A photo of the Saint Constantine School's playground tree fort

Want to Keep Kids Safe? Let Them Climb Trees.

Last semester, some of our faculty participated in on-site CPR training bright and early on a Saturday morning. Aside from the comfort you should derive knowing that teachers are willing to give up their precious weekend to make sure they can save children’s lives, I wanted to share something that happened during the training. 

Our CPR instructor conducts similar training for teachers in both public and private schools all over Houston. Throughout her presentation, she mentioned the various serious injuries that children incur while playing at school. Each time she mentioned one of these injuries, she would turn to our school nurse and ask how frequently it had occurred on our campus. She was shocked over and over as our nurse confirmed that common playground injuries like broken bones, or serious sprains or cuts that require doctor’s visits are virtually unheard of at The Saint Constantine School. 

This was incredibly exciting and validating to me personally, because I have been a strong advocate on our campus for a play philosophy that makes many parents and school administrators sweat. At our school, we have risky play equipment that was designed with fun, rather than safety, as the ultimate priority. We have almost no rules for play. 

And we decided to let our students climb in the trees.

Skeptics insist that we are opening our students up to serious harm by allowing such dangerous play on our campus: it sounds like a recipe for disaster! But the research points in the opposite direction. We have our share of bloodied knees and scraped palms, to be sure—our students play hard. But why, when compared to other Houston schools, are our kids largely spared from more serious injuries? 

The answer lies partially in studying the statistics on injuries and the types of play environments in which those injuries occur. Researches have been amazed to discover that the “safer” a play environment is by design, the higher the rate of serious injury in that environment.

Why is our “dangerous” playground causing fewer injuries than the plastic and padded equipment at most parks and schools?  Because children need to take risks. It’s how they learn what they can and can’t handle, it’s how they get physically stronger and mentally strategic, and it’s how they have fun. When you let risk thrive on the playground, the students thrive, too.  

Nothing on our playground is too easy, which means students can’t enjoy the equipment without focusing and working hard. They fall a lot, but they fall less and less the more they play. They are clumsy at first, but they scale the climbing wall faster and more efficiently with every attempt. And by suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune on a small scale when they first try something new, they have the benefit of experience once they attempt more challenging feats of strength and ability. 

We aren’t laboring under the delusion that no child will ever experience a serious injury on our campus. Indeed, from the CPR instructor’s presentation, it’s clear that schools and parents should anticipate a number of such injuries each year. But rather than letting the inevitability of harm dictate the way we educate students, we are embracing the possibility of injury because of all the things students stand to gain from such rigorous, risky play. 

We collectively bemoan the general unhealthiness of our nation’s children, but I think adults should point the finger at ourselves: we have handicapped children by letting our concern for their safety overrule the enormous benefits that come with the way they naturally play 

If schools want to combat childhood obesity, they should install challenging, open-ended playground equipment that makes the adults shake in their boots. If parents want their children to grow in strength and kindness and creativity, they should discard the laundry list of rules for playing outside and see how the kids fare managing things on their own. 

And if we want our students to be healthy, strong enough to withstand whatever comes their way, we have to let them climb in the trees.