Risky play is an important part of toddler development, but many parents and even educators are not sure what risky play is or why it is beneficial to children. If they do know what it is they are often hesitant to let their children or students participate in it.
We will get to what exactly risky play is in just a moment, but first let’s just take a moment to acknowledge that everyday life is FULL of risks, and having the confidence to navigate and lessen risks is an essential part of growing up.
So what is risky play? Risky play is an exciting and thrilling activity that involves a risk of physical injury. Play that provides toddlers with an opportunity to test their limits, explore their boundaries, and challenge themselves are also considered risky play.
Some examples of risky play include climbing trees, play fighting, imaginary weapons play, chase, swings, and sliding are all different types of risky play.
Types of Risky Play
There are six different types of risky play, and they are:
- Playing at great heights: climbing a tree, or monkey bars at the playground, or jumping down from a great height.
- Playing at high speeds: riding a bicycle at high speeds, running down a steep hill, playing on a zip line, or swinging at the playground.
- Playing near dangerous elements: playing near a fire, playing near water, playing near a cliff or great height.
- Rough and Tumble Play: This type of play requires managing the balance between playful contact and actual fighting. Some examples include play fighting, play wrestling, or play fighting with sticks.
- Playing with dangerous tools: hammers to pound in a nail, hand saw to cut wood or sticks, or a pocket knife to whittle a stick. While there is a danger of personal injury, children learn to concentrate to lessen the risk. For toddlers, it might be playing with a child-safe mallet to pound wooden pegs into holes.
- Play with the possibility of getting lost: for toddlers, this simply means allowing them to explore space on their own, or simply playing hide and seek.
What Are The Benefits?
The benefits of risky play for toddlers are numerous and include increased physical activity, improved resilience, increased self-confidence, social skills, and better risk management skills. Risky play also encourages creativity and independence, teaches them their own limits, and encourages them to try again when they fail. Risky play teaches toddlers how to understand and respect their environment, helps them to cope with stressful environments (self-regulation), and improves motor skills and body awareness.
Why are parents and teachers so reluctant to allow their children or students to engage in risky play activities? Over the years “helicopter” parenting has become more of an issue and the parent’s desire to keep their child safe all of the time has prevented them from allowing any type of behaviour that might be considered even slightly risky.
Think about it, how many times have you gone to the playground with your child and said “don’t do that”, “be careful” or physically picked them up and “rescued” them from whatever play activity they were participating in? What message does that send to your child? Well, it sends several messages to your child including that they aren’t capable of performing a task on their own, that you don’t trust them to make their own decisions, and that you can and will “save” them from all uncomfortable situations. Is that the message that you want your kid to receive? Probably not. Just the name “risky play” can raise anxiety levels in parents, and children can sense that anxiety. Allowing your child to participate in risky play activities does not mean that you are putting your child in harm’s way.
How To Use Risky Play Safely
What risky play looks like from a parent or caregiver’s perspective:
Being physically close enough to your child to step in within seconds if they are in danger of being seriously harmed, or falling, being conscious of your anxiety and attempting not to transfer that to your child, and closely observing your child so that you can monitor their physical capabilities and play choices.
Allowing your child to engage in risky play also means not intervening when you see that your child is struggling, but rather being empathetic “I know that is difficult”, offering suggestions for success “Try reaching for that branch and pull yourself up”, and celebrating their success “Climbing that tree was hard, but you didn’t give up and you made it to the top!”
What risky play looks like from a child’s perspective:
Learning what it feels like to be a little bit nervous to try something new and trying it anyway, learning that sometimes I will fall and get hurt but it’s no big deal, and developing my physical coordination and balance.
Risky play from a child’s perspective also looks like working on my planning skills as I try to figure out how to climb something tall and seeing my parents model encouragement, trust, and empathy, traits that I will carry with me in future interactions.
What risky play is NOT:
Risky play is not letting children do whatever they want with no supervision, being too far away from your child to physically intervene, or letting children put themselves or others in danger of physical harm.
Risky play is not, not stepping in when children are doing something dangerous, encouraging them to do something dangerous or that you know they are too young to do, or ignoring your child altogether while they play.
Risky play in a controlled and supervised environment is an important part of your child’s development. Being allowed to participate in risky play teaches them important life skills like understanding that actions have consequences, resourcefulness, problem-solving, and creativity. Do you encourage your children to participate in risky play activities?