Risky Play

In less than a generation our children have moved from the outdoors to indoors. In a recent survey of families by Planet Ark, they found that there has been a significant shift of outdoor activity to indoors. 73% of the respondents said they played outside more often than inside as children, yet these same adults said that less than 13% of their children now play outside. Disturbingly 1 in 10 children play outside once a week or less the report found.

Our society’s fixation on safety and ‘no risk’ play starts in the early years and continues as children grow older. The nightly news creates an atmosphere of fear about the outside world, as we view images of violence that reinforces a perception that it’s not safe to be outside. So we protect our children even more, and in doing so we remove them from the natural environment and move indoors. In our desire to ‘keep children safe’ we create play environments that are devoid of adventure and interest and diminish their ability to assess and manage risk as an adult. At Allies we ensure this does not occur.

The National Quality Standard for childcare actually promotes that early learning services have environments that allow children to assess risk and make decisions about what is appropriate risk. To be able to effectively learn and build skills like resilience, balance, body awareness, coordination and motor skills, children need to engage in play that involves and immerses them, too often risk is ‘experienced’ vicariously through a screen.

As parents and educators we need to recognise that no play space is risk-free. No matter how much we try to remove the risk of children being hurt, children (and adults) can still get hurt. We can have the super smooth soft fall surfaces in our children’s centres and school playgrounds, but when children walk out into the real world the surfaces they come into contact with are anything but that. The greater risk is not providing children with the skills and abilities to identify and mitigate risk when they come across it so they can engage with the big wide world. And in removing all risk, we are also taking away freedom and fun. More seriously, studies also show that children who engage in risky play are less likely to develop a childhood mental disorder such as anxiety and depression and take risks involving sex and drugs in adult life.

A risk is something that is possible to negotiate and may be appropriate for particular situations and children.

A hazard is something that is inherently dangerous and needs to be remedied, such as a climbing structure with sharp edges or loose boards that could seriously injure children if they play on it. (Curtis, 2010)

The types of risky activities will vary based on the centre, the age group and the setting (some smaller towns and more rural areas engage in riskier outdoor play) but examples are tree climbing, den making, fire building, swinging, rolling, hanging, sliding, tug of war, wrestling, bouncing and horse play.

It is about striking the right balance and weighing up the risks versus the benefits. Adults have a responsibility to both avoid unnecessary and unacceptable risk to children’s wellbeing and safety and provide learning opportunities to be able to self-manage risk and safety in life. A key component in creating a ‘risky play’ environment, is by engaging the children in the process itself. Discussing risk and safety with children is empowering for them because if they know what to do they have the power agency to keep themselves safe. Children are highly motivated to play in risky ways, but they are also very good at knowing their own capacities and avoiding risks they are not ready to take, either physically or emotionally. Our children know far better than we do what they are ready for. And when children engage in risky play together you will often witness a buddy system occurring where children build their socialisation skills in encouraging and helping each other.

Children need to feel that thrill of overcoming their fear and launching into the unknown to master a new skill or experience which risky play gives them. Adventurers and enquiring minds should be nurtured and encouraged from the early years. Never to be rescued but given the opportunity to go further, to seek new ways of thinking and doing, to discover what is possible and to challenge what is known and unknown. Whilst adults still need to observe the play, they shouldn’t hover or automatically jump in and intervene unless serious risk is there. This is our approach at Allies and we find it works very well.