Hey everybody and welcome to the podcast. I’m so glad to have you join us. And I’m very excited about my guest, Audrey Roland. I first heard Audrey speak at a conference and I think it’s been about five years ago based on our conversation just now, but Audrey is the founder of green space learning and they provide early childhood professional development. They have licensed childcare centers. I’m going to let her tell you all about that. And they create really neat natura play equipment for playgrounds and do you do any of that for backyards or is it primarily for schools? We have done some backyards. We call that playful landscaping. Yeah. Well, anyways, I have seen her stuff and it is so creative and so fun and I’m just so happy to have you here. So thanks for being here. Welcome. Thank you for having me. So why don’t you first tell us a little bit about your family?

Sure. My family and I live here in Fort Worth, Texas, and I have two little ones. Vivian is eight and Whit is five. And they are at one of those ages where you’re just like, I feel like maybe I’m nailing this. In fact, my son just this morning when he was putting on his socks and shoes, he looked up and goes, I’m doing really good today. I was like, you are. That morning stress sometimes gets the better of us, but we’re at one of those stages that you think, okay, we can do this after coming out of the crazy four-year-old stage. So yeah, we live in Fort Worth, but we have some property out in Montague County and we spend quite a lot of time out there, you know, in nature and with the creek and our children have, you know, a very wide territorial range there. So they can go where we can’t see them or maybe even hear them. And so…

It’s been interesting to watch just, we were just there last weekend and it’s been interesting to watch how each time there, they get a little braver, they get a little further away. They try some new things and it’s just such confirmation that they are good at keeping themselves safe. That’s probably makes some people kind of go like to themselves. Isn’t it hard to say that? Yes, we have.

When our friends come out with their little ones, it takes them a while to relax the parents. It’s a very different kind of play. Right. Which is exactly what we’re talking about on this podcast is risky play. And I love the title of your download that you have for folks. And that is, is risky play worth the risk?

I remember one of the very first times I ever heard you speak at a conference, you were talking about this very topic and you were talking about your own baby climbing up on a jungle gym, kind of like one of those triangle dome shaped gyms. And you were talking about how you manage that and ask the audience, you know, well, what, what would you do if this was your child? What, you know, what would you do? So I wonder if you might just kind of take that idea and talk about it. How do you know when to let your child explore in this way when you are not quite sure you feel a little unsure about their safety?

It is a tricky balance because we are programmed to protect our children, not only from physical injury, but also even from disappointment perhaps or from failure. And so when we start out as parents and our babies are tiny, we do everything for them. And it is really difficult as they get older for us to remind ourselves to consistently give some of that autonomy back to them on a regular basis, right? So we start out with, you know, helping them wash their hands, but we have to pay attention to when to as their skills evolve, when we need to step out of the process a little more when it needs to become more them and less us. And then finally, all of them and know us and that process happens on every tiny thing that we do for our children while they grow. And so we as adults really like consistency, predictability, we like routine. And so if we’ve got a way of kind of thinking about my son putting his shoes and socks on this morning, if we have a way of getting everybody out the door, it’s really hard for us to veer from that and to hand them some power in the situation or some autonomy or some time when we already know how we do it is going to be the best way. So this translates into play all the time. So children are programmed for risk.

Their brains are demanding things of their bodies so that they can determine what am I capable of? Right? So when a child is walking down the sidewalk, they have to walk on the edge of the curb, right? They just cannot resist getting up on the landscape timbers and walking along. If there’s a little bit of risk to be had, they will take it. And that’s because they just need to see if they can. They don’t even know what their capabilities are. And so everything is a test.

We think, well, that’s an unnecessary risk. We don’t need to walk up on the landscape timbers when there’s a perfectly safe sidewalk right here, regulated by the US government, right? Why would we deviate from that? And so this is what they’re compelled to do. They’re compelled to get as close to the water as they possibly can, as high into the climber or in the tree as they can. Think about when you’re a child and you would hide in the clothes racks at the store, right? So your mom’s shopping and you would get in the middle of the clothes rack. And that is the risk of being lost. We even play around with that risk, right?

And if you remember, you’re in there and it’s so muffled and it’s so dark and it’s really amazing at first. And then panic sets in and you think she’s gone. She’s left me. And you come tearing out of them and you are, you’re mad at her, even though she’s standing right there. You’re like, I was in these clothes and you didn’t know it. And that little line you know, kind of that entertaining risk to that real sense of fear.

