I believe that all children should be allowed to play with some risk. It can be slightly scary for parents to let go. For them to let children take that chance and possibly get hurt. But the benefits of risky play are so worth it.
What is Risky Play?
Risky play is exciting and thrilling play that involves the possible risk of injury. It has been studied and proven that risky play is very beneficial for children.
Risky Play Then vs Now
Think back to some of your favourite memories as a child. There’s a good chance that you were playing somewhere outside unsupervised. There is probably also a good possibility of someone getting hurt.
I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s and we had a lot more freedom to go off and play with the other neighbourhood kids, unsupervised, compared to kids these days.
Children these days don’t have that same opportunities that we did. They are so over protected. Everything has to change as soon as someone gets hurt, so no one else can get hurt. But that also means that no one else can take a try, and be successful.
Think of children’s playgrounds. Most playgrounds used to have a big metal slide, a tire swing, and a merry go round. As children got hurt from those things more and more playgrounds were renovated and those risky parts were removed.
Kids should be given the freedom to play how they want to, without constantly being restricted by adult fears.
Why is Risky Play Important for Kids?
Through risky play children develop things like their balance and coordination to climb higher, jump further, and run faster. They are able to overcome their own fears and feeling out of control. They build resilience and persistence, while understanding the consequences of their actions.
Children learn to problem solving and get themselves out of trouble (by them self or with others). Through testing limits they learn their own, and the environment’s, boundaries so they can assess and make judgement about risk.
What are the Benefits of Risky Play?
Risk Assessment Skills
Children learn to judge for themselves what they are capable of and what they are not. If they never have a chance to fail then how can they learn to judge what the risk is of a new activity?
When a child always has someone standing over them and protecting them from every little slip or fall they do not learn to see the risks. If you were to take that child to a playground, without their parent standing over them, the child may end up getting more hurt as they do not understand the real risks. The child assumes someone will always be there to stop them from failure (i.e. getting hurt, slipping etc.).
Learning to Understand the Environment
Risky play is mostly (not always) outdoors. Because of this children are able to learn more and understand consequences of the environment. They learn when it rains logs get slippery, the ground gets muddy, and it creates puddles.
They learn that when the sun is out certain surfaces get hot to the touch. As they explore and play they learn about plants that are growing. Some plants are pokey, some will cause your skin to sting. Some plants we can eat, and some we need to stay far away from.
As they climb trees they learn about putting their feet or hands on sturdy branches. They also learn that the small ones can break. They gain an understanding of viscosity as they throw a handful of wet sand, that stays mostly together, versus a handful of dry sand that goes everywhere and possibly into someone’s eyes.
The Ability to Deal With Failure
Children are bound to fail as they play and push limits. But they have to get up again.
When they continue to try and then succeed they gain the ability to deal with failure. They know they can just keep trying and then they will succeed.
Think of children walking along a fallen log. If you make it to the end you succeed. If you slip or fall you fail. But they don’t give up just because they slipped once. They accept that they fell and they get back up and try again until they succeed. Or they realize that maybe it is slightly beyond their developmental level and they stop trying.
With the ability to deal with failure they also learn to recognize in what areas they could improve. There is always one step higher to jump from. There is always one tree that’s taller than the one they climbed. It pushes them to accept the failure and keep trying.
Self-Esteem + Mental Health
Risky play benefits children’s self-esteem because they are able to make their own choices. When children make their own choices they naturally learn what they are capable of. It increases their physical competency, their ability to learn what they can do.
Most children won’t take risks they don’t feel they can complete, when given the chance. As adults, if someone made all our choices for us we would begin to doubt our ability to do anything without help. Our self-conscious would decrease and we would become depressed. Children are no different. It is hard to watch a child take risks but it has lifelong benefits for both their physical and emotional confidence.
Coping With Stress
Children can get into stressful situations when they are exposed to risky play.
If they were running full speed down a hill and were quickly losing control they experience temporary fear and stress. But as they gain their control back and are able to slow down they are able to overcome it. These temporary moments of fear and stress help them to manage those feelings when they are in other situations. This includes times when they are not engaged in play.
