Risky Play in Preschoolers

Child Led Play, Development / Sunday, September 9th, 2018

I should preface this post by saying “risky play” is natural play to children. We as adults only identify it as “risky” because of what could go wrong with it. I’ll give some ideas on how to encourage risky play without loosing your mind.

Risky play is so important for children. Now, I don’t mean risky play like jumping off a cliff. I mean risky play as safe, natural risks (you probably did as a child) that aid development more than our carefully planned activities. Risky play looks different at different ages becasue the older children get, the more capable they become. What is “risky” to a two year old, won’t be risky to a six year old.

Some of my feelings go to back to Why I Became a Teacher and What is Missing in Education. I go into more detail in those posts, but I will reiterate some thoughts here.

We as a society are split in how we interact with children we have our helicopter parents and free-range parents. One is over controlling and one is under controlling. I prefer the latter because it encourages children to problem solve, be independent, and develop high social skills. Free-range kiddos feel trusted, respected, and valued because they are!

My biggest frustration is when adults tell children no because “you could get hurt.” or “be careful.” or “you are going to get hurt.” Now, we aren’t wrong to tell children when things may be unsafe from our point of view, but it is how we say it that matters. My mom would always tell my siblings and I “It’s not what you said, it is how you said it.”

You can tell children that it isn’t safe all you want. Nine times out of ten though, they will continue to do it. They may continue because they are testing your limits, your boundaries aren’t clear. Children may also continue because developmentally, it is what they need to do. Or they may continue becasue they don’t see the danger that you see.

Children try their hardest to do grownup things. They want to show  you want they can do, not be told what they can’t do. Imagine how you would feel if someone told you every day “you are going to get hurt,” or “you can’t do that.” If we want our children to not worry and try new things we need to let them!

What Is Risky Play?

To some, risky play seems reckless. To me, and many others who value this type of play, it builds children up in such ways that doesn’t happen when they are told, “You can’t do that.” or “You are going to get hurt.”

Risky by definition:  full of the possibility of danger, failure, or loss.
Reckless by definition:  without thinking or caring about the consequences of an action.

Risky play is not reckless. I realize the dangers that could happen during risky play. Risky play is beneficial for children’s development and play that they do naturally.

Playland Preschoolers

Children testing their boundaries does not have to reckless. Children play in risky ways from the moment they are born. As babies they are always pushing their physical boundaries which we encourage. Every little tummy time, rolling over, lifting their heads up, pulling up to stand, taking steps– all of those are risky. Sometimes they fall over and we show them perseverance by picking them up and having them try again. Why do we stop this wonderful character building after they start walking?

This article by psychologytoday gives 6 different types of risky play and why they are important and beneficial. They also bring up the point of evolution. If it were that reckless, natural selection would’ve taken them out but hasn’t because risky play has more benefits than harm.

Great Heights

Children love to climb. Think back to your childhood. How much did you climb? How high did you climb? On top of play sets? Up a tree? Ladders? Stools? Couches? Monkey Bars? Is their a risk of falling? Yes. Is there a benefit of gross motor development, spatial awareness, and fine motor building? Yes. Which is why children still continue to climb and we are silly if we stop them.

Rapid Speeds

When children learn to walk they run. Rolling down hills, spinning on swings, going down slides, swing on ropes, tire swings, and riding bikes. Children love the wind in their hair, to have the feeling of going fast. Fast enough that they could go out of control yet they still trust themselves to keep their composure. Is there a risk of getting hurt? Yes. What are the benefits? Sensory needs being met, motor skills (fine and gross), spatial awareness, and body control. All things children need to be better of in school.

Dangerous Tools

Junkyard playgrounds are making their way around. Often times these playgrounds have signs saying “No Adults Allowed” or “Children Only”. The staff at these playgrounds are trained to help children make choices and supervise materials. Parents get to sit back an watch their children do amazing things with saws, hammers, screwdrivers, nails, and even fire which I will talk about below.

Is there a risk that children could fall or cut themselves? Yes. Even with the support and supervision provided at these playgrounds, that don’t cut themselves. They may fall but they get up and try again. Children love to feel like adults and use adult tools. We can teach them how to be safe with these tools without completely taking them away. The best teachers are aware of the dangers but find ways to make children feel empowered.

Risky Play | Playland Preschoolers

Dangerous Elements

Fire. Water. Rocks. Children are naturally curious about nature. Fire is dangerous. They could get burned. Water is dangerous. They could drown. Rocks are dangerous if they are played without thinking of consequences. Nature itself is dangerous. Let me ask you, how do we protect our children from the world because sooner or later they are going to be out on their own. What tools will they need to be successful? We can teach them how to be safe even with dangerous elements.

