Think about the last time you were challenged by something or someone. It could be the months of training for a marathon or an interview for a competitive job. You’ve probably thought about giving up or, thought that you couldn’t complete the task. But you did! Think about the feeling of accomplishment, satisfaction, and the confidence boost you got. This is the feeling we deprive children of when we intervene too soon as they engage in riskier activities like climbing a tree.
Engaging in risky play can encourage your child to take risks and learn skills that will stick with them for life. Risky play refers to the thrilling and challenging forms of play that involve a risk of physical injury.1 It provides the following benefits for your child:
- Promotes Physical Health2
Most risky play involves physical activities. This can include climbing trees, playing in the playground, on the beach, or in water. These activities will challenge and strengthen your child’s muscles, bones, lungs, and heart! The more often your child engages in risky play, the more aware they are of the capabilities and limits of their own body.
- Promotes Emotional Health2
Children are capable of assessing and reducing their own risks instinctively. They are overcoming their fears a little bit at a time and trying again when they fail, building resilience and perseverance. You can read more building resilience and perseverance on our Piptree Kids blog here.
When your child moves around a lot and moves quickly, it also trains their vestibular system which can help them regulate their emotions and pay attention in school. Engaging in risky play also allows your child to interact with their peers, practising their social interaction skills! It can also encourage creativity and problem-solving.
5 ways you can help your child take risks at home3
- Have a conversation with your child
A study done by Adamstown Community Early Learning and Preschool found that children are more likely to engage in risky play when adults talk to them about planning for and taking risks.
You can do the same at home with your child! Instead of just saying “be careful” or “don’t do that”, explain what happens if they’re not careful. For example, if they’re using a knife to cut a cake, explain that it is a sharp object and can cut them if they’re not careful. Show them how to handle it safely. You can also use positive reinforcements to explain. If they had cut the cake with the knife by themselves, tell them they did a good job and bring their attention to how they held the knife safely!
When your child understands the risk on their own terms, it can help develop their risk competence. Taking a child-led education approach in this situation is extremely important.
- Introduce risk gradually
Start with smaller risks then gradually work your way up to more risks. As your child conquers each stage, they learn how to assess risk and work their way through the problem.
- Assume all of your children are competent — regardless of gender
The Adamstown study revealed that while adults were not excluding girls from risky play, educators were more likely to challenge and invite participation from boys. As adults, we often hold intrinsic biases that we might not be aware of. It is important that we check ourselves to see if we:
- Allow boys to be more independent
- Assume that girls are not as willing to take risks
- Dressing girls in outfits that might limit their freedom to play
- Saying and explaining the same topics differently to girls and boys.
Social norms are learnt behaviours and we have to be careful about how we talk to our children as it can affect the way they behave and act — whether or not they are willing to take risks.
- Allow your child to have autonomy but still monitor them closely4
Toddlers and pre-schoolers will want and need an adult to support and supervise play. Other children, on the other hand, might feel self-conscious or shy if an adult is too present in their playtime. You can think of their playtime as a child’s world, and you are a guest in it. If they want you to be a part of their play, express enthusiasm, let your child lead the game, and only offer suggestions when asked. If you were not invited to join, sit away from their play area but ensure that you can still see them and will be able to get to them quickly if anything happens.
- Discuss risk at times that don’t directly involve it
When walking together to the shops or driving around in a car, you can talk about the risks involved in crossing roads or walking on a sidewalk. Point out fast cars or point out any other safe or unsafe situations you come across. Encourage your child to notice these things as you go about your daily life.
When it is time to increase their risk and learn a new skill, such as crossing roads on their own, they will be prepared and know what to look out for right away. They will be able to keep themselves safe in a non-stressful situation.
It is also good to get your child to reflect on any fall or other mistake they might have made. Asking them how it happened and what they could do to prevent it from happening again next time will help them understand the risks on their own terms and, again, increase their risk competence.
Assess reward vs risk5
It can be difficult to judge the line between allowing freedom of movement and play choices for your child, and negligence. Here are some questions you can think through:
Think about what the risk to your child is in the worst-case scenario — Could they get a minor injury, like a bruise or a scrape? Could they be slightly uncomfortable in the moment? Could they get dirty?
Assess what the reward for your child could be — Would they conquer the long-time fear they’ve held on to? Would they bond with a peer over a shared exciting experience? Would they learn that getting a minor injury isn’t the end of the world?
Your assessment would be wholly dependent on your child’s age and developmental level, physical abilities, and your own comfort. Trust goes both ways; it begins with letting go of your own desire to control your child’s choices and trust that they are capable of making their own choices. Showing that you have confidence in your child early on will not only strengthen your bond but also increase your child’s confidence.
Child-led risky play
Children learn best through child-led play, and our educators at Piptree make sure that they get plenty of supervised risky play! For example, the Pips children aged 0-15 months at Piptree Heritage Park had a lot of fun in the big yard climbing and building sandcastles with their peers. Head over to our Instagram page to check out more fun social interactive playtimes! You can also check out our blogpost on Nature Play in Early Childhood for some risky play ideas in nature.
- Sandseter, E.B.H. Children’s Risky Play in Early Childhood Education and Care. (Link)
- Holecko, C. Why Kids Need to Take Risks in Life. (Link)
- Newman, L. and Leggett, N. 5 Ways Parents Can Help Their Kids Take Risks — And Why It’s Good for Them. (Link)
- Bright Horizons. How Unstructured Play Can Encourage Healthy Risk-Taking in Children. (Link)
- Ringo, S. The Importance of Risky Play in Early Childhood. (Link)