child looking up at tree

The importance of children facing risks through play

As a child who grew up in an era when one was actively encouraged to play outside until it was dark, freely encouraged to climb trees, dig in the dirt, and take part in all forms of outside exercise, it is interesting to compare how far this has been discouraged in recent times.

Parents will often express great concern when their children show an interest in these activities. Indeed, there have been occasions when concerned parents have asked to come to school at break times to oversee their children to prevent accidents or risky play taking place!

Whilst I readily admit that the world itself is a very different place to the one that I and many others grew up in, it is vital for children’s growth and development that they are encouraged to take part in what is often referred to as risky play. More importantly, as research shows, that parents are seen to encourage and support this type of play.

New research has shown that over 70% of parents express concern when their children are involved in what are termed risky-play activities, and this is often reflected in their children’s unwillingness to take part in or exhibit fear about participating freely in such activities.

By the term risky play, I mean children taking part in play that is thrilling, exciting, with an associated element of risk. It is normally classified as having six key factors.

  • Play that involves height, like trees or climbing frames.
  • Play at speed, for example, bike races, playing catch.
  • Play with types of tools, for instance, sticks, building a den.
  • Play involving the four natural elements as in water play.
  • Play with a chance of getting temporarily lost such as hide and seek.
  • Play that involves physical contact such as play fighting.

Whilst no one is advocating that children are placed in unsafe situations, it is very important in a child’s developmental process to allow children to experiment and push themselves in situations where the exact outcome is not predetermined.

Risky play allows children of all ages to make sense of the world and how the world works. It enables self-confidence, resilience, develops high functioning skills and risk management whilst a child is taking part in exercise.

Clearly, it is important that this happens in a safe environment, with us, as parents, helping to educate children as to what makes the situation safe. When exposed regularly to risky play in open large areas, research has shown that children then determine for themselves what is safe.

As parents in an ever-changing world, it is important that we allow our children to take risks and to be able to experience and learn from risk taking. Of course, naturally, we want to always keep our children safe.

However, we are talking about managed risk taking. This can be simply standing back, observing, and allowing children to make choices as to how high to climb the tree, or where to play hide and seek, whilst, at the same time, equipped with the knowledge that the place that they are playing in is relatively safe.

As parents and educators, it is our role in everyday life to point out hazards, talk about things that we see and, therefore, provide children with knowledge that will enable them to make informed, relatively safe decisions when playing. We must enable the next generation the ability to grow and develop, just as we did.

“The more risks you allow your children to make, the better they learn to look after themselves” – Roald Dahl

By Penelope Best,
International Education Consultant