The concept of risky play has gained some popularity and traction in Ontario in the past few years, as research has continued to reveal the plethora of benefits it delivers. From increased conflict-resolution skills to a lower obesity rate, parents, educators and policy-makers are all slowly trying to incorporate various levels of risk into children’s active play - but what does it entail?
Broadly, risky play is any play that comes with an element of uncertainty. It provokes children to test their own boundaries, figure out what their bodies and minds are capable of, and come up with solutions to challenges with limited adult intervention. Jumping from heights, using tools, building tall structures, and using speed in active play are some examples of risky play. So why should parents and educators take a risk on risk?
1) Risky play reveals parents’ and educators’ trust in children’s competency, intuition, and ability to master.
When we provide time, space and materials for children to engage in risky play, we show our children that we believe in their capability - and that they should believe in it too. Conversely, when adults step in to “help” a child who did not request it, or purposely reduce opportunities for challenge, difficulty or failure, we are inadvertently communicating to children that we aren’t sure that they can learn, solve, achieve or master. Of course children need our help sometimes (and we’re always close by if they ask!) but nothing compares to the feeling of giving something a shot and finding out you could do it on your own!
2) Risky play poses less risk of injury than passive play.
It has been proven that where children perceive risk, they intuitively approach situations with caution and care; where they perceive safety, they look for opportunities to challenge themselves. In this way, playgrounds with limited opportunities for risk can result in more reckless behaviour than a cautious invitation to engage with more complex materials and equipment. Because risky play encourages children to test their physical boundaries with limited adult direction, it also increases children’s bodily awareness so that they can climb, hang, run and fall with less risk of injury.
3) Provides opportunities for children to learn real-world skills
Risky play inherently involves the use of legitimate materials. When we provide children with real plates and bowls, there is a risk that they may shatter a dish; however, a shattered dish may teach a child that these items are to be handled with care. A plastic dish, which will not break, may invite the child to drop or throw his plate with little consequence. In regard to active play, climbing, cutting, pedalling and balancing are all important life skills that can be honed only when children are given space to practice
Risky play reaps many rewards - increased attention span, better conflict resolution skills, and higher rates of physical literacy - but to be honest, I love risky play because of the confidence it breeds in my students. As an educator, there is no better part of my work than watching a child who has struggled through learning a skill wield it with pride. Nothing is better than that joyful, confident voice: “Look at me! I did it!”
Note: risky environments should not ever expose children to any hazards. Employing risk must have intentional and planned benefits to children, whether that be a mental challenge or learning a new physical skill, and should never entail placing a child in a dangerous environment with little supervision. Attentive and engaged educators keeping within safe supervising ratios is always a must.