Problem Solving and Creativity
Along with risky play come problems. Children have to get creative and problem solve. For example when there are multiple children going along an obstacle course and someone decides to start going the opposite direction of everyone else they need to problem solve. Is everyone going to change direction? Is the one child going the other way going to get off to let the others pass before continuing? Or do they all talk to each other to come up with another solution?
Even when children are alone they still have to problem solve. When climbing along large boulders at the beach and their foot slips getting stuck between two rocks they have to problem solve.
If they just start pulling it may not come loose. They have to be in a somewhat mentally calm state to access the situation and see how they can maneuver their foot to get it free.
Children develop their gross motor skills as they run, jump, climb, balance etc. They can also develop their fine motor skills as they hold a nail while trying to hammer it into the wood.
Social Skills + Communication
Risky play with others teaches children about consent. If children were wrestling they first have to communicate that they want to play by asking the other child.
They learn the meaning of ‘no’ when another child says “no” or “stop.”
If they can learn to listen when another child says no, they can also learn to stand up for themselves and expect the same from others. Children learn very quickly that if they do not listen to their peers when someone says “stop” or that the game is getting too rough, then the fun ends for everyone. They learn to respect each other and to voice how they are feeling.
Form Positive Attitudes
When children engage in risky play there is no definite outcome that they need to achieve. It is however far they want to go; which means there is very rarely the attitude of “I can’t do it.”
If the children are not comfortable doing a specific action then they don’t have to. They can modify it to how they feel comfortable. When children come up with risky play ideas they either go well or they don’t. But because it was all their idea it doesn’t come across as failing. They adjust the game and keep going so that they can succeed which forms positive attitudes about themselves.
Risky play is just that, children taking a risk. There will be bumps and bruises. There will be scrapes and cuts. But when children get hurt while engaging in risky play they mostly get up and keep playing.
If they don’t keep going then the fun ends. This creates resiliency. We all experience success and failure, it’s what pushes us to keep learning and develop a positive attitude.
How Does Taking Risks Help a Child’s Development?
According to the National Children’s Bureau, “All children both need and want to take risks in order to explore limits, venture into new experiences and develop their capacities, from a very young age and from their earliest play experiences. Children would never learn to walk, climb stairs or ride a bicycle unless they were strongly motivated to respond to challenges involving a risk of injury.”
So in other words children would struggle through life if they never took a risk.
Let Go of the Fear
Children can only grow as far as we let them.
What I mean by this is if we, parents/ guardians/ caregivers, set limitations on everything then how will we know what our children are truly capable of?
You could have an amazing gymnast but you continue to set strict rules of not jumping too high, no flips etc. on the trampoline.
It becomes their responsibility if you set out the natural consequences ahead of time (i.e. you could get hurt).
You could have a professional level down hill skier. But you only take your child on the bunny hills and are constantly telling them to slow down, they are going too fast.
It has been estimated “that children would need to spend about three hours per day playing, every day, for 10 years before they were likely to get an injury that needed treatment (and it would likely still be minor).” According to Brittany Toole of CBC.
To ease to your mind Toole states “the likelihood of a child in Canada getting kidnapped is 1 in 14 million.”
So let your children go outside to play. Let them take risks. Let them learn what they are capable of.
How will our children learn if we never let them fail?
Risky Play in Young Children
My son has always loved to climb. At 1 year old he was climbing up and down 6 foot ladders by himself (someone stood with him). As he would try new heights or a new obstacle someone was always there with him just in case, but not touching him. I would let him slip and fall (if it wasn’t too serious) and let him experience natural consequences, while still being somewhat safe.
My son has a little climber with a slide and a 3 foot climbing wall with handles that stick out. One day he was attempting to go from behind the climber (not specifically meant for climbing), up to the top of the wall, and then along the top and down on to the platform with the steering wheel.
The first couple attempts he would get stuck on where to put his hands and feet. He would stop and ask for help. I got him down and he just went right back and started again and then asked for help.
I was not about to keep doing it for him so, I talked him through it. “I’m not going to do it for you, you can do this. You need to move your hands up higher before you step up.” He would look at his hands and his feet and where there was space to put them and figure it out. I never once touched his body to help him climb over.
Once he figured it out he spent over an hour just going in a circle. Up the wall, across the top, onto the platform, down the steps, and back to climb the wall.
