The Benefits and Challenges of (Reasonably) Risky Play

Before we dive in, let me be clear that I’m talking about the kind of risky play that falls under the umbrella of holding onto a bar upside down or running down a hill too fast or jumping off a swing. Not the skydiving kind! Reasonably risky play is thrilling and exciting and full of uncertainty too.

Now that we’re clear on that, let’s get the challenges out of the way too. The bad news here is that it’s us. WE are the the main challenge to risky play. It is SO hard to watch those little people we love so dearly do something that might cause hurt. So. Very. Hard. As a teacher, I can promise you that it’s equally hard (and possibly even harder!) to watch someone else’s child do something risky when they’re in your care. There’s always the chance a child might end up with a scrape or bruise, or an even smaller but worse chance they’ll end up with stitches or a broken bone….eek.

So now that we understand the main challenge to risky play, time to delve into the benefits. Believe it or not, RISKY PLAY IS HOW CHILDREN LEARN TO KEEP THEMSELVES SAFE. When they jump off of a swing and scrape their leg, they learn not to do it again…or at least not to do it from so high up. But when we tell them not to jump without first letting them try, we’re either setting ourselves up for a power struggle or sending the message that we don’t think they can handle it. And over time all those little messages add up. And all those missed opportunities to learn from their mistakes add up too. And they result in less confident kids, who also can’t jump safely off a swing.

Through risky play children learn balance (yes, you might fall off the tree stump and get your shoes muddy) and coordination (how do I get all the way to the top of the structure). They also learn what their little bodies can handle. Sometimes the only way to figure out whether you can climb all the way up is to give it a try. They learn how to assess and judge situations ahead of time (hmm…what might happen if we cartwheel too close together) and whether or not something is a good idea (that hill is way too steep for me). And possibly most important of all, through risky play children grow their sense of independence and feelings confidence in themselves and their abilities. Children discover they can manage their own fears and overcome them too.

Did you know studies have proved that preventing risky play backfires because not only do our children miss valuable opportunities for learning to keep themselves safe, but they become more scared of doing things in the future. It’s not the kid who’s climbed a tree and fell that is most likely to grow up with a phobia of climbing trees…rather, it’s the kid who never tried.

So even though every single motherly and teacherly instinct in me is literally dying to shout from the rooftops “BE CAREFULLLLLLl!” as kids run too fast or jump from too high or cartwheel too closely, I will do my best to resist the urge (at least 2 out of every 3 times, because hey, no one is perfect 🙂 Let’s all work together to bite our tongues and give kids the space they deserve to figure things out for themselves.

In the end, it will keep them a lot safer.


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