Kids just don’t have enough “good danger” in their lives these days.
No, really…Hear us out!
Think back to your childhood… What are your strongest play memories? Often, when we at Chicago Children’s Museum ask adults how they played as children, the things they recall most vividly were a bit risky. They climbed trees—or rooftops—and played in alleys. They experimented with tools and took things apart. They launched things into the air, demolished things, melted things, and (maybe, just maybe) created some minor explosions. Why? Well, because they were curious!
From these experiences, they learned. There were minor cuts, scrapes, and bruises, but, oh, were there also revelations!
Encountering risky, seemingly dangerous situations provide children some of their greatest and most important learning opportunities. From interactions with hot, sharp, breakable, fragile, high up or otherwise strange things, we develop new understandings about the ways of the world. We grasp why some things really are dangerous (to ourselves or others) and how to be safe. We learn about our own abilities and sensibilities.
As Gever Tulley, author of Fifty Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do, says, “While there are aspects of danger in virtually everything we do, the trick is to learn how mastery actually minimizes danger.”
Yes, exploring what is dangerous presents a prime opportunity for children to learn safety and responsibility. It is also a natural motivator for learning in general. Danger is exciting; therefore, we pay attention. You can bet that a child who learns about chemistry by creating an explosion is going to remember it far longer than the child who reads about it in a book. The “risk” aspect makes the experience stick.
Here are a few key ways adults can support “good” danger:
Ensure that children have opportunities to take risks that are developmentally appropriate. For an eight-year-old, using a sharp tool or experimenting with heat could present an appropriate level of risk. For a six-year-old, swinging on a rope swing might be just the right challenge. For a toddler, exploring a new material or attempting to walk over an uneven terrain may be a healthy risk. Children naturally want to push the limits of their abilities; it’s up to us, as adults, to help them find the right opportunities.
Provide time, space and support. While some “risky” activities require adult supervision (learning to light a campfire for the first time), others are best left for children to explore on their own (taking a leap from the monkeybars). If the worst that can happen is a cut, scrape, bruise, or even a sprained ankle, give children the freedom to do it on their own. Remember, you learned some of your best “lessons” when adults weren’t even looking!
Take comfort in the knowledge that “dangerous” activities help children flourish. Exploring fire, water and other physical phenomena, and using real tools and machines acquaint children with how the world really works. Nothing beats first-hand experience for learning how objects are engineered, why heat transforms water into vapor, what it’s like to drill a hole. Such “risky” physical behaviors as climbing, swinging or jumping from high places build strength, dexterity and self-confidence. Non-physical risks—performing in front of an audience or standing up for a principle—are similarly important learning opportunities. In each situation, children are developing critical cognitive and social-emotional skills: assessing risks, grasping consequences, practicing self-control, taking responsibility.
Exposing children to danger may seem counterintuitive, but when done right, and with the support of caring adults, it is ultimately the best preparation we can give them for becoming resilient, thoughtful and capable human beings.
So go ahead… Take the leap. Make it blow. Melt it down. Launch it. Watch it burn. We’re learning here!