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  • Writer's pictureRhonda Berryhill-Castaneda

Risky Play and Early Childhood: A Guide to Setting Your Kids Up for Success

A major goal of raising children is to help them become capable adults with creative problem-solving skills. Ideally, we want to send our children into the world and be confident they won't put a fork into a light socket.

But how can we expect children to grow into capable adults if we never let them take risks and learn from their mistakes?

Head over to a nearby playground, and you'll likely find stairs, a bridge, and some slides. Where are the monkey bars? The seesaws? The kids climbing to the top of a tree?

It's almost a cliche, but in the past, children were out riding their bikes all day at the local jumps they built themselves, often coming home with a broken arm. Where has that spirit of adventure gone?

Parents are spending more time than ever with their children while leading health professionals are shouting about the importance of injury prevention. Of course, parents are going to be on high alert for their children’s health and safety. And is there even such a thing as too safe?

According to recent studies, there is. Not having the opportunity to sharpen risk assessment skills has been shown to hinder child development. So here are some tips on walking that ever-fine tightrope above the city to keep your kids safe but not too safe with risky play.

What is Risky Play?

Risky play is precisely what it sounds like—thrilling play with an element of risk. It allows children to experiment with cause and effect, gives them authority to decide their limits, and essentially, helps them figure the world out for themselves.

  • Height – Danger of injury from falling

  • Speed – Uncontrolled speed that can lead to a collision

  • Adult tools – Can result in wounds

  • Getting lost – Disappearing from adult supervision

  • Natural elements – Risk of falling into something

  • Roughhousing – Where children can be harmed

Why is Risky Play Important?

Risky play is crucial to development. Dr. Elise Waghorn, an early childhood researcher at RMIT University, says, “Children who participate in risky play have a greater chance of reducing their risk of injury due to their balance and improved functioning abilities. This results in children not only having fun and exploring new possibilities, but also how their body works in a relatively safe way.”

When you think back to your infant learning how to walk, what comes to mind? The first thing might be their cute baby rolls, squeal. But after that, I am sure it’s how they teeter-tottered their way through the day, grabbing and grasping for anything within reach, and ultimately falling smack to their diapered bottom.

As stressful as it was for you, did you end up carrying them everywhere or did you let them practice? I will risk an assumption here and say that you probably let them practice until they figured it out, falls and all. Because if you carried them everywhere, they would never learn to walk.

This learning process doesn’t stop after walking, it just transitions to a bigger scale. Instead of using trial and error to make it over a curb, maybe now they’re hopping across uneven rocks to make it safely to the other side of their favorite fishing stream.

How to Encourage Risky Play?

Give Your Child the Space and Support to Experience Uncertainty

Providing your child with a curated “risky play space” is an excellent way to quell your fears. You can hand-select items and play structures that align with your child’s age and skill level.

You will also want to remind them that you trust their problem-solving skills, but you’re here if they need you. This can look like, “I believe you can make that jump! But if you’re not comfortable yet, you can hold my hand. Just let me know when you need me.”  

Do the “Just Safe Enough” Approach

While you are gauging danger to your child, decide if the activity would likely result in a major or minor injury. According to Dr. Mariana Brussoni, “Children would have to play outside for three hours per day for approximately 10 years before they were likely to have one medically-treated (and likely minor) injury.”

Scrapes, bumps, bruises – these are all part of growing up. Even stitches, a butterfly bandaid, or some super glue, but that’s for your personal preference. On the other hand, a head injury or broken bone, maybe it’s time to step in.

These are boundaries you should decide for yourself ahead of time and then practice them.

Focus on Specific Instructions Instead of “Be Careful”

As a parent or childcare provider to young children, “be careful” is probably on the tip of your tongue most hours of the day. I don’t blame you. Nobody wants to see their child or student get injured.

But children don’t WANT to get injured either. They are likely already being careful in their minds. So when you tell them to be careful, there are two probable outcomes: 1. They will ignore you, or 2. They will think something tragic is about to happen, causing them to panic.

Neither option is ideal, so to avoid this, give specific instructions or observations relevant to the activity at hand. Some experts like to call it “sportscasting.” (Sportscasting is also a great technique for conflict resolution. More on this in a future blog.)

Sportscasting risky play can look like —

  1. “That stepping stone looks wobbly.”

  2. “How will you reach the next branch?”

  3. “This path has some slippery moss.”

  4. “Your left foot is close to the edge.”

  5. “That tool is pretty heavy.”

  6. “Take your time.”

Utilize the 17-Second Rule

If you feel the pull to halt your kids’ playtime, Dr. Mariana Brussoni suggests waiting 17 seconds before intervening. This gives you time to evaluate what’s happening and gives your kid time to figure the problem out for themself.

Let Your Child Assess the Damage

Eventually, your little one will get some scrapes and bruises. There are no two ways around it.

Most parents or guardians have one of two reactions – Rushing to provide aid or make light of it altogether. Both scenarios have good intentions but hear me out, what if you let the child decide which solution is needed?

By pausing to ask, “Are you okay?,” you are showing your child that you trust them to make decisions about their body and also teaching them the important skill of evaluating the damage.

Sometimes, they will pop back up and brush themselves off. Other times, they may need a little support. In this instance, a follow-up question such as, “Did it hurt you or scare you?” can help you provide the type of support they need at the moment.

20 Risky Play Ideas

  1. Climbing a tree

  2. A bicycle race

  3. Swinging on a rope

  4. Hammering golf pins into foam

  5. Walking on a balance beam

  6. Climbing a pikler triangle

  7. Jumping on a trampoline

  8. Sawing some wood

  9. Wrestling with another child

  10. Hide and Seek

  11. Exploring a new hiking trail

  12. Jumping from couch to couch

  13. Swinging really high on the swings

  14. Using an electric mixer

  15. Running on the beach

  16. Playing duck-duck-goose

  17. Climbing across a log

  18. Rolling down a hill

  19. Using sticks to sword fight

  20. Jumping from a large boulder

As you can see, the opportunity for risky play is everywhere. To learn more about how Cherished Child fosters childhood development through risky play, book a tour here.

We hope to see you soon!

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