Rough and Tumble

This play is more often than not told not to happen. “You are going to hurt each other.” Maybe. Often times this play gets out of hands because children aren’t taught how to tell someone to stop and having them listen. This play is developmentally appropriate for children especially around the school-age range. With the tools I’ll talk about below, this play shouldn’t be an issue in classrooms.

Getting Lost/Disappearing 

Raise your hand if you have ever played hide and seek? 99% of us have. What about peek-a-boo? It is exciting for us to sneak away and be lost temporary from our peers and parents. Is there a risk of getting lost? Yes. Do we still play it? Yes.

How to Make Risky Play Safe

Here is a list prepping you to encourage risky play with your kiddos. This can be done at home with your own children or in your classroom. I’ve been in many settings where safe risk is encourage and scaffold in children. Risky play shouldn’t be set just for home, it can be done and should be done while at school, even at young ages.

Play should be as safe as necessary, not as safe as possible.

  1. Set the limits
    • Discuss with children. “This tool can be dangerous. How do you think we can be safe with it?” Talk about what they should be wearing while interacting with a tool, how they should move around fire, and enforce it. While using tools or handling heavy objects wear gloves to keep fingers safe. Provide, or make sure that every child has the option of a snow/rain suit, weather-appropriate gloves, and boots.
  2. Be around the risky play
    • As adults we know when something could go wrong. We have the experience and knowledge that our kiddos haven’t gotten yet. Instead of telling them what to do, ask what they are doing. Step back and watch. 99% of the time what we think could go wrong, doesn’t happen. For that 1% where they do fall or wobble, you’re there to help them.
  3. Trust your children
    • Let them try new things! Children should take the lead of their play. They know what they are capable of and have inquisitive ideas to solve problems. Children need us to trust them, their abilities, and their ideas. If we believe in them they’ll do great things. Trust them to make a mess and clean it up, it might not get done as fast as we’d like, but they are learning so much more by doing it themselves.
  4. Assess risk VS reward
    • There will be always be a risk. There is always going to be a possibility of a scraped knee or elbow, even a broken bone. Does that risk outweigh all of the developmental milestones and hardcore character building that happens? Create a risk scale if you need to. Think about what your kiddos are getting out of it. Their feelings and emotions need to be taken into account as well. Are they hurting anyone? No, then let it happen. 
  5. Don’t tell them what to do
    • Give them the space to problem solve. Often times we take about children’s ability to think for themselves because it is easier and we know the answer. What do they gain from that? Children can struggle, and that is okay. Not many people like being told what to do and children are no different. Give them support and help when they ask for it.
  6. Cheer and celebrate when they’ve succeeded!
    • What better way to build confidence in children than cheering them on! They ask for our attention constantly and we usually give them a “Nice job!” Compliment their problem solving, creativity, bravery, etc. Children like specific compliments just like adults do.

My challenge to you:

Take a day or a week if you feel up to it. When you feel like saying “No.” “You can’t do that.” “Be careful.” “You’re going to get hurt.” or anything like that. Take a minute to stop and think about why you want to stop that action. What are you afraid will happen? And then don’t stop it. Children know how to be safe and we need to trust them. They may make mistakes, but that is how we learn.

When I talk about risky play, I’m not reckless. I realize the dangers that could happen. The benefits children receive from risky play far outweighs the risk of getting hurt. I also believe that natural consequences are one of the best ways to learn, which is why risky play is SO beneficial for children.

Just because something could happen, doesn’t mean it will. We put ourselves in danger every time we get in a car which we also put our children in. We could get in an accident, but we do it anyway. We could get food poisoning yet we still eat food. We could fall down the stairs yet we still take them. We could get hurt every day but we still get out and live our lives. We can help children be as safe as necessary, not safe as possible.

Thanks for reading! Let me know by commenting on this post or mentioning me on Facebook or Instagram what activity you let happen!

Please don’t forget to subscribe! And check out these wonderful bloggers!

  • The Repurposed Nanny – She has bits of everything from DIY, Lifestyle, Kids, Recipes, and Decor.
  • The Playful Learner – Words cannot express how much I love Amber’s blog. She sees childhood and learning just like I do! A time to play and explore through play. I urge you to check out her blog!
  • Fairy Dust Teaching – A preschool teacher who teaches with a Reggio mindset. I LOVE her classroom set up that she shares.
  • The Kavanaugh Report – This is a Montessori blog. Nicole, the author, is a mother of young children and exposes them to practical life skills such as cutting with a knife at age 1.

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