Let Them Show You How Capable They Are
My son was still climbing when my husband came home. He casually freaked out about our son climbing while I was sitting in the sun watching him climb. He asked why I wasn’t helping him and “What if he falls?” I told him he was fine and he could do it.
My husband cautiously held him while “helping” him put his hands and feet where he thought they should go. Our son fell to the side and my husband caught him. I asked him to step away and told my son he could try again and daddy won’t help this time. He went right back and did his thing, climbed all the way up and over without coming close to falling or losing his balance.
How Can Parents Aid in Risky Play?
My son knew that he had to go slow or he might fall. Just because he had stopped climbing and seems to be stuck doesn’t mean he can’t do it.
Children need more time to process things than adults do. He learned he had to think a couple steps ahead or he would have to go backwards and try it again. Before you speak up and react, try counting to 20. Give children an extra bit of time to show you that they can do it. Ask yourself “am I asking them to stop because of my own fears, or is there a serious danger in what they are doing?”
We need to take a step back and let them show us what they are capable of on their own. Children will not do something if they don’t feel they are safe. Our job is to let them explore their own boundaries in a safe way.
If we were to always do it for them they don’t really learn anything, except “someone will always do it for me.” My son now, almost 3, has no fear to go climb rocks, large boulders, or any ladder. And he doesn’t slip or fall.
He is confidently cautious because he was given the freedom to fall and get hurt. But also the freedom to try, learn, go further, to reach the top, to succeed all on his own.
This does not mean that adults who are supervising the risky play should be pushing children to go further than the child is comfortable with, or has already explored. You need to let the children lead the way in how far they are comfortable going.
Types of Risky Play
Playing with Heights
Whether they’re climbing large boulders or fallen logs, climbing a tree or large structure, or simply jumping down off something high, it’s a mix of emotions for most children. It’s super exciting but the fear is still there. Given the choice between jumping off the side walk and jumping off a concrete barrier, most will go for the higher.
It adds to the thrill when there is a risk that you could fall and get hurt. And there is a much higher sense of pride when they accomplish the bigger.
Like all risky play, children need to be introduced to the activity in a safe way. Lay down the rules. Explain what it is and what it is not used for. Teach them how to hold it properly, being careful not to hurt themselves or someone else.
Start off simple. If you child wants to use tools get some wood, small hammer, and a bunch of nails, or if you have large nails, let them hammer them into the ground. Let them practice holding and hammering down the nails. Having an adult there to supervise and allow them to do it themselves not only builds up their confidence but then you will see that they are capable of using those tools safely.
Possibility to Get Lost
This can start out as letting your toddler or preschooler play in a bush where you can’t see into it. They feel as though they are completely by themselves. But, in reality you are close enough to know if they left that bush. As they get older, let them run around the neighbourhood with the other kids. As you give your child more freedom you also have to prepare them for that responsibility.
Teach them about traffic safety, stranger danger, and come up with a boundary around your neighbourhood. “No crossing any busy streets” “only play between home and so-and-so’s house”. Have an idea of where they are planning to go. So that when it’s time to go home you know which area to find them.
I’m thankful as we spend a lot of time at our family farm. My son is allowed to go off and walk where ever. He knows not to touch the electric fence. He knows to stay away from the pond. Don’t go up towards the road. He and his cousins just go off and play, we know the area they are playing but can’t always see them.
Experimenting with Speed
Playing at high speeds is another risky play that gives the thrill of “losing control”. Do you remember running down a hill so fast that you felt like you were going faster than your legs? Riding your bike so fast that trying to slow down might make you fall or crash? Swinging so high that you drop a little? All of these things are full of risk and excitement.
Yes most kids have run so fast that they’ve fallen and scraped up their hands and knees. But that was it, they get fixed up and then go off and do it again.
Playing Near Elements
Playing with, or near, the elements includes deep or rushing water, fire, snow/ ice, and steep terrain/ cliffs. In this sort of risky play facilitation by an adult is necessary.
Children should be taught about how to stay safe around a campfire, when playing or walking near a river, and how to safely navigate either up, down, or around steep terrain.
Rough and Tumble Play
Rough and tumble play includes wrestling, sword fighting with sticks, and play-fighting. Through this play children learn the balance between play and actual fighting. They learn quickly that if they go too hard the play ends as the other person doesn’t want to continue participating. They learn conflict resolution, physical control and coordination, resilience to bounce back after failure, and more.
