As a mom of an almost 4-year-old boy and a 1-year-old girl, I have found myself saying the words “Be Careful” more and more often. And I know that I can do better.

Careful isn’t the way that I want my children to approach the world. I want them to approach it boldly – with intrigue and interest. I want them to try new things, set off on adventures and be fascinated with all the facets of the world around them.

I’ve read the research that repeatedly shows that play is how children learn about the world around them, and that as a society today we’ve padded all the corners, restricted our children to our own ‘safe’ yards and no longer allow children the space to try things for themselves. This ‘safe’ construct does not lend itself to the education our children need. They need risky play.

“Children learn as they play. Most importantly, in play children learn how to learn.” -O. Fred Donaldson

In a ScaryMommy.com blog Barry A. Garst, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Youth Development Leadership at Clemson University, says that while we know children learn through play, children learn more and have better experiences through so-called risky play.

Let’s be clear – risky doesn’t mean dangerous.

“In general,” Dr. Garst told Scary Mommy, “risky play provides greater opportunities for children to test and affirm their capabilities, as well as opportunities to experience, cope with, and problem-solve situations involving failure.”

And there’s no better place for children to test their capabilities than at summer camp. El Tesoro day and overnight camps offer opportunities to explore the natural world in a way that isn’t possible at home or their neighborhood.

At camp, three children can set off down a trail to their next activity on their own. They choose the path to walk (or maybe run), make decisions about which rocks and trees to climb over on the way, and work together to navigate the world around them. These things are not particularly risky – but to an eight year old rarely allowed out of his mother’s sight – this freedom is risky.

Do they sometimes take a wrong turn? Yes. Do they sometimes arrive late because they were fascinated by deer tracks in the damp mud? Yes. But along the way they learn that they ‘can.’ They can figure it out, they can rely on themselves and they can be brave and try new things.

In the same ScaryMommy.com blog Stephanie Garst, executive director of the U.S. Play Coalition, says that if you add an element of risk to play, the learning expands exponentially.

“With risky play, children learn how to better navigate their world and manipulate their bodies by testing their physical and mental limits,” Stephanie Garst says. “By allowing children to explore through risky play, parents and caregivers are encouraging independence, self-reliance and resilience.” 

So, while camp offers moderated risky experiences, I can’t wait for my children to be old enough to make their own choices about how to navigate the world on their own.

For now, I’m working on my words. This handy chart has some great phrases to switch out in your everyday conversations with your children that just might inspire them to be a little riskier.

 

Sara Mitchell is the brand manager at Camp Fire First Texas. She is responsible for graphic design, social media, digital communications and the production of Camp Fire materials. Sara enjoys seeing children participate in and learn to love the same programs she was involved in as a child. She is a 3rd generation El Tesoro camper and participated in Camp Fire youth programs as a child. Sara also earned her WoHeLo Medallion – Camp Fire’s highest youth honor. Sara is an active member of the Greater Fort Worth Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America and the Waxahachie Rebekah Lodge, a fraternal service organization.