Outdoor Play Barriers: The Caregiver

by Nadia Robinson

It’s no secret that at Educated by Nature we are advocates for risky, outdoor play (nature play). It supports development of the whole child (mentally, physically, socially and emotionally) and provides them with opportunities to develop necessary life skills (check out Nature Play WA for more information). 

This blog will address in more detail the barriers our little people (children of all ages) experience in engaging in unstructured, risky outdoor play and how we can address them.  We have noted common themes when speaking with parents, consulting with educators and reviewing research. Combining what we feel are the most common barriers into 3 categories of influences:
1. Caregiver; 2. Risk & Safety; 3. Environmental.

For more information about our beliefs about risky play, check out our previous blogs:

Daniel Burton talks with Maggie Dent about Play and Risk

War Play – Why risk is beneficial

Children can be risk assessors too…

The Influence of the Big Person (Caregiver)

The job of the ‘big-person’ (caregiver) includes numerous roles. We are teachers, chefs, nurses, taxi drivers, personal assistants, just to name a few. I am going to propose we add the role of Sentry to the ever-growing list. I’m hoping that by the time you finish reading you will not resent me adding something else to the list.

Simply put, the Sentry (a soldier) has 2 roles: 1. To keep guard; 2. To control access to.

Picture the meerkat that stands at attention, looking out for possible dangers and risks to the mob. Like the meerkat, we stand guard and watch play. We are alert and on the lookout for all possible dangers/risks. What we define as danger or risk depends on our worldview and self-belief, these guide us as we stand guard. Our worries and fears of risky play are not a barrier, they can serve as important early warning signs (Beyer et al., 2015)

One barrier to risky play is when we respond to our personal risk alarm and not to our little people. We can unintentionally stop access to the rich, risky and rewarding experiences nature play has for us. 

Let me give you a personal example. I am not that fond (borderline terrified) of birds, and I have good reason to be. I was nearly swallowed by a pelican at the Perth Zoo when I was a toddler, I have been pecked on the forehead by a chicken, divebombed by a flock of magpies/coolbardies and stalked by swans more times than I can count. Needless to say, I can have some strong reactions when my feathered friends are around. I have 3 boys, all of whom are fond of animals and whenever there is a bird close my risk alarm is intense. I have the choice to react strongly (and often do) which impacts how my boys feel in that space. 

If you have fears regarding your little people and nature play, you are not alone. Fear of the bugs/animals, strangers, injury and judgement are mentioned in numerous research papers (Beyer et al., 2015; Crawford et al., 2015; Skar et al., 2016). Fear is normal. The research also states that there is a relationship between these fears and little people engagement. 

How do we keep guard without stopping access to? 

As mentioned before, your personal risk-alarm can be a signal that you need to step in for the safety of your little person, an early warning sign that they are not ready for the risk. Our role in these moments is to act as guard. It can also be what The Circle of Security Parenting Program (a brilliant reflective parenting program!) refer to as ‘shark music’. Imagine the two-notes playing from Jaws, ‘dah-dum, dah-dum’. It triggers us to respond to something as though it is a danger. When we step in here, we can be stopping access. 

I completed the COS-P facilitator training 4 years ago and it changed the way I viewed my caregiving role. I still respond to my shark music, it’s a journey. However, I would love to share some tips that I have found useful:

  • Notice the shark music – Why am I feeling this way? Sometimes we don’t need to respond to it. Sometimes we just need to acknowledge it, tell our body ‘thanks for that reminder, but I think they (little people) have got this’ and give ourselves a little encouragement. Holding space for kids often involves lots of these moments.
  • Lean into the shark music – Guarding play isn’t about making ourselves feel comfortable. Am I responding to their need or mine? It was noted in research that the fear of what other people think (judgement) influences what we let our little people do. I get a lot of ‘looks’ when I let my 2-year-old roam free at the park. In that moment I have to focus on him and I. I trust him to explore and I trust myself to keep guard. This is really hard and takes a lot of practice, it also doesn’t always feel good in the moment. 
  • Respond to the risk – Sometimes it’s not ‘shark music’, it’s something we need to respond to. Even if our little people are ok, it might be too much for us. I have signals with my boys. If I give a thumbs up, I’m asking them if they are ok. Most, if not all of the time they will give me an enthusiastic thumbs up in return. Our little people don’t always see the risk and it is our job to keep them safe. I use phrases like: That rock looks a bit sharp, how are you going to climb over that without scraping your knee? I am feeling a little uncomfortable right now (with you being at the top of that tree), could you come down a few branches?
  • Know the benefits, weigh up the risk – Does the possibility of a scratch, a bee sting or a broken bone mean that this play isn’t worth it. I might even be tempted to say it isn’t, we had a broken arm recently and that wasn’t fun. However, the research says that we need to consider the long-term impact of stopping access to this play. You might not have a broken bone, or bee sting, but our little people don’t have the access to the incredible benefits risky nature play has for them. Something that will serve them for their entire life. 

The benefits of nature play are not only for our little people, they also apply to us. If you are feeling hesitant about nature play and all that it involves, I encourage you to get out there. I write this as a former nature avoider. Nature has the wonderful way of meeting us where we need to be met. It provides opportunities to connect with our little people, ourselves and with country. The more time I spend participating in nature play, the more comfortable I feel. I remind myself that it’s a journey and I just always make sure I’ve got insect repellent and Stingos just in case.