Children and Risky Play – Why Risk it?

Children are living in a completely different world compared to how we grew up! In the 80’s and 90’s, we roamed the streets until dark, jumped on soapy trampolines without safety netting and played on extremely high monkey bars, teeth breaking see-saws and crazily fast merry go rounds.

Today, unfortunately, a lot of risk-taking opportunities are taken away from children through increased safety measures, rules, regulations, and different parenting styles.

What is risky play?

Risky play has been defined as play that is thrilling and exciting, that involves some form of risk of being physically injured.  Professor Ellen Bete breaks this definition down even further to describe the six categories of risky play:

1️⃣ Great heights

Play that involves children having a birds eye view of the world. e.g. climbing trees, scaling fences, rock climbing and conquering tall climbing frames.

2️⃣ Rapid speeds 

Play in which children get a thrill from travelling at speed.  e.g. swinging on a vine, skateboarding down a hill, jumping from a height.

3️⃣ Dangerous tools 

Play that involves children handing tools that are sharp, hard or considered dangerous for young children.  This can include natural objects like sticks and stones as well as other objects like saws, hammers, screwdrivers etc

4️⃣ Dangerous elements

Play in or around elements that pose danger. e.g. playing near fire or a deep body of water.

5️⃣ Rough and tumble

When children engage in play with others through chasing, catching, bodily contact or wrestling.

6️⃣ Disappearing or getting lost

Play that could potentially risk a child getting lost.  e.g. hide and seek, playing in an unsupervised area.

Benefits of risky play

While all of this sounds frightening to us adults, especially when children choose to combine two or more of the risky play categories together! Engaging in risk-taking, however is so important for healthy development in children.

Risky play:
✅ gives children a sense of mastery and accomplishment after tackling a tough task.
✅ offers children opportunities to observe the environment and make adaptations accordingly.
 ✅ gives them the confidence to try new things.
✅ helps children understand the consequences of their actions.
✅ provides them the opportunity to determine their own ability in tackling a task.
✅ allows them to learn through their own experience.
✅ empowers children to challenge themselves.
✅ gives them a chance to learn boundaries and make sound judgments.

This doesn’t mean we should let children run wild. It just means allowing them the freedom and opportunity to take small calculated risks in everyday life. It starts with jumping, running, climbing, rolling, skipping, tumbling, rough-housing, reaching, exploring, building, creating, experimenting, and supporting them to figure things out for themselves.

Language to help support risky play

Anxious words make anxious children.  As parents and teachers when children engage in risky play, the words that often instinctively come out of our mouths are “Be careful. Don’t climb too high. You will fall or you will hurt someone”.  Even though well intended, this language often leads to hesitation, second guessing, lapses in concentration, self-doubt, anxiety and ironically a higher chance of getting hurt.

Positive words and careful questioning, however, give children confidence and empowerment in making decisions regarding their own ability.

Before interrupting their play, try to observe your child first. You might be surprised by their ability to safely assess the situation and formulate a suitable plan on their own. If you do have concerns, you can gently scaffold their play with some of the following questions or phrases:

“What’s your plan here?”

Do you feel safe?

I trust that you can make the right decision”

Does that branch feel secure?

How high do you plan to go?

Is there anything here you need to watch out for?

“It’s ok, take your time”

Children who are supported in taking risks during play often end up being brave learners when they enter school. They aren’t afraid to try new things or think outside the box!


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