most common cause of accidental death for American children? Give yourself a pat on the back if you know that it is automobile accidents. So, is our society calling out for a ban on carrying kids in cars? Do concerned parents routinely decide not to drive the family out for ice cream cones because it’s too dangerous? Another example: around ninety thousand US children are injured annually on stairways. In fact, an American child under five is treated from stair-related injuries every six minutes (Aleccia 2012)! Perhaps a ban on multistory homes is called for? Or maybe parents should sue homebuilders who knowingly choose to install such dangerous devices where children can encounter them? Need one more? Over twenty-four thousand US children go to emergency rooms each year after accidents involving those most nefarious of devices: shopping carts (Martin et al. 2014). So why aren’t CNN and Fox News all over these scandalous tragedies?
These examples illustrate the important concept of “comparative risk.” We accept (and even blissfully ignore) legitimate daily dangers to our children that are commonplace and routine. In short, we are used to them. A terrible car accident can still shake us up, as can the rare death caused by a fastball’s impact on a young chest. For the most part, though, we tolerate these risks and choose to manage them in order to limit, but not eliminate, their dangers. We strap young children in car seats, have our fledging athletes wear protective gear, and put gates at the top of stairs. Maybe we even keep a close eye on our infants as they roll through the grocery aisles. We accept the dangers of these and many other activities because we subconsciously conduct risk/benefit analyses for them and conclude that the convenience and positive impacts outweigh the inherent dangers.
Perversely, given all the mental anguish we devote to the worries, we often do not completely think through a risky situation, considering only the most obvious and immediate perils rather than taking a longer view. For example, when fearful parents forbid their children to enjoy free-range play outside, what are the kids probably going to do instead? Most likely, they’ll sit in front of an electronic screen, which poses its own set of dangers to a child’s healthy development and offers little in the way of value. Any wise caregiver will think through all the play options for their children and look for a healthy balance of risks and benefits.”
Mother Nature Academy looks at all potential activities with an eye toward what amount of risk it holds. Does it carry an acceptable amount of risk or an unacceptable amount of risk? Does the activity have the potential to permanently maim or kill a child? Then it is unacceptable, of course. If the child might potentially sustain a scrape, bruise, or sting during the activity, or possibly even a sprain or broken bone, we may consider that activity acceptable depending on the number and type of benefits it provides to the child. For example, our Log Walk provides a small amount of risk for injury, but it also presents a delightful challenge to the children, who might pretend to avoid the “lava” (mulch) or pretend they are island hopping. This activity builds gross motor skills, promotes problem solving, teamwork, and tickles the imagination. They might count the logs as they reach each one to find out how many steps to get to the other side. Some of the older children might race each other to the other side. Some of the younger children might use the logs as a table and chairs for an impromptu restaurant. The benefits are many and the risks a few. Thus, this is an acceptable activity.
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