Monthly Archives: August 2017

Why kids need risk, fear and excitement in play

“Be careful!” “Not so high!” “Stop that!”

Concerned parents can often be heard urging safety when children are at play. Recent research suggests this may be over-protective and that kids need more opportunities for risky play outdoors.

Risky play is thrilling and exciting play where children test their boundaries and flirt with uncertainty. They climb trees, build forts, roam the neighbourhood with friends or play capture the flag. Research shows such play is associated with increased physical activity, social skills, risk management skills, resilience and self-confidence. These findings make intuitive sense when you watch children at play.

Importantly, it’s not up to parents or experts to decide what is risky play for a particular child.

Rather, children need to be given the mental and physical space to figure out appropriate risk levels for themselves: far enough that it feels exhilarating, but not so far that it becomes too scary.

My years as an injury prevention researcher have left me well aware of things that can go wrong and how to prevent them from happening. But because I have a doctorate in developmental psychology, I am also concerned that we are keeping our kids too safe. Preventing our kids from exploring uncertainty could have unintended negative consequences for their health and development, such as increased sedentary behaviour, anxiety and phobias.

Parents hopes and fears

Many of the parents I’ve spoken to through my research recognize the importance of risky play, but can be overwhelmed by worry about the possibility of serious injury or abduction. They also worry that someone is going to report them to the authorities for letting their child take risks. These worries make it hard for them to let go and can result in over-protection.

More recently, I’ve noticed an opposite trend: parents who are worried their child is too timid and not taking enough risks. They want to know how they can help their child take more risks in play.

This concerns me as much as over-protection. Both approaches can increase the risk of injury and harm since they ignore children’s capabilities and preferences. How will children learn about themselves and how the world works if an adult is constantly telling them what to do and how to do it?

What about injuries?

There’s never been a safer time to be a child in Canada. The likelihood of dying from an injury is 0.0059 per cent. Car crashes and suicides are the leading causes of death, not play. In fact, children are more likely to need medical attention for an injury resulting from organised sports than play.

Likewise, the likelihood of abduction by a stranger is so small that the statistics are not even collected. In an attempt to strike a balance, injury prevention professionals are moving to an approach that seeks to keep children as safe as necessary, rather than as safe as possible.

Children are inherently capable

Risky play is an important part of many outdoor schools and early child care settings in Canada and other parts of the world. In outdoor forest schools and nurseries in the U.K., for example, pre-school and kindergarten kids build dens, climb trees, use tools and create fire – under careful supervision.

One principal in New Zealand decided his students didn’t need any rules. Students were allowed to climb trees, build forts, ride bikes – whatever occurred to them. His school was part of a larger study that found students who were allowed risky play were happier and reported less bullying than students in schools who didn’t change their approach.

Seeing children engaged in risky play helps us realise that they’re much more capable than we think. When they’re given the chance, even very young children show clear abilities to manage risks and figure out their own limits. We just have to open our eyes and be willing to see what is in front of us. And most importantly, get out of the way to give them a chance to experiment for themselves. The potential for learning is enormous.

What’s a parent to do?

Setting unnecessary limits on a child’s play or pushing them too far: both are problematic. Our role as caregivers is to give children the freedom to explore and play as they choose while supporting them in managing the real dangers that pose a serious and realistic threat to their safety.

What this looks like varies for different children depending on their developmental stage, competencies and personal preferences. For example, play where there is a chance of getting lost is common at all ages: A preschooler hiding in bushes feels like he’s a jungle explorer. His parents supervise while giving him the feeling of independence.

For older children, this kind of play can involve exploring their neighbourhood with friends. Parents can help prepare them by gradually building the skills needed to navigate traffic safely.

By University of British Columbia Associate Professor of Pediatrics Mariana Brussoni

Original article published by the Conversation

Risk taking teens learning their world

Taking risks as a teenager is part of everyday life – challenging boundaries, testing out new ways of expressing themselves and being part of the world around them.

Common scientific thought puts risk taking in adolescence down to the slow development of the prefrontal cortex of the brain which effects impulse control and decision making, making teens more prone to risky behaviours because of their developmental phase.

However, University of Pennsylvania researchers have challenged the reasoning behind the theory, saying evidence from an extensive review of neuroscientific research has found the behaviours which look like teen impulsivity and risk taking on the surface are actually more likely to be behaviours expressed by teens trying to find out about their world.

Research lead author Daniel Romer said developments in neuroscience theories were always evolving.

“Not so long ago, the explanation for teenage behaviour was raging hormones,” Dr Romer said.

“Now, it’s that the prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed. Neuroscientists were quick to interpret what appeared to be a characteristic of the developing brain as evidence of stereotypes about adolescent risk taking. But these behaviours are not symptoms of a brain deficit,” he added.

He said brain development theory failed to take into account implications of different types of risk taking – teens have a natural attraction to exciting experiences which is known as sensation seeking.

“What’s happening is that adolescents lack experience.”

“So they’re trying things out for the first time – like learning how to drive. They’re also trying drugs, deciding what to wear and who to hang out with. For some youth, this leads to problems. But when you’re trying things for the first time, you sometimes make mistakes.”

“Researchers have interpreted this as a lack of control when for most youth, it’s just exploration.”

In their research article published recently in the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Journal, researchers wrote about the smaller subset of teens who exhibit impulsive behaviour along with weak cognitive control – identified at 4-5 years of age. This subset of teens was disproportionately more likely to experience the negative effects of risk taking and impulsive behaviour, such as violence, sexually transmitted diseases, illnesses and injury.

