Stories from my personal journey learning about and delivering Nature-rooted programs across three different countries

Competition and risky play

Caylin (Forest Schooled)
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“I beat your record! I climbed higher than you!”

“Okay, I'll have another go! I'll bet I can get even higher!”

And up the boys went, climbing higher and higher into the branches of a hornbeam tree, trying to beat each other's previous 'record' with each passing turn.

“Eeek!” I thought, “How do I handle this?”
Now, we'd had discussions with the children before about how to stay safe while climbing trees. We use guidelines like:
  • Have a spotter with you in case anything goes wrong or you need help getting down.
  • Test the branches first before you put your weight on them.
  • Always have 3 limbs touching the tree at one time to increase your grip in case of any slips.

The boys have been really good at observing these guidelines and are entirely capable of climbing up and down the trees safely. Previously, they would climb a couple of metres up, stop, and come back down, demonstrating a very typical characteristic of risky play in which “children are highly motivated to play in risky ways, but they are also very good at knowing their own capacities and avoiding risks they are not ready to take, either physically or emotionally” (Gray, 2014).

But now that there was an element of competition involved, they were pushing themselves to take greater risks. Not only were they climbing higher, they were climbing faster and not spending as much time testing the branches to ensure they were safe.

I could feel my own anxiety levels rising and began to question whether this situation needed 'managing'. With these boys, I knew a “Get down out of that tree right now!” approach would not work. Nor did I feel it would benefit their learning either. So I decided to address it in a more tactful way.

I said to one of the boys, "Hey, how does it feel that high up? Does it feel as sturdy up there as it is lower down the tree?” He replied, “No”. So I asked, “Do you feel safe?” He said, “Yes.” I left it there and continued to observe. He did not go any higher. And soon came the end of the session, the tree climbing ceased, and we left the wood.

But it did leave me with some questions about risk-taking in play, particularly when competition is involved. We as a society enjoy quite a lot of 'healthy competition' in our lives – in sports, spelling bees, bake-offs and pub quizzes! So it got me questioning – is competition truly healthy and can it benefit or hinder development during risky play?

To attempt to answer this, it's important to firstly address the question, “Why do we compete?”

The answer is perhaps more complex than you might realise. It certainly surprised me. Competition is not a result of human NATURE. It is a result of human CULTURE. Certain cultures lend themselves more to a competitive way of life.

Fergus Hughes (2009) states,

“It seems that in simpler cultures people must cooperate within their family units in order to guarantee their very survival. When resources are scarce, it is adaptive to share. If a child in such a culture were to compete for a larger portion of food, he or she would be criticized by adults on the grounds that if one person earns more, other family members must receive less. Thus, competition is selfish, has little adaptive significance, and is tolerated neither in play nor in any of the other activities of daily life. In more complex culture, however, there is less sense of community, and individuals are expected to compete to ensure the economic survival of their families. Competition is valued among adults, therefore, and is also valued – or tolerated at least – in the child's world of play” (pg. 53-54).

Some people argue that, in the world we live in today, exposure to competition through sports, school, games and play is a good thing for children. Here are some of their arguments:
  • It improves self-esteem: “When a child wins a game with his team, he feels accomplished and recognized. Even when he doesn't win, he can learn a valuable lesson: that you can't win every time. Losing with his team can also increase self-esteem, as he learns to hold his head high and feel proud for trying his best” (Davis, 2014).
  • It improves performance: Competition “teaches children and teenagers how to compete in the real world. As they grow older they'll face competition in school, in the workforce and other areas of life. But these competitions don't have to be negative or unhealthy. Playing sports can help kids understand how competition works in a friendly environment, and that if you try your hardest, you have a better chance to succeed” (Davis, 2014).
  • It motivates us: “Competition teaches us to bring our best effort. Keeping score gives us extra motivation to do our best. We pursue excellence when we compete” (Josephson, 2015).
  • It builds resilience: “Sometimes you work hard, and you still lose. Sometimes you win but still didn’t perform as you wanted to. We learn resilience and grit in these moments. Resilience and grit are two traits that most certainly are essential in adulthood” (Josephson, 2015).

On the other hand, Alfie Kohn (1987) argues that competition can actually have a negative impact on children. Here are some of his arguments:
  • It damages self-esteem: “Most people lose in most competitive encounters, and it's obvious why that causes self-doubt. But even winning doesn't build character; it just lets a child gloat temporarily. Studies have shown that feelings of self-worth become dependent on external sources of evaluation as a result of competition: Your value is defined by what you've done. Worse – you're a good person in proportion to the number of people you've beaten” (Kohn, 1987).
  • It hinders performance: “Children do not learn better when education is transformed into a competitive struggle. Why? First, competition often makes kids anxious and that interferes with concentration. Second, competition doesn't permit them to share their talents and resources as cooperation does, so they can't learn from one another. Finally, trying to be Number One distracts them from what they're supposed to be learning. It may seem paradoxical, but when a student concentrates on the reward (an A or a gold star or a trophy), she becomes less interested in what she's doing. The result: Performance declines” (Kohn, 1987).
  • It can harm or prevent relationships: “By definition, not everyone can win a contest. If one child wins, another cannot. This means that each child comes to regard others as obstacles to his or her own success. Forget fractions or home runs; this is the real lesson our children learn in a competitive environment... Competition makes it difficult to regard others as potential friends or collaborators; even if you're not my rival today, you could be tomorrow” (Kohn, 1987).

So, is competition a bad thing?

Well, I think it certainly presents some significant issues in relation to risky play. Within the tree-climbing example above, I can certainly see Kohn's point. Each time one boy would 'win' by breaking the other's record, he would gloat by taunting the other, singing “I went higher than youuu!”

While his self-esteem increased for that moment, the other boy's would decrease. Until the next round when the role would switch.
With regards to performance, they may have climbed higher each time, but they became more clumsy and less concentrated on what they were doing. They were focused on getting to a certain height rather than on the actual task of climbing.

Additionally, they were entirely unsupportive of the other's attempts, trying to find ways to sabotage or prevent the other from climbing in order to keep their 'record' and stay the 'winner'.

One could argue this uncooperative behaviour was damaging to their relationship. Lastly, they were willing to take more of a risk to 'win' the competition than they would have done before, potentially putting themselves into unnecessarily dangerous situations. They also may have been less likely to admit to feeling unsafe or to make choices in line with their discomfort for fear of 'losing' the competition.

In conclusion, I think in a competition-loving culture such as ours, there will always be the debate on whether competition is 'good' or 'bad' for children. This article is not meant to make that judgement call, but rather instigate an interesting discussion!

I think it is an important process to take a step back and view competition as a cultural phenomenon rather than just accept it as 'the way it is' forever and always. By doing so, we can better understand the effects it can have on our children and empower us with the ability to decide whether we wish to perpetuate the culture or attempt to change it.

David, S (2014) What Are the Benefits of Competitive Sports for Youth?, 10/07/2016.

Gray, P (2014) Risky Play: Why Children Love It and Need it,, 07/07/2016.

Hughes, F (2009) Children, Play, and Development, SAGE Publications, Ltd. London.

Josephson, A (2015) 15 Reasons Competitive Sports Are Great For Kids (That Have Nothing to Do With Winning,, 10/07/2016.

Kohn, A (1987) The Case Against Competition,, 07/07/2016.

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