Last week my family visited The City Museum in St. Louis, Missouri. The City Museum isn’t so much a museum in the traditional sense (although they have a great display of architectural artifacts). In the words of its website, the City Museum is “an eclectic mixture of children’s playground, funhouse, surrealistic pavilion, and architectural marvel made out of unique, found objects.” From a child’s perspective, it’s a huge, challenging playground made out of really cool stuff.
The cool stuff is salvaged and “found” materials, welded together to make extraordinary climbing apparatus. Indoors, there are multiple levels of artificial caves including child size tunnels to disappear into out of adult reach. Outdoors there are spiral cage like tunnels and slides connecting junked airplanes, cranes, and buses, all dozens of feet in the air. On the roof, ten stories up, are even more of these spiral tunnels and huge slides, suspending you literally a hundred feet over the city.
On first look, this seems like the very definition of risky play, as children explore, discover, and push themselves to figure out ways to complete physical challenges of their own making. But as I watched children wind through the tunnels, it occurred to me that much of the risk is perceived risk not actual risk. Much like an amusement park, it’s thrilling to be a hundred feet off the ground. But completely surrounded by a steel cage, there isn’t any actual risk or danger. The environment is created to challenge children physically and imaginatively, while protecting them from getting hurt.
Not that no one will get hurt. I saw children spill over and bump heads and elbows coming down the slide, or scratch a knee on the edge of a ladder, or get hit in the face by a rubber ball in the ball pit. But part of the nature of risky play is learning to distinguish between levels of risk. Physical challenges involve the risk of a scrape or a bruise, but to raise resilient, competent children, we need to teach them the difference between a puncture wound and a bruise. We need to teach children that exploring challenges and new situations is worth the risk of a minor hurt, whether physical or emotional. And we need to teach children how to respond appropriately to that hurt. A bumped knee, a scratched elbow are something we can recover from, and the play is often worth the risk.