Taking a Risk on Risky Play
In our “Risky Play” series Angela from @lilzoeplays, Tiffany from @inspire.learn.teach and Elise from @the.girl.named.max give great insight into understanding and embracing risky play. Here is the long awaiting blog! A great reference to come back to time and time again.
As a parent it’s natural, perhaps even instinctual to want to protect our children from the risks of the world. Keeping our children healthy and safe is our number one priority, right? It’s this instinct that makes it easy for us to jump in and stop children when they are playing in a way that we see as ‘too risky’. Maybe they climbed a little too high or ran a little too fast for our own comfort zone. But could our fierce desire to keep our children safe be doing them more harm than good?
Although it can be hard, allowing our children to participate in risky play is something we can't avoid forever and is best facilitated right from the beginning of life!
However, toeing the line of keeping our little ones safe, protected and loved, and providing space for them to fall, learn on their own and try new things is a difficult one. How do we know when to intervene, when to say ‘stop’, or when to let go? It’s hard, right? Let’s jump right in and discuss what we can do as parents to manage our own anxieties and how you can confidently offer safe risks right from the start.
What is risk?
Risk, in terms of play, can be broken down into one of two things:
- a challenge; or
- a hazard.
Hazards are those things that have the potential to seriously injure our child and are defined by the child not yet being able to recognise this danger for themselves (Canadian Public Health Association, 2016). This is not what this blog is about!
A challenge can be risky, as it has potential for an injury but offers children experiences in which they can develop life skills, learn about their bodies and build strength, dexterity and coordination, and learn to conquer their fears and build their self-esteem.
There are 6 key types of risky play:
- Great heights
- High speed
- Harmful tools
- Near dangerous elements
- Rough-and-tumble play; and
- Play where the children can 'disappear' / get lost.
Firstly we should highlight that risky play is crucial for healthy growth and development. It is within risky play that children learn about their body and what it can and can’t do. They also learn about the world and what is safe and unsafe about it. It is only with ‘experience’ that we truly understand how to be safe, and what better way to experience it than in play?
There are also many other benefits, including:
- Building resilience and persistence.
- Balance and coordination.
- Awareness of the capabilities and limits of their own bodies.
- The ability to assess and make judgement about risk.
- Handling tools safely and with purpose.
- Understanding consequence to action.
But seriously, what if they fall?
Well the truth is, they probably will. You see, accidents happen all the time, but did you know they are more likely to occur when a child is doing something that they are already comfortable with? For example, walking through the living room daydreaming or while riding their bike down a familiar street. It is in the mundane that we switch into autopilot and often make mistakes leading to injury.
When children are engaged in risky play they are more likely to be thinking about the challenge that lays before them, their brain is busy assessing the risks, problem solving and making a plan reducing the risk of making a mistake and injuring themselves. But mistakes happen and what comes with that is the occasional fall or scraped knee (remember to always follow any safety instructions provided).
Young children are designed to learn from falling down.Teacher Tom’s blog post ‘The right number of bloody owies’, makes excellent points. Children heal very quickly.
They are designed to fall down and get right back up again (literally and metaphorically), and this is where the real learning happens.
So what now?
As parents, the best thing we can do is provide a safe, challenging but predictable environment. Look at and assess the risks, removing or ensuring children avoid any hazards. RIE (Resources of Infant Educators) which is aimed at infants to 3 years, wholeheartedly supports this notion. They encourage us to trust in our children’s capabilities, spend more time observing them and less time intervening and offering lots of opportunities to freely explore well considered environments.
You can begin by offering your baby free floor play from birth. As they grow you can support climbing, moving and balancing on safe structures and exploration of different environments, objects and surfaces. Supervision and spotting them as required.
Other ways children engage in risky play :
- Great heights: climbing small structures (a step or small mound of dirt is enough for young babies) and over time increasing height, angles and difficulty. MOOV baby’s play equipment allows graduated heights staring at floor height – check out the Super Shape Sorter & Shape Sorter Collections for example.
- High speed: swing, slide, running, riding a bike
- Harmful tools: knives, peeler, sticks, saws, drills, hammer.
- Near dangerous elements: Fire & deep water. These should be managed carefully teaching respect and safety at an appropriate age. This play should ALWAYS be supervised closely.
- Rough-and-tumble play: chase, rough and tumble, play fight, imaginary weaponry.
- Play where the children can 'disappear' / get lost: Peekaboo (Try MOOV baby’s Pikler Play Cubes), hide & seek at increasing distance, hiding in dens (throw a rug over a Pikler Triangle).
Note: always supervise closely, and allow only age/stage appropriate use.
Tips for Parents - Be careful of your ‘BE CAREFUL’ !!
Find yourself gasping, or blurting out a thousand “be carefuls”, “no”, “stop”? And they fall on deaf ears?
If your child hears a continuing transcript of ‘be careful’ or ‘stop that’ they will either:
- paralyse in fear
- completely ignore you; or
- give you a puzzled look and not learn what is ACTUALLY dangerous.
When we verbalise our own worry and anxiety they internalise it, and their little fight or flight response gets triggered. This is great if there is a REAL danger, but if they are safe in the moment, constantly telling them to ‘be careful’, can signal ‘the world isn’t safe’ and ‘don’t take risks’. Basically our anxiety becomes their anxiety.
There are always times when you need to act, to move quickly and alert everyone to danger. In particular when there is the potential for real harm or injury. Then you must act.
But if that is not the case, what else can you say? Here are some examples you can try:
- Bringing awareness to your child’s body: ‘I can see you’re really watching your feet’
- Problem solving: ‘There’s a climbing stone in front of you, what can you do?’
- Bringing awareness to your child’s senses: ‘Do you feel how slippery the ramp is?’
- Questioning while noting the specific risk: ‘what is your plan? That is a super steep hill’, or ‘that may be tricky to get down, what is your plan to get down?’
A closing thought ….It is within the riskiest of play that WE have the fondest childhood memories - What is yours?
Please note: always take note of the safety guidance provided, and also take into account your own knowledge of your child.
- Canadian Public Health Association, 2016
- https://www.fatherly.com/health-science/kid-danger-risky-play-helps-kids-develop/ https://earlyimpactlearning.com/examples-of-risky-play-25-ideas/