Risky Play: Worth the Risk?

We visited RHS Wisley this morning. There are many great things about it, but one of my favourite things is this den building area in the playground. They have two basic den structures, and a whole load of branches. These branches are BIG – I’m talking 6-8 feet – and heavy as well! The kids absolutely love it. It’s always busy! 

While we were there, I overheard a fellow parent expressing his concern about the dangers he associated with this kind of play. On the one hand, I totally get his point – there are certainly risks attached, and I saw one or two near misses which had my heart leaping in to my mouth! However, I also see many benefits to allowing risky play – and this is what prompted me to write this post.

A wooden den made of branches, underneath which is a basic timber pyramid structure. In the background are trees, beech hedges and a glasshouse.

What is risky play?

Risky play is a natural part of children’s play, and can be observed in the play of other young mammals. It is an important part of development, but opportunities for risky play have been diminished in our current culture.

Ellen Sandseter, Professor at Queen Maud University College of Early Childhood Education in Trondheim, Norway, identifies six categories of risky play:

play with great heights – danger of injury from falling

play with high speed – uncontrolled speed and pace that can lead to collision with something (or someone)

play with dangerous tools – that can lead to injuries

play neardangerous elements – where you can fall into or from something

rough-and-tumbleplay– where the children can harm each other, and

play where the children can “disappear”/get lost.

Sandseter (2010) ‘Scaryfunny’

Of course, protecting our children and keeping them safe is of paramount importance. It’s one of our primary responsibilities as parents! Is it irresponsible, then, to allow our children to engage in risky play? I don’t think so. In fact, my view is that enabling and encouraging this kind of play is an act of protection in itself. Let me elaborate.

Risky play empowers

Allowing children to take risks when they play empowers them and gives them autonomy. It gives them a certain amount of responsibility for their own safety, and this is great for their self esteem. Being given responsibility shows them that we trust them, and through this they gain confidence.

Risky play equips

Risky play allows children to practise assessing risks for themselves. Can I lift this branch? Will it balance here or will it fall? How can I make sure I am safe when I climb high? Will I hurt myself if I jump from here? They also learn to recognise their own limitations. If children aren’t given the chance to think through these minor risks in their play, how will they learn to assess and manage real risks when they encounter them? So by allowing them to take risks, we are helping to prepare them for the future and equip them with the skills they need to keep themselves safe.

In addition to the ability to consider risk for themselves, children are being equipped with other skills. When I observed the children playing this morning, there were huge amounts of collaboration, problem solving, and conflict resolution taking place. The children were figuring out how to work together (many of them having just met); how to share the equipment; how to communicate their ideas with each other; how to make their structures safe. The skills they were using are essential life skills!

Risky play enables

As well as empowering and equipping them, risky play enables children by giving them the opportunity to experience the emotions that may arise from this kind of play, such as fear or frustration. By talking about the feelings they are experiencing, you can help them to understand and work through the emotions.

Here’s one example which we encounter regularly. T loves to climb. Climbing frames, climbing walls, trees, she loves them all. However, I often find she starts climbing and then she gets scared. Usually it’s that she’s looked down and realised how high she’s gone, and now she’s worried she’ll fall or won’t be able to get down. At this point, she asks for help. Now, I don’t want her to get hurt – I’m not going to allow her to fall, if I can help it. But the thing is, it’s very rare that she’s actually in danger of that. So, unless she’s really panicking, I try to avoid lifting her down. Instead here’s what I do:

  • Clarify the fear: What are you worried about? What makes you think you’re going to fall?
  • Reassure: I’m not going to let you get hurt. I know you can do this. You’re doing really well.
  • Support: Can you see somewhere to put your foot? Try holding on to that branch. Do you think you could jump from there?

My aim is that by encouraging her to resolve the problem with me in a supporting role, she learns to manage fear herself rather than handing over the responsibility to me.

Risky play is physical

Now this many not be true for every risky play scenario, but certainly for many of the categories identified by Sandseter, children develop physical skills through risky play.

As I mentioned before, the branches my kids were using this morning are big. Bigger than the children carrying them! Moving large, heavy and unwieldy objects like the branches helps children to develop strength, balance and co-ordination. Without developing these essential gross motor skills, children can struggle to perform everyday tasks, and it also impacts on their ability to carry out fine motor skills such as writing and cutting. Similar skills are being developed when children climb, use tools such as a saw, or travel at speed.

Faciliating risky play

All of us want to protect our children and keep them safe. When play spaces like this are set up, we need to be sure that they don’t pose a serious threat to children’s safety. Once they’re up and running, they need to be regularly inspected and repaired when necessary. In this particular space, the risks have obviously been assessed and are well managed. The two basic den structures are extremely strong, and provide a solid foundational support to the branches being added to them, avoiding the potential danger of dens suddenly collapsing inward on to small children. Furthermore, I noticed all the branches were removed during the winter months, which I suspect was a safety precaution given the additional risk of ice or rain causing the branches to become slippery.

Additionally, we need to remain vigilant when watching our children play and be ready to step in if they are looking like they might cause themselves or someone else serious injury. However, while I saw a few near misses this morning, I didn’t actually see a single accident or injury, beyond the odd stumble or trip. In fact, I’ve never been aware of any accidents when we’ve visited. This was an environment where multiple children aged 1-10 were wielding huge branches!

I am so grateful that spaces like this exist, and I think the RHS deserve credit for enabling this kind of play! If you haven’t been to Wisley before, it comes highly recommended – it’s a beautiful place to explore and they run some excellent events throughout the year.

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