After months and months of puffy coats, clunky boots, and mitten battles, it seems as if spring is finally showing its lovely face. Take one look at any park in town on a sunny day and you’ll find blissful children shedding their layers as they rediscover their favorite outdoor games. This season also brings the reemergence of scraped knees, bumped heads, and the periodic wails of fallen children as they test their own limits on playground equipment. Equally prevalent are the shouts of parents and caregivers as they watch: “Be careful!” “That’s too high!” “Don’t run!” Although these precautions are coming from a place of love, is it possible that we’re overdoing it?
Risky play in childhood is thrilling and just plain old fun. Children are naturally excited by testing their limits and discovering what they are physically and mentally capable of. As adults, we understand this type of thinking and thrive on it in our personal and professional lives. Going skydiving, accepting a higher powered position at work, or even trying a new class are all “risky” situations because they push us out of our comfort zones and make us work hard to prove ourselves. And think of the sense of pride and accomplishment we have when we’re able to thrive in this new environment. Children have these same feelings when they “conquer” a new piece of playground equipment!
“So I should just let my child play with dangerous things and watch them get hurt exploring them?” It sounds completely outrageous and, in a way, it is. An important distinction to make here is the difference between risky play and play that is actually hazardous. Clearly, I am not advocating for children to play with rusty nails, shards of glass, or unsafe, broken equipment of any kind! Nor am I suggesting we put our kids in dangerous, inappropriate situations that they’re unprepared to face. Risky play is different. A risk is a challenge; a potential for success or failure. A risk is exploring individual capabilities and pushing our own physical or cognitive boundaries. Playing with sharp, rusty nails does not fit into this category. Some researchers in this field sometimes use the phrase “adventure play” instead of “risky play” because the word “risky” conjures a sense of real danger, which is not the intended meaning.
Risky play builds confidence and resilience in children, as well as teaches them about consequences, creative problem solving, and risk-assessment. These skills are often developed through physical play but are then translated to the classroom, social situations, and eventually to work and family life in adulthood. A child who learns about failure, perseverance, and success in a natural play environment is more likely to raise his or her hand in the classroom or try a challenging math problem without fear of failure.
As adults, it’s hard to see our children upset. We want to shield them from any possible hurt for as long as possible. Naturally, it’s a challenge for us to watch our children engage in activities that we know can or will end in failure. But by telling them to stop before they fail, we’re depriving them of the experience of getting back up and trying again and learning from their past mistakes. Risky play is actually more difficult for parents than it is for children!
So how do we help them? As with many day to day activities, we help best by modeling risk-taking behaviors in our own lives and using self-talk to allow our children into our thought process. For example: “Wow that box is so high up in the closet! I better make sure the ladder is steady before I climb up.” We can also show them that we trust their growing risk-assessment abilities by allowing them to fail, get back up, and try again in a different way without stepping in to save the day.
As I watch my daughter climb the stairs and seat herself on the top of the slide, I want to tell her a million things. “Be careful on the stairs!” “Hold on to the sides!” “Two feet in front of you!” My goal this is spring is to let her challenge herself, trust her to figure it out on her own, and be there to celebrate her success when she eventually does it!
Risky Play Prepares Kids for Life by Adrian Voce https://www.theguardian.com/society/2008/aug/06/children.play
Adventure: The Value of Risk in Children’s Play by Joan Almon http://www.allianceforchildhood.org/sites/allianceforchildhood.org/files/file/Risk_Intro_website.pdf
Challenge and Risk in Children’s Play: Is It Worth the Risk? https://www.earlylearningservices.com.au/2016/10/26/challenge-risk-childrens-play/
Risky Play: Why Children Love It and Need It by Peter Gray Ph.D. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/freedom-learn/201404/risky-play-why-children-love-it-and-need-it
Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children by Sara Zaske
Kristen Cronheim is a contributing writer for the Little Bee Learning Studio blog. She holds a BS from Cornell University in Human Development and a Masters in Early Childhood Education from Hofstra University. Kristen taught both PreK and Kindergarten for 5 years and created curricula devoted to play-based learning. She lives in Hoboken with her husband and daughter.