Risky play in the early years was never something that would come up in conversation for past generations. Now there are researchers actually studying “risky play” and how beneficial it is for a child’s development.
The main reason why people never talked about this kind of play in the past is because when children played freely 15, 20, 30 years ago, their play was naturally risky. Children could be seen climbing trees, crossing streams on fallen logs, moving heavy rocks to build a dam in the stream, etc. Nowadays children’s lives are packed with school and extracurricular activities. When they have some downtime at home it is often filled with video games, TV or texting friends.
Our society now sees the dangers of risky play and all parents want to protect their children, so most don’t encourage this type of play in the little window of free time that children have.
But this kind of play is actually good for all children and their development. Without it children are faced with issues such as obesity, an inability to assess and manage risks, poor motor skills and coordination and an increase in mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.
Sandseter (2007) defines risky play as an activity that can be described as thrilling and exciting. There is a risk of physical injury but there are also opportunities for testing limits and exploring boundaries.
But in order for children to have access to risky play, they must first be given the opportunity to engage in child led unstructured play!
7 Reasons Why Risky Play Should Be Part Of Childhood
It’s Part Of Natural Development
In order to develop, young children must take risks. A baby takes a risk of falling off of a bed when she learns to roll. That same baby is also taking a risk of falling over when she is learning to sit. And again, there is another risk when she learns to walk. She could fall and get hurt. But parents understand these risks and know they must be taken so that their little baby will learn to walk, run and jump. I haven’t seen a parent yet that has put protective clothing on their little one who is learning to roll, sit or walk.
However, once these skills have been achieved (they are a necessary part of becoming a big kid, and later an adult) many parents start getting really protective. I know that I have been guilty of this myself, yelling “don’t run so fast down the hill, you might fall” as my son is trying to catch up to his big sister. But by trying to protect them we are hindering our children’s natural development.
Animal studies have been done that look at the importance of risky play. One that stuck with me involved rats being deprived of play. Apparently these rats grew up to be emotionally crippled. When these rats were placed in a new environment they often reacted with fear and did not explore the way a rat should. If you want to know more about this study and others like it, click here.
Facilitates the Development of Risk Assessment
Through outdoor play that involves some risks, children will learn to assess those risks. We (Western society in particular) do not give our children the credit they deserve. Always sheltering children and directing their every move doesn’t really help them to develop and grow. Risk assessment is something that children need to learn by doing. If a child never falls it will be very hard for him to assess situations where falling may be a risk.
Helps Kids Learn About Setting Limits
Nowadays parents and teachers set limits for children. Children do little of this themselves. However, the opposite also exists. When it comes to free play, limits are set for children because the adults around them want to keep them safe. However, children involved in organized sports are often pushed beyond their limits. Especially when they are participating at a more competitive level. Some children may not be ready for the risks involved in competitive sports and may be told to continue to play despite an injury. Obviously this can cause more harm than good.
Children know their limits and through risky play they can work within those limits. But without the opportunity for this kind of play, children lose out.
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Teaches Children More About Their Environment
With cities continually expanding and more and more concrete taking over, it is becoming increasingly difficult for children to learn about their environment. For a family living in a high-rise building in a large city center it is not feasible to send young children outside unsupervised to “explore”. In these situations, parents will need to take their children to a more “safe” place such as a local park. However, once there, let your child roam and explore. Many urban centers are beginning to incorporate “playscapes” or natural playgrounds into areas where there are many children.
Natural playgrounds allow children to use their imaginations as the space uses as little man made components as possible.
Boosts Cognitive Skills
Researchers out of Florida (Ross G. Alloway, Tracy Packiam Alloway. 2015) have found that when we are participating in activities that involve balance (such as climbing a tree, balancing on a log to cross a stream, etc.) we can actually increase our cognitive skills!
Ross et. al. found that when people spent 2 hours participating in an activity that involved balance, their working memory improved! Having a working memory that is functioning at optimal capacity means that it is easier to follow directions, especially in the presence of distractions.
Provides Opportunities For Success and Failure
Not all children will want to engage in risky play (but, most do to some extent) as some children are more reserved than others. While one child may climb a tree like a little monkey another will sit back and watch. But after watching several children doing something that looks pretty exciting, the more reserved child will often choose to join in.
During risky play children can test their own boundaries. They will have both successes and failures. Not every child will be an expert tree climber despite trying several times. But children need to be given the opportunities to figure this out for themselves rather than having an adult say “don’t climb that tree, you could fall and hurt yourself”.
Builds Motor Skills
By engaging in this type of play children strengthen their gross motor skills, balance, body awareness (spatial awareness) and coordination. Children who do not have access to play where these skills are both tested and reinforced, often are more clumsy, lack balance and coordination and fear situations where they have to make on the spot decisions to prevent a potential injury.
Is It Possible To Encourage Risky Play In Today’s Society
As I mentioned throughout the article, it is definitely more difficult nowadays for children to engage in this type of play. The media has made parents fearful when in fact most places are safer now than they have ever been.
Teachers are afraid of how a parent will react if their child gets hurt at school so there are often many rules about how a child can and cannot play at school.
And on top of that we live in a society that is plugged in 24/7. Everyone is in everyone else’s business. Parents are now afraid to let their children play unsupervised in their own fenced in backyards for fear of a nosy neighbor calling the police.
Because of these and other factors we now have to look for opportunities in which our children can participate in the type of play that is crucial to their development. When parents or caregivers are constantly hovering, children will not take the risks that they may take if an adult were not within arms reach.
So make an effort to take your child to the local park, but sit back and observe. Encourage them to try things on their own. Go for a hike and let the kids run ahead of you. Let your kids ride their bikes to the park without fearing that a car will back into them. Talk to your children about road safety. While they are young walk behind them as they ride ahead of you.
Risky play is as important in a child’s life as is having access to the latest and greatest STEM Toys!
Risky play in the early years is nearing extinction, but if that is the case what will happen to the development of children?
http://www.earlychildhoodaustralia.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/AJEC0802.pdf (p. 33)