From Risk to Reward: The Benefits of ‘Risky Play’ for Children

From Risk to Reward: The Benefits of ‘Risky Play’ for Children

  • Imagine your child engaging in outdoor play, eagerly climbing a tree in the local park. As a parent, you notice the potential risk of a fall. However, if you intervene and prohibit this risky play, you might unintentionally hinder their development of spatial awareness, problem-solving skills, confidence and resilience.

How do you navigate this dilemma, weighing the immediate safety concerns against the long-term benefits of allowing your child to explore and take calculated risks?

As parents and teachers our number one priority is to keep children safe at all times. However, could our relentless pursuit of health and safety inadvertently hinder their development in the long run?

I often pause as children engage in risky play, taking time to ask myself three questions:

  • What is the immediate risk in this scenario? (Is it dangerous or just risky)
  • What are the potential long-term risks if I prohibit this play?
  • How can I minimise harm in either scenario?

Pondering these questions enables me to strike a balance between safety and scaffolding. 

As parents and teachers, we need to reflect on the opportunities and experiences that we offer children.

  • Are we giving them opportunities to practice their skills, take calculated risks, navigate challenges, and learn from their mistakes?
  • Are we providing the time, space and autonomy for children to continually test and readjust the limits of their physical, intellectual, social and emotional
  • development?
    Is my approach potentially impacting their ability to learn and grow into confident and capable individuals?

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas A. Edison
Risky vs dangerous play, there is a difference?

By risky play, I don’t mean dangerous or harmful behaviour.
“Dangerous” typically refers to situations or play that pose an immediate threat to safety or well-being without any benefit. These are activities where the potential for harm outweighs any potential benefits. Play we want to avoid.

On the other hand, “risky” refers to play or situations where there is a chance of harm or failure, but there may also be potential benefits or rewards. Risky activities often involve uncertainty, challenge, or the possibility of negative outcomes, but it also offers opportunities for growth, learning, and development.

Risky play typically involves thrill seeking, excitement and physical challenge. Experiences like climbing, jumping, balancing, or rough and tumble play, as well as hiding or moving out of view, away from the supervision of adults. These activities provide a sense of fun, enjoyment and exhilaration and can, at times, involve some risk of potential injury. There are six key factors of risky play:

  • Height and elevation 
  • Speed and momentum 
  • Use of risky or adult tools 
  • Interaction with natural elements 
  • Play with a chance of “getting lost” 
  • Rough-and-tumble

Risky play can have many different forms but ultimately it is about giving children the space to build confidence and test their capabilities on their own terms through resilience building activities.

But why ‘risk’ it?

Risky play supports the development of dispositions such as resilience, confidence, perseverance and resourcefulness. It also offers opportunities to test and improve fine and gross motor skills, coordination, physical strength, executive functioning skills and risk-assessment abilities.

Each time children engage in risky play they are creating their own little science experiment: pushing themselves out of their comfort zone without knowing what the exact outcome will be.
Risky play allows children to set their own boundaries, learn their own limits and find out what they feel comfortable with.

This awareness actually helps reduce the risk of injury as children learn to identify the point when they might need to stop to re-evaluate their choices. As they continue to gain experience with risky play, children are increasingly able to assess hazards and can help identify when certain situations may be unsafe, accepting increasing responsibility for self, others and the environment.

The role of the adult

What is important is how these experiences are scaffolded to allow for the gradual transfer of risk management from adults to children. The notion of finding the balance is central if children are to have the opportunity to experience some risk in their lives. This balance can be achieved when we respond sensitively to children, to accept and promote their abilities to self-assess and manage risks as well as their desire for challenge and excitement. These are sustainable practices we should perform daily.

But how? We can’t just stand back until they get hurt…

What if, as children begin to engage in risky play, we position ourselves as co-learners and explorers?
We already have the skills to assess hazards, what if, instead of prohibiting the risky play, we scaffolded it?
Instead of saying “that’s not safe”, or “be careful” we guided children’s attention to potential hazards and then walked alongside them as they assess the risk…

What might this look and sound like:

“Notice how…those rocks are slippery, that log is wobbly, that branch is thin…”
“How will you…get down, go up, get across?
“What can you use…to get across, move that barrier, to reach that high part?”
“Do you see…that big fall, your friends nearby, that chair in your path?”
“Could you try… balancing on that stronger branch, using your…hands / feet / arms / legs, moving your feet slowly?”
“Do you feel…stable on that log, the heat from the fire, how slippery that rock is?”
“What’s your plan…if that branch isn’t strong enough, you can’t get past that barrier, if the water is too deep?”
“Where will you…put that rock, your toy when you climb up, get down on the other side?“
We know that taking risks is a natural part of life, often leading to rewarding outcomes, but with some uncertainty involved. We also know that children will always find ways to explore risks, whether we encourage it or not. It’s our role as teachers and parents to build their confidence, provide the scaffolding they need to navigate these challenges safely and to learn and grow from the experience.
When it comes to child development and risky play, it’s about understanding that the outcome isn’t guaranteed.

We can weigh the potential rewards against any potential risk and how likely success or failure might be then instead of saying something “isn’t safe” we can consider both the benefits for children’s growth and the possible risks, making a balanced decision.