Tips &

Tips &

Should we let our children engage in risky play?

July 2022
Janthea Brigden
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Recently at an event, one of my staff ran a tree-climbing session. Children did the risk assessment themselves with the focus on extending and developing their climbing skills — they loved it! 

Even those who didn’t fancy having a go themselves enjoyed watching, suggesting and contributing to problem-solving; the learning opportunities were huge!

This experience reinforced what I’ve known for a long time — that some “risky play” can be incredibly beneficial to children of all ages. I wonder how many such opportunities are thwarted by fear and ‘health and safety’ gone bonkers?

A recent article in the Guardian echoed my thoughts. A study published in the journal Child Psychiatry & Human Development found that children who spend more time engaged in adventurous play involving some risk had fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression. 

The study showed that children who spent more time playing adventurously outdoors had better mental health and a more positive outlook during the first COVID lockdown. 

Overestimating risk

Whilst it is, of course, natural, to want to keep our children safe, by putting our own fears onto babies and small children, we stop them from exploring and developing naturally. 

So often I see adults gasp, or call out, which startles a little one and causes the child to think there is danger where there isn’t any. This not only takes away confidence and impacts self-esteem, it also stops children from learning to calculate risk for themselves.

Paperwork and risk assessments can dampen the spirit of play in school and care settings. I often see childcare professionals taking a particular activity off the curriculum simply because the risk appears too great. Bonfire nights and conkers games being examples that have disappeared from many schools.  This is a shame, because spontaneity and consequent learning is at the heart of play!

children playing on a playground

Five known benefits of ‘risky play’

1. It builds trust with adults 

Showing that you trust your child enough to let them play without you watching, is a great trust-building exercise. Obviously, you will probably still be within a responsible distance to react if anything goes wrong, but you are giving them a small amount of responsibility to explore their own independence by make decisions and assessing their own risks. 

2. Learning to assess risk 

This is an important skill that all children need to learn at some point. Regardless of how scary it can be for us as parents, risk-taking (within reason) is healthy for children. It allows them to start measuring and weighing up risks and to know their own boundaries. This is an essential skill for them to develop going into adolescence and adulthood. 

 Psychologists have found that children who engage in risky play are actually less likely to become injured because they have more experience in analysing risk and making decisions.

3. Learning resilience and problem-solving 

Risky play often puts a child in a situation where they have to assess a situation and make a decision under pressure without an adult there to help. Taking risks means that it doesn’t always go your way and sometimes the child will slip or fall or lose their nerve. Learning how to deal with failure and learning from mistakes, are key life lessons and an important part of the growing-up process. 

4. Development of social skills

Engaging in risky play with other children without adult supervision helps to improve children’s interaction with their peers. When taking part in ‘risky’ activities such as climbing trees or building dens, children will have to discuss strategies and approaches with their peers, helping to build negotiation and leadership skills. 

5. Increasing self-esteem 

Being allowed to play and take risks independently can boost a child’s self-esteem

It allows a child to better understand what they should do in uncertain situations and makes them more confident in handling those situations in the future. Having the experience of dealing with new and unfamiliar situations on their own, makes them less fearful of them in the future. 

Responsible risky play

Of course risky play doesn’t mean allowing your child to put themselves into any real danger.  A simple trick is to do a quick ‘risk/benefit’ assessment. List the possible risks and list the probable benefits and make the decision that way. 

Another helpful thing to do, is to ask your child what risks they think might be involved with what they want to do and then help them come up with ways to minimise these. For example, a risk of tree climbing is that a branch might not hold their weight, so testing it before putting full weight on the branch is a way to reduce that risk.   

If you are worried about letting them play out of sight, try it in a secure area like a playground, where you know they can take risks without them putting themselves in too much danger. Alternatively, you could let them play away from you with the company of an older sibling or friend so that you know someone older can get your attention if you’re needed. 

By encouraging children to explore risk-taking we could be building the entrepreneurs of the future!

What do you think? Do you believe children need to engage in risky play?