“Further research is clearly needed to understand the brain development of youth who are at risk for adverse outcomes, as abnormalities of brain development are certainly linked to diverse neuropsychiatric conditions,” co-author Theodore Satterwaite said.

Dr Satterwaite said further research would help scientists better understand how adolescence is a period of growth and of risk.

Research authors proposed looking at teen risk taking and impulsive behaviour in terms of its role in adolescent development. The idea views these behaviours as “…an adaptive need to gain the experience required to assume adult roles and behaviours.”

Dr Romer said latest research has shown an individual’s view of risk and reward changes as they mature and he said these changes needed to be taken into account when explaining teen impulsive behaviour.

“The reason teens are doing all of this exploring and novelty seeking is to build experience so that they can do a better job making the difficult and risky decisions later in life – decisions like ‘should I take this job’ or ‘should I marry this person’.”

“There’s no doubt that this period of development is a challenge for parents, but that doesn’t mean that the adolescent brain is somehow deficient or lacking in control.”

Primary school parent involvement

The phrase “parent involvement” in children’s learning may conjure images of parents in the classroom eagerly helping children to make Easter baskets or complete their readers.

These are typical examples of parent involvement in preschools. But how is involvement fostered in the primary school years?

Parental involvement in children’s learning is beneficial. Research shows it leads to better educational, social, and emotional outcomes for children. In addition, a report from the Australian Research Alliance for Children & Youth (ARACY) has found parental involvement contributes to overall student positive attainment, behaviour and attendance at school.

However, as children grow up, the ways in which parents can be involved in their learning changes. While it is acknowledged that employment-related demands limit parents’ attendance during school times, the physical presence of parents in the classroom is no longer essential, or necessarily effective.

Changing parent engagement at primary level schooling

Regular face-to-face contact with teachers is more common in preschools than primary schools. As this changes, new ways of parent involvement can be created.

In primary school, contact is also more likely to be initiated by parents than teachers. Nonetheless, results from our research show parent involvement levels are lower at primary school level. Specifically, direct involvement in classroom activities, excursions and parent committees is rarer for parents in primary schools.

These changes occur for several reasons.

First, parents’ work schedules may restrict their availability throughout the day.

Second, although parents often need to physically come in to the classroom to drop children off at a preschool, this is less frequent in primary schools. Older children may take a bus or be dropped off at the school gate.

Third, parents’ direct involvement on school grounds wanes as children get older and most become more independent.

Above all, direct engagement isn’t necessarily effective as children pass through school.

Ageing and adjusting: re-imagining parental roles in learning

So how do parents transform their role of being “involved” as their children transition to primary school? It is important for teachers and parents to be aware that there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

A variety of opportunities should exist to allow families to support their children in meaningful ways. Some types of parent involvement will be less active and formal than others, and this is not a bad thing.

Evidence shows that when regular communication channels suit families’ needs and schedules, family-school partnerships are stronger. This in turn encourages children to learn outside of school.

This could mean that phone calls work best for some families, while emails, Skype sessions, text messages, or face-to-face meetings work better for others.

More schools are now using social media to create effective opportunities for indirect parent involvement. They often have Twitter feeds, and Facebook pages, and post images of students engaged in activities such as excursions, sporting events and shows. For parents who cannot attend such events, this sharing is inclusive and respectful.

A school website with a regularly updated photo gallery, and copies of the most recent newsletters and reminders, is also a useful resource for parents. This includes providing a space for feedback, comments and a variety of contact points that enable parent input.

Some schools are now using interactive technologies, such as parent-school wikis, blogs, and virtual chatrooms to engage parents. These allow parents to have regular contact and involvement with their children’s schooling.

These “virtual” strategies are the building blocks for parents to be aware of what is going on with their children’s education, while adjusting to the reduced need for their physical presence.

It is a crucial element of fostering better engagement with children in home learning environments, because it allows parents to ask nuanced questions about their children’s studies or school activities.

Practical tips for creating a positive home learning environment

Using these different ways of engaging in primary schooling, parents can then better encourage their children’s learning in the home environment. This is the most effective way that parents can be involved.

Research suggests that the quality of the home learning environment is linked to better cognitive outcomes in children.

Evidence also shows that parent engagement in children’s learning at home is more important than direct parent involvement in school. Considering a range of studies, ARACY states that the relative influence of the home environment on student achievement is 60%-80%, while the school environment accounts for 20%-40%.

Parent involvement in children’s home learning can be fostered in a variety of ways, including:

  • asking questions about what children are learning, encouraging and supporting children to complete homework;
  • helping to teach organisational and self-study skills, such as keeping notebooks organised, and creating time and space for learning activities;
  • showing an interest in children’s learning, listening to them talk about their day;
  • engaging with the information distributed by schools (via Facebook, email, website, etc); and
  • providing access to learning resources, such as trips to the library, access to internet, and materials to complete homework.

Most importantly, these strategies create a range of ways that connect the home and primary school environments. By being engaged and interested in their children’s activities outside the school, parents can be powerful supporters of their children’s learning.

By Charles Sturt University Early Childhood lecturer Laura McFarland and School of Education associate head lecturer Angela Fenton.

Originally published by the Conversation as Why it matters to transform parent involvement from early childhood to primary school – as part of an ongoing series of articles about parenting and school.