Children have to play with that line for a long time before they really get the hang of it. And in adulthood, we of course are going to need to know how far is fun, and then at what point is it become dangerous. And we need to be able to read that very accurately to keep ourselves safe as we go through life. So children are taking these risks so that they can practice finding the limits of their safety. And it’s really hard to watch. We don’t want them to get hurt. We don’t want to deal with the mess or the aftermath of a spilled drink or something instead of giving them a sippy cup. We are protecting both them and us all the time from just the mishaps of life. And they are owed those mishaps. They have a right to them. And so it takes… a real stifling almost of your parental urges to support not just risky play, but even just development really. Yeah. I’m sitting here thinking about it’s almost more acceptable for an infant. Okay, if you just think about an infant learning to walk, we want them to pull up and to stand alone and to take those steps. And that in a sense is them testing the limits of their abilities.

And we welcome it then, but then when they get a little older and we know what might happen, and we don’t know the outcome as much, you know? It’s such an interesting point you’re making because it is kind of a contradiction because we almost rush them through those physical risks and infancy, maybe even sometimes pushing them or training them or coaching them to stand to walk. And then we start to pull back from that, especially during the preschool years, quite a bit.

We think toddlers are just, they’re really hard on the adult brain. That’s a time when we are really conscious of their kind of clumsiness and their messiness and their loudness. And then they get into, you know, preschool and early elementary. And then we go right back to that coaching and pushing stage. Now we’re putting them in sports, we’re putting them in gymnastics and we’re having an adult coach them on how far they should take their skills.

It really is just the small but critical period during early childhood where we say, you know, be careful. Yeah, that’s really interesting. I’ve never even thought about that before. The comparison of early childhood with like the beginning of middle childhood, you know, when you do start the teams and the lessons and all of those kinds of things. That’s really interesting. So we want our kids to be resilient and not be afraid.

How do you coach parents and teachers in this process? What do you tell them? Well, it’s important for us as adults to first understand why we’re doing this, because otherwise it’s just going to feel wrong. So we have to know that resiliency is built in early childhood. And if we don’t build it then we’re going to have to be resilient to some much bigger things later. Right. So we want to learn resiliency when the stakes are small, when injury hard to come by, right? Children, I mean, they just run into things or bump their head in a way that you and I would have to spend three days in the hospital and they can just shake it off. Their bodies are built for falling and that’s why they’re so close to the ground, right? So they have this time to build resiliency when the stakes are low. And resiliency comes from having disappointment, having things not go your way.

And you think this is…disappointing, but I can get through it. And so when I think about resiliency, one of the first things that comes to mind is when we opened our nature preschool in Fort Worth, it was a primarily outdoor preschool and it’s an urban center. So we were kind of converting like a vacant lot situation. And no matter how much landscaping and dirt and all those things we brought in, we could not get rid of little sticker burrs on the playground. And you know, opening up in August, that’s when they’re at their worst. And here we want to have this beautiful barefoot program and this thing where children love nature, aren’t afraid of it. And we just have these stickers everywhere. Sticker bears are horrible too. And children especially, like, you know, they just shut down if they get a sticker. You can ruin your day. So we tried everything we could to get rid of them, but we knew that wasn’t going to happen. So we just, we explained to the children, look, we have these stickers. Everyone knows what a sticker is.

They are in places in the playground. We’ve tried to get rid of them, but they’re going to be around. You can still be barefoot if you’d like, but just know that you might get a sticker. Or you can just wear your shoes, right? If that’s uncomfortable for you. So they almost all still chose barefoot. And it was about, you know, two weeks of just like a blood bath, right? Just like screaming stickers. And it was tough. But after about two weeks, these children are just plucking stickers out of their feet and putting them in a bucket that we keep just for stickers.

And that is resiliency right there to say, this pain is not permanent pain. This inconvenience is not gonna stay with me forever. I can choose this activity that is worth more to me than this risk, right? So it’s worth more to them to have their feet in the mud, to be able to run through the grass and not have their shoes on than it is to protect their feet from stickers. And as adults, we make those kind of decisions every day. We say there’s a risk to get in your car and drive somewhere, but it’s worth it for the convenience of driving, right? So we’re always weighing these risks and benefits, and children need an opportunity to work those things through on their own. So it’s important for parents to remember there’s a difference between a hazard and a risk. It is our job to prevent hazards, to make sure our children are aware of the dangers in this world, right? So and a hazard is anything a child either can’t see or can’t navigate without quite a bit of assistance. So they would become very hurt if they tried. And so if, you know, your child wants to walk barefoot through a creek bed and you don’t know this creek, there might be hazards there, right, that we don’t know about yet. So we might need to say.

