In the fable, the lobster and the crab are in a boat out at sea, far from shore, amid a terrible storm and rough waters.
“Crab!” shouted the lobster over the roar of the wind. “For me the salt spray is thrilling! The crashing of every wave takes my breath away.”
The Crab worries what will happen if their boat capsizes, and when it does, the Lobster is no less enthusiastic. “Down we go!” he shouted.
The Crab was shaken and upset. The Lobster took him for a relaxing walk along the ocean floor.
“How brave we are,” said the Lobster. “What a wonderful adventure we have had!”
Often, as parents, we’re like the Crab, worried what will happen to our kids if they get into risky situations, and they’re the Lobster, thrilled to be living on what feels like the edge. But part of growing up is learning how to deal with life’s challenges, and risky play, under the right conditions, allows children to test how the world and their bodies work.
In early childhood, we want to encourage kids—and their parents—to be considerate and thoughtful about risk taking, weighing up the probability of success against the likelihood and severity of the negative consequences.
Dr. Mandy Cooke, a lecturer in Early Childhood Education at Deakin University in Australia, notes that, “In beneficial risk-taking, negative outcomes, which are usually minor and short lived, provide opportunities for personal growth and learning. Learnings can include problem solving, planning, and how to manage disappointment.”
As Dr. Mariana Brussoni, director of the Play Outside Lab at the University of British Columbia, told the CBC, “If kids don’t go far enough with their play, it’s boring[,] and if they go too far, it gets too scary[…] She likens it to a science experiment, where kids are testing out their environment and determining what they’re comfortable with.”
When faced with an opportunity for beneficial risky play, Brussoni suggests involving kids in assessing the potential obstacles and ways of avoiding them. Then, let them have at it.
“Instead of telling your child not to climb so high or run so fast while observing them at play,” Brussoni told the CBC, “take[…]17 seconds. Step back, she says, and ‘see how your child is reacting to the situation so that you can actually get a better sense of what they’re capable of when you’re not getting in the way.’”
Brussoni also suggests getting rid of the structured play things so many of us have in our backyards: the jungle gyms, slides, monkey bars and swings. After all, there’s only so much a child can do with them. Instead, let loose materials and bric-a-brac fill the yard, stuff like boxes, logs, sticks, ropes, crates and tarps. Even better, bring them out to play in nature, where chances for open-ended play and beneficial risk taking abound.
And who knows, in time, you might even find yourself feeling about a moment of risky play by your child the same way the Crab felt about the shipwreck out at sea with the Lobster.
Walking on the tranquil and familiar seafloor, the Crab began to feel somewhat better. Although he usually enjoyed a quieter existence, he had to admit that the day had been pleasantly out of the ordinary.