By Carly Baumann, Education Programs Coordinator, Providence Children’s Museum
“In the real world, life is filled with risks… and reasonable risks are essential for children’s healthy development.” – Dr. Joe Frost
At Providence Children’s Museum, we witness wonderful moments of learning through play all around us, every day: from discovering how to use a popsicle stick as a clay cutting tool to learning that Pilgrim children didn’t use forks, and that engineering a giant fountain with two friends is much easier than constructing alone. But some of the most inspiring learning moments, often the most intense and real, involve taking a risk. When children (and grown-ups) take risks or, as Tim Gill said, “actively seek out uncertainty,” they explore their own limits and learn about the world. Risk is the ingredient that keeps us engaged and it helps make play more meaningful.
Making opportunities for risk-taking in Museum exhibits and programs is a responsibility we care deeply about. Because we encourage open-ended experiences, there are not a lot of rules or instructions. We believe in managing risk rather than seeking to eliminate it, so we embrace a philosophy of designing environments and experiences to be as safe as necessary but not as safe as possible. In our outdoor Climber, a safe and challenging structure, kids experience a sensation of taking risks as they stretch, wiggle and climb two stories high. Pushing through fears and internalizing one’s own sense of success doesn’t require a life-or-death situation; the perceived risk is just as valuable. Children take risks in open-ended physical play, but also when they handle real tools, messy materials and live animals. They take risks when trying challenges they might not succeed at on the first try, or the tenth.
It’s not only our responsibility to provide opportunities for risk-taking, but to communicate the value of risk to caregivers – the most vital supporters of their children’s learning. In the parent resource area of our Play Power exhibit, video clips show children playing intensely throughout the Museum. As a boy crawls across his own wobbly arch bridge and two builders witness the toppling of the intricate block tower they teamed up to construct, the narration reads, “When they are free to take risks and try new things, kids learn about their abilities. And they learn how to bounce back when things go wrong.”
In a time when the media message is that growing up is not safe, children need support to take risks from the caring adults in their lives. By taking risks ourselves when we are challenged, we model that risk is a part of life. Watching families when they hesitantly handle worms from the Museum’s worm compost bin illustrates how risk can bring us together in intense social experiences. Peers and parents can bring a sense of security that eases children from uncertainty to the exhilaration of overcoming a fear. In The Climber, children get social support from other kids who help coach them down a steep step, or from parents watching below, still far enough away that the child negotiates his own way down.
Let’s remember that, as Fred Rogers said, “Play is the work of childhood.” Risk is an essential element of children’s work and play and they need grown-ups who model, support and celebrate that.
Providence Children’s Museum recently hosted an energetic and thought-provoking discussion about the benefits of risk-taking to kids’ healthy development. See conversation highlights and download the Kids, Play and Risk resource sheet – our compilation of great articles, books and more.