I don’t know, there might be glass. I mean, I’m not sure. I think about the beach or something. There might be hazards there we can’t navigate. And so that would be preventing an injury that the child themselves couldn’t foresee. Risk is allowing a child to navigate risks that they can see what the risk is, they can interpret what will happen, and they can work themselves through it. Even if they’re going to fail at it, it’s not going to be detrimental, right? Or a disaster. So it’s okay to let them take risks, but we do want to, of course, be responsible when it comes to hazards or dangers.

And so as a parent, the way you kind of remind yourself what’s a risk and what’s a hazard is you have to actually have a conversation with yourself and be like, what’s going to happen if we’re always telling our children to be careful, be careful, be careful, be careful. Be careful is such a non-helpful phrase. It’s like saying, you are in danger, but I cannot be more specific. Right? Like you just be careful. You just really need to be very nervous. Be careful. I don’t. Yeah. You should be, you should be worried, but I can’t tell you exactly why. So it’s not helpful. So if you feel the urge to say, be careful, try and change it to the specific instruction that you think you should give. And what you’ll usually find is that it’s real dumb. Right? So instead of saying, be careful, I want to say something like, don’t fall down.

I mean, obviously, you don’t have to say don’t fall down. Like that’s obvious. Or that water is slippery or that cup will spill or that glass will break. Right? So again, you’re still not giving them any appropriate instruction. You’re just warning them of an imminent danger. So you would want to say it rained last night and this surface might be wet and it might be slippery. That would be a warning that would help a child make a decision about how they’re going to navigate it.

That would be more helpful than just saying don’t run, you might fall. Because now we’re giving them the information they need to make that decision. And they’re probably still going to have to trial and error it out. They’re still going to have to see how far it takes to fall. But we’re giving them information rather than just giving them anxiety. And we’re just passing on our constant parental anxiety every time we let on to our children that there’s danger, but we’re not even sure what it is. We just know we all need to be cautious.

When you’re in a childcare setting or in your own home and you’re telling your child, you’re warning your child against danger, we’re also undermining their trust in us. When we take them to a park and we say, here’s a place I have chosen for you to play, a place built by adults for children.

And then I spend the entire time warning you of how dangerous it is. How can a child trust us then, right? If I send my children into the backyard with a million warnings about how dangerous it is back there, then how can they trust me? Why are you wanting me to go out there? We even do this in our child care programs or in our classrooms, we’re warning them against dangers. And it’s like, well, did licensing not check this out first? Like it’s all. And so- I have this special activity, but be very careful.

I’m going to have you do this activity, but I’m going to restrict how much glue and how much paint and how much tape and how many can do it at a time because- And don’t put it in your hair. And don’t put it in your mouth. So it is kind of this contradiction we’re giving them of trust me, but also am I trustworthy in the choices I’ve made for you? Yeah, that’s good. So tell me about the question. What’s your plan? Oh, yes.

So when you have just reached the limit of your ability to not say anything, when you’re just so nervous. So when a child starts to try something risky, climbing a structure or a tree, crossing like a narrow path or when they start the activity, the first thing we want to do is be quiet and watch. We want to observe and get a full understanding of what it is they’re doing. We don’t want to distract them by asking them questions or telling them to be careful or coaching them. Children are very, very good at keeping themselves safe. Most injuries in childhood occur because a child is placed on a surface by an adult and they fall from that surface. They are in a car accident or they’re hurt in organized sports. So these are all situations where the child themselves is not in control of their own body. So children keep themselves quite safe.

But when we coach them, when they’re coached by either another child, like a dare situation, right? When they’re coached or pressured by an adult or another child, then that’s when they become in danger of injury because they’re no longer following their own internal instincts, right? So that’s good. Yeah. So we want to first just be quiet and watch and kind of, kind of see. We can own our own nervousness, right? We can think, oh boy, here we go.