What is Acceptable Risk in Play?
When children are able to make their own judgment call they are able to decide when they have reached their capability. This is an area that applies to the rule of giving children more control of their own choices.
But, although children should have control over when they are no longer comfortable, it is the adult’s job to teach them about the risks. We know, to an extent, what our children are capable of. But we also need to trust our children when they push themselves that extra little bit.
The National Children’s Bureau wrote Managing risk in play provision to help support those who create and design play spaces. These include “play areas, playgrounds, adventure playgrounds, play centres and holiday playschemes.” As well as “local authorities, voluntary organizations, play equipment manufacturers and inspection agencies.” With more and more studies proving the benefits of risky play the designers of play spaces are trying to include risk into those play spaces while trying to limit the amount of hazards.
So, although I personally haven’t seen these “risky” play areas I am happy to hear that some countries are taking into account the benefits of risky play when designing their play spaces. Hopefully more will follow soon.
What is the Difference Between Risks and Hazards Pertaining to Risky Play?
A risk is the possibility that something bad could happen. A hazard is a ”potential source of harm.” To put this into perspective Canadian Public Health Association uses the example “of tree climbing. The height of the tree climbed provides a risk that can be managed by the child (e.g., the child can decide how high they climb). A potential hazard would be an unidentified rotted tree branch that the child does not yet have the capability to identify.”
Risky Play and Children’s Safety
Although it sounds backwards, it actually makes children safer when given more chances to take risks . They become more aware of their own developmental level and will be able to make developmentally appropriate choices while increasing their physical competency.
When we let them exercise their power of choice we are telling them “I trust you to trust yourself.” Children do not do things to purposely hurt themselves.
When left in charge of their own safety children are more careful than if an adult was always stopping them before they make a mistake. If we stop them before-hand, even though we see their mistake, we have also stopped them from learning and succeeding.
Mistakes help us learn. If you watch as an 18 month old starts climbing on something, they go slow and watch where their hands and feet are going to go. When one foot slips, they slow down and put more thought in to it, and continue climbing, or they get down.
We are subconsciously telling the child “you can’t do it” when an adult steps in every time that one foot slips. As time goes on and there is always an adult stepping in they will give up and cry out for help when they get into those situations.
They are also not learning how to be safe, to not slip the next time. They’ve been told enough times “if you slip or make one mistake then you can’t go any further” rather than encouraging them, “it’s ok, you can do it. Try again.”
Mariana Brussoni, Lise L. Olsen, Ian Pike, and David A. Sleet of the US National Library of Medicine – National Institutes of Health state that “emerging research suggests that imposing too many restrictions on children’s outdoor risky play may be hampering their development. Like safety, play is deemed so critical to child development and their physical and mental health that it is included in Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child”
Unacceptable Risk and Challenge in Children’s Play
There isn’t a specific risk that is considered unacceptable. It varies based on the child’s development and capabilities. What may be acceptable for one child could be completely unacceptable for another, even if they were to be the same age.
What is unacceptable is pushing kids past what they are capable of (its different to push them slightly past what they find comfortable). When we push children past their developmental level we are pushing them to fail. We need to set children up for success so they continue to develop and become more confident. Thus, being safer and making safer choices on their own.
What Happens if Children are not Exposed to Risky Play?
It can affect children later in life if they were not exposed to risky play when they were young. They do not build up the resilience.
Some children grow up being extremely over cautious. They end up being so worried that they may get hurt that they never try. And as they become adults it may prevent them from taking a risk to accept a new job or dropping everything to go on a once in a lifetime trip.
Some may go the opposite way and strive for the adrenaline rush, constantly testing limits and being extremely risky. This can lead to a life of drinking, taking risks with drug use, or taking big risks in unsafe environments, just to prove themselves.
Whether children are given the chance to explore simple risks as young children, or not, it affects them for the rest of their lives, good or bad.
We need to let kids be kids and let go of our own fears. Yes there will be injuries. Yes, they may get carried away, and possibly get into some trouble. But how are we preparing our children for the real world when we don’t let them experience those “failures”. Caregivers will not be by their side 24/7 for the rest of their lives and the best way to help them is by giving them the freedom and teaching them how to not abuse that freedom.