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How parents can support young children’s risky play

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Risk is a natural part of growing up and being human, and risky play provides children with opportunities to experiment, explore and challenge themselves, often in natural environments.

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It’s the job of parents to raise, nourish and nurture our children, but while we’re busy protecting our little ones from serious injuries and educating them about possible dangers, it’s also important to give them room to spread their wings.

There’s much to be gained when children get out of their comfort zone, embrace their growing independence and experience cause and effect first-hand; and although there may be some bumps along the way, many parents feel that the benefits of risky play outweigh the potential risk of harm.

Around the world, there has been a rise in the popularity of forest schools, where under fives are given opportunities to wield whittling knives, light fires and play in all kinds of weather. And close to home, lots of parents are encouraging youngsters to climb higher, spin faster and launch into risky endeavours for the good of their mental and physical development.

Here we look at the benefits of risky play in early childhood, and see how parents and care-givers can support under fives in taking calculated risks.

What is meant by ‘risky play’?

Risk is a natural part of growing up and being human, and risky play provides children with opportunities to experiment, explore and challenge themselves, often in natural environments.

According to a Norwegian study, risky play can be split into six categories:

  1. Play at great heights, e.g. climbing trees or playground equipment;
  2. Play with high speed, e.g. swinging fast or riding down a big hill on a scooter;
  3. Play with dangerous tools, e.g. cutting with knives or using tools for carpentry, under a high level of supervision;
  4. Play with dangerous elements, e.g. lighting fires or playing with bodies of water;
  5. Play rough and tumble, e.g. children wrestling/playing with impact or slamming into crash mats; and
  6. Lost/disappear play, where children feel like they’re not being watched, even though adults are surreptitiously supervising them, e.g. children hiding in bushes or in cubbies made of sheets.

Risky play taps into the idea that children are ‘innate risk-based learners who need to experience risk to know how to manage it,’ and this kind of play is empowering, educational and enjoyable for youngsters.  

What are the benefits of risky play?

Provided that children are supervised and supported, risky play opens up many opportunities for under fives to learn life skills. 

Early Learning Services says that risky play helps children to:

  • Build resilience and persistence;
  • Develop balance and coordination;
  • Gain awareness of their physical capabilities and limits;
  • Handle tools safely and with purpose;
  • Understand the consequences of actions;
  • Gain confidence and independence;
  • Become more resourceful;
  • Think creatively and inventively;
  • Solve problems; and
  • Be curious.

Risky play can also help children learn how to persevere, share, support their peers, overcome fears, learn new skills and have lots of fun along the way.

How can you help your child take risks?

With all these benefits, it’s definitely worth educating your own child about risk and encouraging them to challenge themselves when the time is right.

To help you do this, experts from the University of Newcastle recommend that you:

1. Have a real conversation with your child, instead of just giving them instructions

They say children are much more likely to attempt risky play if grown-ups talk to them about planning for, and taking, risks:

  • This means that instead of just telling your child to ‘be careful’, you should help them question what they’re doing and why.

    You might say, ‘That knife is very sharp. It could cut you and you might bleed. Only hold it by the handle and cut down towards the chopping board.’
  • It’s also important to give your child ‘praise with meaning’ when they handle a risky situation well.

    For example, ‘You cut the cake thinking about how you held the knife, and didn’t slip or cut yourself. Well done!’
  • Remember to ask for your child’s thoughts about what might happen if they use unsafe practices (such as holding the knife incorrectly) or what safety measures they could use to avoid injury.

2. Focus on introducing risk gradually

Instead of throwing your child in the deep end, it’s recommended that you slowly increase levels of difficulty when letting your child try new things.

This could mean starting them with a plastic butter knife and slowly moving up to a sharp metal one, or introducing your child to fire over many months, beginning with supervised tea lights at meal times and leading up to a large open fire pit when you go camping.

3. Assume your child is competent – whether they’re a boy or girl

Gender bias around risky play can happen without parents or care-givers even realising they’re doing it, so whether you have boy or girl (or both), think about whether you’re:

  • Allowing your son to be more independent than your daughter?
  • Assuming boys are more risk competent or girls are more risk adverse?
  • Saying different things to boys and girls?
  • Dressing your daughter in clothes that limit their freedom to climb?

It’s important that girls are challenged and invited to participate in risky play as often as boys, rather than assuming that girls don’t want to take as many risks.

4. Find a good balance between supervision and freedom

Like adults, children don’t always want to be supervised! To give them a sense of freedom and autonomy, the experts recommend that you look for opportunities that involve your child feeling like they’re playing independently, alone or out of sight, while you remain close-by.

Lost/disappear play allows for this, and you can watch out of the corner of your eye as your child hides in a homemade cubby or natural environment.

5. Talk about risk at times that don’t directly involve risk

It’s also recommended that you discuss safe and unsafe situations as you go about your normal lives, and encourage your child to notice these situations as well (e.g. you could talk about the risks associated with crossing the road when you’re walking to the playground together).

This gets your child thinking about ways to stay safe before they’re actually in the risky, stressful situation (e.g. when they learning how to cross the road alone).

If something goes wrong when your child engages in risk (e.g. they hurt themselves), it’s a good idea to let the dust settle and then ask why they think the accident happened and how they could prevent it next time.

What research has been done into risky play in the early learning environment?

The parenting advice above came out of a research partnership between Adamstown Community Early Learning and Preschool and the University of Newcastle, which investigated whether educators can significantly help children develop risk competence by promoting safe risk-taking.

This research involved educators prompting under fives to engage in risk, and using an intentional teaching approach to see the impact this had on the children’s perception, assessment and management of risk.

In practice, this meant that educators talked about risk with their toddlers and preschoolers, asked prompting questions, and helped the children assess what might happen if they took the risk.

They collected data based on the six risky play categories, and after analysing that data and bringing in a six-week ‘change plan’ (which involved things like risky play learning for educators, and extra space and resources for risky play) the researchers concluded that:

  • Children at the service had increased their competence to undertake risky play;
  • They’d increased their language around safety and risk (e.g. children were reminding each other to take off their socks so they wouldn’t slip when climbing); and
  • More girls were undertaking challenges outside.

This research suggests that adults can help youngsters feel better about taking risks, help them judge how risky an activity is, and support them in managing that risk. And whether small children are climbing up trees or whizzing down hills, a bit of risk will set them up for life.

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