This is going to be hard. You can move your body closer, which is a good way to kind of keep yourself busy at the time. Like I’m just going to get close enough where I’m here if they need me. And if that is just getting, it’s getting too hard and you’re just really worried that what they’re doing is going to result in an injury, then you can say, tell me what your plan is. And then if they say, my plan is to just stand here and balance for a while, then you realize you didn’t need to go on to warn them about trying to cross it or trying to climb higher because you might have assumed they were going to keep going, but this may be the end of their plan. And so asking what their plan is gives them a chance to stop and think without judgment. And it gives you a chance to kind of assure yourself that they are, they do have a plan. They always have a plan. They’re just not always going to let us in on it right away. And then if your child becomes stuck, if they climbed up the tree and now they can’t get down.

If they go too far over on the climber and they get nervous, as soon as they ask for help, render aid. Go directly to them and just lift them down. Don’t coach them on how to get down. Don’t tell them the best way to come down. Don’t remind them that they got up there, so they have to be able to get down. We want to immediately remove them from that danger because this is a moment where they are learning, I have reached my limit and I need to stop and we want them to honor that feeling from the rest of their lives. Right.

So we don’t have to comment. We don’t have to coach. We just simply rescue, which is what we wanted to do from the very beginning anyway. So we get to finally do it. We get to let them down. They’re immediately going to return to that same spot because that’s how they’re going to eventually get past that spot is to go to it and over and over again. So we may have to rescue them from that same spot many times. And if we’re available to do it, great. We can just keep repeating that behavior until they’re comfortable with it. If we’re not available right then, if we’re really tired of getting up and going and rescuing from that spot, then you can just say before they go, hey, I’m not going to be able to come and get you this time. So you might need a different plan. So we can just help to prepare them for the fact that their rescue efforts are going to be a little slower in coming this next time, or we’re kind of tired of doing that activity. That’s okay.

Like a baby learning to walk. I was an infant teacher at the very beginning of my career. And one of the things that I saw, almost every baby who was learning how to walk do or not, you know, learning to pull up is they would crawl over and come up to a wall and pull themselves up to standing position, just kind of against the wall, right? And then they would not know how to bend their knees and come back down to the ground. And they would always cry. And that would be their call for help. Come render aid to me. That’s right.

It doesn’t take very long for them to figure out, Oh, I can just bend my knees and go back down on my bottom and then crawl away. But we’re fine with that then. And so what you’re saying is just to continue with that. I love that. It’s really good. And really kind of what you’re saying is just be quiet and watch them play. It’s really about trust. It’s about them learning to trust themselves. It’s about them trusting that we will be there for them when they need us.

But even more than that, it’s about showing them that we trust them and that we trust their judgment and their instincts and that we trust their ability to get over a disappointment. We trust their ability to heal. We trust that they’re going to be okay. And that is confidence. That’s self-assurance. I was watching a group of children play the other day and they were all trying to climb the same big tree. It was my kids and some neighbor kids and

Some are comfortable with risky play and have had lots of experience with it. And some have had none and self-proclaimed moms that are like, nope. So in the first few minutes where they all began to kind of navigate this tree, the only child to fall was one, I mean, he’s seven, but he was one who did not have any experience with risky play. And he did not return to the activity. He left, he walked off and went and found something fun for himself to do, which is great.

But it was interesting to see that he’s kind of, there’s not a lot of tenacity there or perseverance, or it’s just, okay, I’m not good at this thing, or I’m going to get hurt. And I’ve been taught or trained that being hurt is the worst thing that can happen to a person. And so I need to move on to a different activity. And so it really is, as my children get older, I’m seeing more and more how the risks they’ve been allowed to take are my way of keeping them safe for the rest of their lives, right? So I’m not always gonna be there to say, be careful or don’t do that or let me do that for you, but instead to give them the skills to read the room, to figure out the situation, to listen to their instincts, to have confidence in what their body can and cannot do and to make decisions that are gonna keep them safe. And that’s really, that when I talk to parents about taking on this very difficult thing of changing the way they react to their children’s play, that… is what we all want as parents.

That feeling that we can be confident in our children’s abilities and they themselves will be successful, that’s worth the uncomfortableness of your child doing something you wish they wouldn’t. Right? So I see all the time parents who we’ve talked through this, and then I can see them visibly restraining themselves from coaching or from cautioning their child because they really do want this for their child, but it is so, it’s such the opposite of the way that we, that we are, feel like we’re supposed to parent. And, and that’s true, you know, for hurt feelings or for, you know, we’re going to watch our children engage with a child we know is going to be mean to them. We have to let that happen so that they can learn to, to figure out who’s a friend and who’s not, or they’re going to try something and they’re going to fail at it and their feelings are going to be hurt.

