One of the most important, and difficult, ways that we can encourage resilience in children is to allow them unsupervised play time. Allowing children to have unsupervised time is extremely difficult in our hyper-protective society, but it is essential to helping children become resilient.
A groundbreaking analytical review from Canada concluded that giving children opportunities for risky play increased physical activity, social health, creativity, and resilience. “Risky,” of course, does not mean completely unsupervised. The review limited itself to activities “whereby a child can recognize and evaluate a challenge and decide on a course of action,” specifically excluding “hazards that children cannot assess for themselves and that have no clear benefit.” Thus, the article looked at activities that included “play at height, speed, near dangerous elements (e.g., water, fire), with dangerous tools, rough and tumble play (e.g., play fighting), and where there is potential for disappearing or getting lost.” All of those types of play showed clear benefits, with risk of injury much lower than what adults assume.
Rough and tumble play, for example, does not increase aggression among most children. In fact, for boys, rough and tumble play led to greater peer acceptance among the boys in the group. Not surprisingly, in mixed sex groups, girls and teachers reacted negatively to such play. The researchers concluded that the health and social benefits of all risky types of play outweighed the chances of injury.
The lead author of the study, injury-prevention expert Mariana Brussoni, summarized her research in a Maclean’s interview, and noted, “In supervised activities, there’s somebody else guiding the activities; they don’t have to set the goals for what they want to do and how they want to engage in it. When they’re out in the neighborhood, they’re deciding, ‘Okay, let’s build a fort. Let’s play prisoner. Let’s play capture the flag.’ They’re negotiating back and forth to decide what the rules will be, how it’s going to work, who’s going to do what. There’s a lot more opportunity to develop those social skills.”
Britain and Australia have followed up on this knowledge by requiring playground and school inspectors to consider the benefits as well as the hazards of adding a certain level of risk to children’s environments. I am not aware of any similar movements in the United States, but I hope that policy and legal standards soon catch up with the science.
The lesson for youth organizations is that, while we need to protect children, we also need to allow them time for self-directed activities and as little supervision as possible while still keeping them safe. Most lawyers, who by nature and training are risk-averse, will advise their clients to constantly supervise the children in their care. Lawyers may not be aware of the mental health research showing that constant supervision is itself a harm to children. Therefore, we need to find ways to monitor children without constantly directing them. As Dr. Brussoni noted, “We give kids too little credit. If you just button your lips and let them get on with it, they actually are really good at figuring out their limits. They’re also really good at figuring out other’s limits, and keeping each other within reasonable safety.”