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The Importance of Risky Play

Amusement, Fraser Valley, Lower Mainland, Okanagan, Vancouver Island
7 min read

Risky play was once a hot topic, now it’s become a norm. Parents, educators, researchers, administrators, and kids all seem to have an opinion on what exactly risky play is and whether or not it has a place in a young child’s life. 

Risky play can be defined as a thrilling and exciting activity that involves a risk of physical injury, and play that provides opportunities for challenge, testing limits, exploring boundaries and learning about injury risk (Sandseter (2007; Little & Wyver, 2008).” But, and I want to be really clear here, it is not about encouraging or promoting injury nor is it about neglect or negligence. In fact, the whole idea is to develop strong, resilient adults that are capable of making safe and confident choices in life. Let me explain.

Risk-taking is an essential part in the healthy physical, social and emotional development of children. Developmental psychologists are linking the importance of play, particularly play that involves some element of age-appropriate risk, to a whole host of positive outcomes including the ability to regulate emotions such as fear and anger, improved gross motor skills, and perhaps most significantly, a decrease in adult mental health issues such as neuroticism and anxiety. (SOURCE) Studies are showing that during critical times of early development children need to learn to manage fear and anger, develop self-protecting behaviours and hone their decision-making skills, in order to develop into healthy and happy adults. It is play that involves age-appropriate risk that gives children the opportunities they need to learn these skills. And this makes sense. If a child is able to learn to manage fearful situations and make the appropriate social and physical decisions then they will be far more confident as adults when faced with difficult or dangerous situations. Ultimately, removing risk only leads to an inability to assess danger.  

Now, as a mom of 3, I know it is an enormous leap between understanding that risky play is important for my child’s development and actually being confident exposing my kids to risk. After all, it seems completely counterintuitive because my job as a parent is to keep them safe. But after much thought, I have come to realize that Risky Play is no different than any of the other difficult parenting topics that we all have to navigate. And similar to talking to your children about sex or drugs or bullying, talking to your kids about risk-taking (in play or in life) involves education, patience, and a whole lot of open communication.

First, I think it’s important to answer the question of “how much risk is too much?”. Vancouver researcher and mom of 2 Mariana Brusonni sums it up best.

“A hazard is something a child does not see. A risk is a challenge a child can see and chooses to undertake or not.”

Mariana Brussoni, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor |Faculty of Medicine | Department of Pediatrics   | School of Population and Public Health
Child & Family Research Institute | BC Injury Research & Prevention Unit
The University of British Columbia |BC Children’s Hospital Site

This means that our primary job as parents is to remove the hazards- not the risks- from our child’s life. Your child may not see a hazard either because it is literally hidden (glass buried in the sandbox) or because they are too young to developmentally see it (a toddler stepping into a pool).  As our children grow and mature, the line between hazard and risk is always changing. For example, a 2-year-old crossing an intersection by themselves is a hazard. But a 12-year-old crossing the same intersection is a risk. The 12-year-old has the cognitive ability to recognize the dangers and make an appropriate plan to manage them. The 2-year-old does not. Once we have removed the hazards then our role as a parent must be to teach our children to manage the risks in their lives.

How to teach kids about risks

Our natural instinct as parents is to simply remove any risks or problems that our children face (this has recently been called bulldozer parenting). But it is far better, in the long run, to actively teach our children how to handle those risks themselves. This does not mean stepping completely away and letting them figure everything out themselves but instead, giving them the tools they need to succeed and then gradually stepping away as they (and you!) are ready. This process will be different for every parent-child relationship but starting at very young ages children can begin to develop these tools to manage risk.

Step 1: Teach your child to identify the risk. Work together to label it, point it out, and talk about it. For little ones, this is as simple as saying “big step” as you hold your child’s hand down the stairs. For older ones, it can be a longer conversation. “I know you want to bike to school with your friends. Can you tell me some of the risks you might face?”. As your child gets older their ability to see the risks in a physical (or social) situation will get better and better with practice and guidance.

Step 2: Teach your child to assess or measure the risk. Discuss what the consequences are or the ‘worst-case scenario’ is. This is the step that takes a lot of practice. And, it is the best opportunity for you to measure your child’s developmental readiness to tackle the risk independently. If they can’t accurately tell you what could happen then you know they are prepared to take action if needed. Use a lot of open-ended questions like “can you tell me what might happen?”. Or “I see that the slide is wet today. Can you tell me what that means?”. If they simply can’t tell you how big the risk is then step in and help them out (“Wet slides are much more slippery. You will go much faster.”)

Step 3: Teach your child to manage the risk. Talk about a plan of action. Get them to describe to you what they would do if they found themselves in a difficult situation. If they can openly talk to you about how they plan to manage the risks then it is so much easier to feel confident letting them tackle new tasks. For example, once your child can tell you the risks of biking to school and tell you what they would do at a busy intersection or if they get a flat tire or if they wipe out then you know they are developmentally ready to take on that risk and it is far easier as a parent to let them go.

Step 4: Allow your child to take the risk. This might be the hardest- and the most important- part. Once we have prepared our kids it is time to allow them the freedom to practice their new skills without us hovering and swooping in to ‘save’ them. The freedom to make mistakes and learn from them is one of the best gifts we can give our kids. And the more they practice now the more they will develop those critical self-protecting skills that will help them grow into happy, healthy adults.  

If you are looking for a great place to practice risky play this summer I highly recommend taking the whole family to the adventure play environment at Terra Nova Rural Park or WildPlay. Parents are encouraged to play too which means the whole family can take some risks and have some fun!

Jennifer Hood is the owner and director of Jump Gymnastics – program focused on developing Physical Literacy and giving kids the tools they need to succeed in sports and be active for life. Jennifer is a certified teacher specializing in primary education and has more than 20 yearsexperience coaching gymnastics in organizations across Canada.

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