Nurturing safe and independent children through (appropriately) risky outdoor play.
From the moment little learners begin to walk, their exploring abilities grow in surprising ways. Which means their little hands and minds go everywhere. To keep them safe, we train ourselves to always keep an eye on what children do: Are their hands safe from electric outlets? Did we get rid of all choking hazards? Is someone making sure the toddler doesn’t wander off?
But according to research on how children play and learn, sometimes care takers go too far with safety. Living by “as safe as possible” instead of “as safe as necessary” can have some profound effects on how children learn. Additionally, putting too many restrictions on risky play could set back or even delay a child’s development.
Play is how a child learns.
You know play is essential to child development. Through play, little learners are able to explore their world and learn how it works. And children have many ways to play: physical play, sensory and fine-motor play, symbolic play, dramatic play and games with rules.
How children play is equally important. Scientists agree that letting children engage in “free play” or play with no structure, led by the child is how little learners can develop interests, learn how to make decisions, solve problems, regulate their emotions and learn about relationships.
What is risky play?
Risky play is physical activity that is thrilling and exciting — and where there is a risk of physical injury. Risky play can include: heights, speed, dangerous tools or near dangerous elements (like falling into something), touch and tumble, and disappearing or getting lost.
As a parent or caretaker, your mind is probably imagining worst-case scenarios. But think of this: when a child climbs up a playground slide and reaches the bottom again, it is a great achievement that involved a lot of risk taking on the behalf of the child.
Ok, play is important. But why should children take risks?
Keeping children safe is essential to their health and well-being. However, prioritizing safety above all else can keep children from having important experiences for their development:
- Children can learn the limits of their strength.
- They can also test their physical abilities.
- It teaches them to avoid and adjust to dangerous environments and activities.
- Children become apt at managing their own risks.
- They also become able to identify risk in others, which makes them a better playmate.
- Little learners develop their ability to cope with fear-inducing situations.
- Taking risks allows them to display courage and physical skills to themselves and their peers.
Too many limitations on how children play can be bad for their health and well-being.
Parents and caretakers can make a big difference in how little learners play. And while many grownups do not intentionally limit how children play, recent reports show that children spend most of their time in three main ways: indoors, in organized activities like sports or music, or with screens like computer tablets and phones. Which means that they aren’t outside all that much.
According to the Changes in American children’s time report, not enough time outdoors or limiting risky play can affect a child’s well-being: children who do not engage in risky play are more likely to struggle with obesity and mental health, as well as lack of independence. Research also indicates the importance of free play as an antidote to childhood obesity and as a way to increase daily physical activity.
How can families create a balance between safety and a healthy amount of risky play?
The first step is to learn about what different risks help children explore. Ellen Sandseter, a professor at Queen Maud University in Trondheim, Norway, has identified six categories of risks that seem to attract children everywhere in their play. These are the things that children seek out.
High heights: Climbing trees or other structures lets little learners gain a birds-eye view of the world and the thrilling feeling of “I did it!”
Rapid speeds: Swinging on vines, ropes or playground swings. Sliding on sleds, skis, skates or playground slides. Riding bikes, skateboards or other devices fast enough to produce the thrill of almost losing control.
Dangerous tools: Depending on the culture, dangerous tools can involve playing with knives, bows and arrows, farm machinery or other tools. Children feel great satisfaction in being trusted to handle such tools, but there is also a sense of accomplishment in controlling them.
Dangerous elements: Children love playing with fire or in and around deep bodies of water — either of which can pose danger. Playing with sticks is also considered a dangerous element by many.
Rough and tumble: Children all over the globe chase one another around and fight playfully. Kids nearly always prefer being in the most vulnerable position: the one being chased or the one underneath in wrestling, which involves the most risk of being hurt and requires the most skill to overcome.
Disappearing or getting lost: When playing hide-and-seek, children experience the thrill of temporary separation from their companions.
Letting children take risks pays off.
While outdoor and free play that involves risk can have a great impact in your child’s learning experiences, it is important that children are not forced or coerced into risky play. The purpose of risky play is for children to learn about their own abilities, limits and to become independent. All of these are great skills that will help your child every day for the rest of their life.
There are simple ways to safely apply these ideas.
- Asking “Do you feel safe?” instead of saying “Be careful!” is an easy way to let your little risk taker know that you have their back without inciting fear.
- When your child takes a tumble, remain calm. If it is not serious, they’ll be able to learn for themselves how to self-manage pain and risk. And if it is serious, you’ll be able to take charge of the situation without additional fear.
- If a child is taking a high risk, like climbing too high or going too fast, describe to them what they’re doing and show you are present: “You are climbing very high,” “That’s very fast,” or “I see you are being very careful!“
- Instead of following your child to keep a close watch, stay nearby and allow them to explore.
- Find a family-friendly park — many parks have play areas where children can explore risk in safe environments.
- Let them fail — failure is one of the best teachers!
- If they get stuck, talk them through the process of getting unstuck and help them develop trust in their instincts.
Do you have tips for helping little ones manage risk? Share them in the comments!
People who enjoyed this post also enjoyed the following posts:
Brussoni, Mariana et al. “Risky play and children’s safety: balancing priorities for optimal child development.” International journal of environmental research and public health vol. 9,9 3134-48. 30 August, 2012.
Fortunato, Annie. “The Do’s and Don’ts of Risky Play,” Hike It Baby. September 10,2018
“U.S. Study Shows Widening Disconnect with Nature, and Potential Solutions,” Yale Environment 360, Published at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. April 27, 2017
Hofferth SL. “Changes in American children’s time – 1997 to 2003,” Electron Int J Time Use Res. 2009 Jan 1; 6(1):26-47.