Why should we allow children to engage in risky play and how can we know when a risk has become a danger? Is risky play really that important?
Letting your children take risks can cause a lot of stress and worry for parents. Knowing when it is ok to step back and when a child’s safety is at risk is not always clearly identifiable. The following provides parents and educators with some key information that will help them understand the benefits of risky play and to give them the knowledge needed to identify when risky play becomes dangerous.
What is Risky play?
Risky play is basically defined as any exciting play experiences or activities that could pose a risk to a child’s safety and result in an injury. Taking risks is actually a normal and important part of healthy child development. Giving children the opportunity to engage in experiences that are exciting and thrilling allows them to test out their own limits and extend their learning. Whilst we know it is certainly important to protect children from harm, we also need to provide them with experiences that present challenges – and at times this can be risky.
What are the different types of risky play?
Risky play can involve a whole range of activities and experiences. The most obvious kind of risky play involves those movement experiences that usually occur outside and are fun and exhilarating. Climbing trees or navigating playground equipment, swinging on ropes and sliding down a slippery dip are all examples of risky outdoor play; they will certainly give a child a rush and also stimulate their vestibular systems.
Whilst whizzing around on a bike or testing limits on playground swings comes with obvious risks, there are other kinds of risky play that aren’t as often considered. Using dangerous tools such as knives, building tools and machinery might sound frightening – but with the right support these experiences can be extremely valuable for learning.
When children are allowed to use real tools, we often see them being very careful as they know that the tool has the potential to harm so they work hard at being more precise and skilled at the task. I have been amazed to see the kinds of creations that very young children can produce by using a glue gun or hammer and nails. One only needs to observe a child using these kinds of tools within a preschool to know that the benefits far outweigh the risks.
Another kind of risky play involves engaging with our natural environment. Playing in and around bodies of water presents obvious risks, as does playing with fire. Once again, with the right instruction and support, very young children can benefit immensely from these kinds of risky play experiences whilst learning to connect with nature.
Finally, many children – love to engage in rough and tumble play. Pretending to fight, wrestle and chase one another involves playing with others in a way that presents the risk of getting hurt. Despite this risk, rough and tumble play also helps children learn boundaries so that they can playfully fight and wrestle without doing any serious harm to others.
What are the benefits of risky play?
Learning to take calculated risks is extremely important for healthy child development.
Some of the skills that are built from engaging in risky play experiences include:
- Helping a child grow self-confidence and independence
- Helping a child learn to build resilience and persistence
- Supporting the growth of fundamental motor skills – including balance and coordination
- Sparking curiosity, imagination and wonder
- Providing real-life opportunities for problem-solving through physical activity
- Helping children develop an understanding of cause and effect
- Developing social skills and team building
- Encouraging children to be creative and innovative thinkers
- Helping children learn to make judgments about risks (develop risk management skills)
- Supporting children to develop awareness in relation to their capabilities and physical limits
Despite all of these benefits, some parents are still reluctant to allow a certain level of risk as their children play. It might be helpful to know that children who don’t engage in risky play often:
- Lack confidence in themselves and therefore might be unwilling to try new things.
- Are less fit than their peers and lack coordination, balance skills and fundamental movement skills
- Are fearful of rapid movement and/or heights
- Are more likely to be clumsy
- Are less able to manage risks safely as teenagers and adults (this can become a big issue when it comes to things like alcohol and drugs).
To read more about the benefits of risky play, check out this website: 21 Benefits Of Risky Play (With Examples) – Early Impact Learning.
How do you plan for risky play while ensuring a safe play environment?
When planning for risky play it’s important to understand the difference between a risk and a hazard. A hazard involves something that has the potential to cause harm – such as a chemical or a large rock below a climbing frame. A risk, on the other hand, is the probability that the hazard will actually cause someone harm. Weighing up the risk of a hazard is important for determining safe risk-taking and one must also factor in the benefit vs the risk.
A good example of this can be seen in tree climbing. We know the benefits are very strong and if there is soft fall at the base of the tree we can consider the likelihood of a child getting seriously injured from a fall is unlikely. On the contrary, if there was a barbed wire fence underneath the tree – this presents a significant hazard because if a child should fall on it, the possibility of serious injury is high. In this circumstance, the hazard means that the benefit does not outweigh the risk.
The Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) is our national curriculum for children aged birth to 5 years. The EYLF encourages learning environments that invite children to take risks for the benefit of their learning. The National Quality Standards (NQS) also presents some clear regulations that help early childhood education and care services to minimise hazards and provide a safe learning environment for children. This includes the safety of play spaces, equipment and the provision of adequate supervision at all times – during free play and structured activities.
What is acceptable risk in play?
When determining what is and isn’t acceptable when it comes to risky play, it can be helpful for educators to think about it in terms of challenge or hazard. Challenges allow children the opportunity to stretch their abilities and safely test boundaries. Hazards present danger and should be removed or modified to lower the risk. Whilst a group of boys play-fighting with sticks can present a fun challenge, consideration will need to be given to how it can be done in a way that is safe and so the face and eyes are protected from injury.
You can learn more about challenges and hazards from Kidsafe NSW here: Challenging Play – Risky! | Playground Safety | Safety | Kidsafe NSW
Many education and care services also have a process for assessing risks – particularly whilst out on excursions. You can learn more about risk assessments in education and care settings here: Risk_management_and_management.pdf (acecqa.gov.au).
What is healthy risk?
Healthy risk is basically the same as safe risk. A calculated risk. We want children to have opportunities to evaluate risks for themselves where possible, but we also need to keep them safe. A healthy risk would be allowing a toddler to navigate a low-lying boardwalk by themselves – knowing that if they fall it is very unlikely that they will be injured. A risk that is not healthy or safe, would be allowing a toddler to bounce on a trampoline that does not have a net around it. Trampoline injuries are one of the most common childhood accidents that result in broken bones, as are monkey bars, so play on these needs to be carefully monitored too.
If you are an early childhood educator, you might be interested in the following professional development opportunity that is offered by Semann & Slattery. Risky Play: Promote children’s Agency will help you to get the balance right between protecting children from harm and providing opportunities for risk-taking. Risky Play: Promote Children’s Agency | SEMANN&SLATTERY (semannslattery.com).
Should all children engage in risky play?
Whilst injury prevention is an important part of keeping children safe, there is research that suggests that not allowing children to engage in risky play can have a negative impact on their development and well being. Play is essential for healthy child development and through play, children are naturally driven to take risks.
Additionally, it should be considered that allowing children to learn to take and manage risks, will help them to safely manage risks as they get older. In short, yes, all children should be provided with opportunities to engage in risky play. A good educator can assess the risks and use intentional teaching to guide children on how they can play in a particular area or with particular resources, pointing out the dangers and the risks and then supervising as children take on the challenges.
Whilst letting children manage their own risks might sound like a recipe for disaster, when done with the appropriate amount of guidance and support children can stay safe. In order to develop strong dispositions for learning, such as confidence, resilience, persistence and creativity, children must be provided with opportunities to take risks. As Mark Zuckerberg has so eloquently said:
‘The biggest risk is not taking any risk…In a world that is changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks”.
Do your kids engage in thrill seeking behaviour are they cautious when they play? How do you feel when your kids take risks? Let me know in the comments!