They’re going to get frustrated when toddlers are frustrated, right? That’s just who they are. They’re frustrated for a good 18 months. And they’re supposed to be. But we as parents are like, we can solve this for you. If you’re frustrated, I could fix it. And that constant fixing of those frustrations, not letting them sit in that feeling of discomfort is kind of the gateway to just an entire childhood of having to be entertained, of having to be coddled, of having to be catered to, to keep that discomfort from happening. And so, I mean, I’m a big fan. I’m so happy that I’m raising my children in a time when I can give them an iPad while we’re waiting on our food at a restaurant. Like, I’m not even going to lie about that. Like that’s really nice that I can have these few minutes of solitude while I wait for the food. I’m glad I’m not having to do, you know, travel car games all the time everywhere we go. But you do have to kind of step back from that and notice that they do.

They need to have some discomfort sometimes and kind of learn how to play their way out of it. Yeah. So sometimes if the iPad gets drained, it’s okay. Yes, that’s right. It’s not the end of the world if the battery dies. And I see my children all the time just set it down and go about their business when the battery was not dead because it’s more of a reprieve from having to use their brain. Plays work.

And it’s learning. And so sometimes they need to veg for a second and, and then they’re ready to get back to it. Yeah. That’s kind of how I feel. Most every night I, uh, I veg a while on my phone. Oh yeah. I love some screen time for myself. Well, this is such a great conversation. And so here’s my last question for you. And that is somebody’s listening to this, they’re just thinking, okay, I think that I agree with what you’re saying, but I really am not sure how I can do it. What would be a word of encouragement for parents who are listening who want to allow this risky play to happen, but they just, it’s hard. What do you say? I think again, trusting your child, but also trusting your own instincts as a parent. And if you really dig deep past the social obligations past the kind of baked in concerns around, am I a good parent? But if you really get to the heart of what you’re trying to accomplish, which is to launch this person into a successful life, then this is going to feel much more natural to you. It’s really that we have to get past, we were raised to also be uncomfortable with discomfort.

And so when our child is in the park and they’re not sharing with another child, the parents are so uncomfortable, right? We feel like it’s reflecting poorly on us. And our instinct is to get right in there to fix the problem, to take away any of this embarrassment for our children. And let’s not let embarrassment be something we teach our children to have, right? Our sense of anxiety around safety, our sense of embarrassment around social failure

Those are things we don’t want to pass on to our children during childhood. They’re going to learn those things, no doubt, but they don’t need to learn them from us and they don’t need to learn them this early. Right. That is so great. And I was thinking as you were talking that I guess you could practice at home, allowing for some risks, risk taking at home before you venture out to the park or some other place where other people might be watching. Start small for sure. Yeah. Like just, you know, finding ways to for them to take more risks at home. And it can be as simple as giving your infant an open cup whenever it’s just water. There’s no real risk there. So show them that I would rather you feel confident in your use of a cup than protect my floors from water, right, or allowing your child to feed themselves. So it starts really early on saying, I will accept your mess and your failure and your discomfort. I’ll be right here with you through it, but I know that you can handle it.

And sometimes we have to say those things out loud to ourselves or we forget them. I said it a lot to my children. It is my job to keep you safe. And so I am going to insist on you holding my hand when we cross the street or you have to put on your car seatbelt or there’s some things that are just non-negotiable. And it was easier for me to remember what things were non-negotiable when I would say to myself, is this part of my job and keeping them safe?

It’s non-negotiable and I have to enforce it. If it’s not, then it’s a place where we can negotiate, we can compromise whether I can just, I can give in if I want to. But if we feel like everything is non-negotiable, our children sense that, they can sense that I can’t trust what’s real and what’s not real. It’s just gonna be that, you know, whatever they’re trying to accomplish right now is the most important thing ever. And so if we can just coach ourselves with, it’s my job to keep them safe.

It’s their job to learn. It’s their job to find their own sense of safety. And I’m here for them. We’re right here with them the whole time. We’re not neglecting or abandoning them. We’re supporting them through that. Yeah. Thank you so much. This is really, really so great for parents to hear and so insightful into really just how children develop and learn and our responsibility in that. So thank you so much, Audrey. Thanks for having me.

I’m going to put all of your links in the show notes and I’m going to encourage you all to take a look at these links and print this article and put it on your refrigerator because she’s got all these do this, do this, do this, do this on Risky and allowing your children to take risks. And it’s so good.