Risky play can generally be defined as thrilling and exciting forms of play that involve risk of physical injury. Risky play generally takes place outside during children’s free play and adventurous physical activity pursuits.
A recent study in Norway revealed risky play can be broken down into two main characteristics:
1. Environmental characteristics (features of the play environment)
2. Individual characteristics (how the child carries out the play)
Research into risky play has found there are 6 main categories of risky play, or play children universally undertake and have done since the beginning of time. They are:
1. Great heights
2. Great speed
3. Dangerous tools (knives, saws, axes, ropes)
4. Dangerous elements (water, fire, cliffs)
5. Rough and Tumble play
6. Disappear/get lost/hide
“Risky play is thrilling and exciting play that provides opportunities for challenging oneself, testing limits, exploring boundaries and learning about injury risk” (Tom Hobson, 2021, Teacher Tom’s Play Summit).
Furthermore, “if we don’t provide opportunities, they (children) will make their own opportunities” (Hobson, 2021). This is evident in the photos of the children climbing up and out of the large foam cylinders onto the side of the cubby depicted in the display.
Why is risky play important?
Early in my work with young children I came to understand risky play as important for brain development. Across 20 years much research has been conducted in this area and it has been scientifically proven to be the case.
Observing children across 20 years, from many locations and settings, I can confirm that engaging in risky play is innate in all children. I have also come to trust children know their own limitations and progress through the stages of risk taking at their own pace.
In addition to the physical skills, risky play may also offer children:
More confidence in their own abilities
• Connections with peers
• A deeper understanding of the world
• Ability to risk assess (a very important skill for the teenage years!!)
• Increase in creativity
• Improved motor skills
• ability to cope in stressful or unexpected situations
“Through play and risk-taking, children also learn about themselves. They learn their interests, their abilities, and how to regulate their emotions.” – Angela Hanscom. Balanced and Barefoot: How Unstructured Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, Confident, and Capable Children.
• Free play changes the connections of brain neurons.
• These neurons regulate emotions and problem solving.
• Play is what prepares a young brain for relationships and life.
• Risk taking helps children learn to navigate and avoid dangerous situations.
• This can decrease the likelihood of developing phobias and anxiety.
When they are engaging in risky play – The children are testing their own boundaries, making decisions for themselves.
CVC Preschool values risky play, in our service philosophy we state, “we believe risky play is a natural part of children’s play. Risky play gives children the freedom to explore new experiences and challenges. We recognise risky play as an opportunity for children to test limits, explore boundaries and learn life skills”.
CVC Preschool also values and recognises our duty of care to providing a safe environment for children, so we are finding ways to provide the children opportunities to take risks in their play and assessing and planning for them.
A little more on why children seek out ‘risky play’, brain development and the holistic learning benefits of risky play…
What does the science say? When children are assessing their own risk, taking care of themselves and understanding their own capacities and capabilities they are developing the part of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex.
“Risk is one of the ways humans develop that prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that manages risk and controls emotion. Research has shown us the prefrontal cortex develops best under conditions of actual risk and actual emotion.
We are wired to seek out risky experiences because that’s how the brain wires itself properly” Hobson (2021).
Hobson goes on to say, “When we protect children (or stop them from engaging in this type of play) we limit the development of their brains, and they grow up lacking the tools necessary for judging their own limitations”.
So rather than stop the play, this is what we do… A little on height, speed and rough and tumble play
We observe and plan for opportunities to practice, refine skills, gain strength, balance and coordination and we move in. Getting close is key to managing our adult fears and really understanding the capabilities of the children. I assure you, the children know their own limitations, if they have a desire to achieve the heights and speeds of others, they practice in incremental stages, all the while building strength and confidence.
We talk to the children about the risk, we point out hazards or potential dangers, we ask questions such as, “Do you have two points of contact?”; “Have you thought about how you are going to get down?”; “What can you see around us that you could use to help you?”
We have rules, “No shoes if you want to climb the bars” – it’s too slippery and we need our toes and feet to grip and properly distribute our weight. We need to be able to feel what’s beneath us and we need our senses on high alert, so they can’t be inside shoes.
We have assessed the risks, identified the hazards and we work continually to make the area/s safe. At times it is about holding space, protecting the area, clearing the area, stopping traffic, and pointing out concerns. For example, at the beginning of the year when Joshua asked if he could shimmy up the post, we examined it first for rough patches or protruding bolts; we looked around to see what he would fall on if he were to fall; he identified the furthest pole as the safest and has since shared this learning with his peers. We in turn have added these discussions to our risk assessment document.
Children make very important suggestions which have contributed to our risk assessment development and reviews. These also become agreements we make with the children and reflects our strong view of the child as capable and competent.
A little on: Disappearing/hiding/getting lost:
A study conducted by David Sobel as told by Jan White, describes this type of play by saying, “it is clear that having a space of your own and making your own little place is a universal play behaviour and it meets very deep psychological needs”. Often when we see this type of play, friends are being invited in, bodies shuffle around to fit more inside (and sometimes to keep others out too – protecting the space), there is always a door and often a window. The window is valuable to ‘keep watch’ so everyone knows ‘when the baddies are coming’. It’s a really deep need, or as Kimberley Crisp calls it, an URGE, to have this safe place to look out from. Kimberley explains the concept of URGE as deriving from the word URGENT. It’s an intrinsic ‘need to do it right now” (if possible). Children have an URGE to climb, jump from height, run (at speed) and hide. This play is almost always revealed by the squeals of excitement when baddies are spotted, giggles and laughter of secrets shared within and delighted faces that show the thrill of this kind of play. If you think about it, this play has very similar characteristics to adults setting up house, creating a safe haven if you like.
The displays and learning stories are a collection of the children’s risky play adventures and progress across the year. The stories and pictures have come from a collection of both planned and spontaneous experiences.
Every child has a documented story of progression within this overall story. In closing I have included a little description of some theory that I see in practice when I am with the children during these experiences. It reminds me over and over again of children’s ability to be both learner and teacher and the power of human connection. This concept of child as learner and teacher is described by Lev Vygotsky as the zone of proximal development (ZPD).
Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)
ZPD is defined by Vygotsky (1978) as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (p. 86).
Using the example of climbing to a height, it is the physical ability, including strength, muscle development, balance, coordination and height (not to mention the emotional ability) to move oneself to the peak of an object or apparatus, as determined by themselves; and the potential with practice, thought (problem solving skills) and observation under guidance or in collaboration with a more capable peer or under adult guidance.
Sometimes ‘in collaboration’ simply translates to being inspired and working out a way, either now, or in the future, to perform this action or task.
In my observations of the children leaping from the end of the plank onto, over or otherwise onto the foam wedge, I noticed all the children approaching this differently. Some run and leapt; others ran to the end of the plank, slowed and dropped onto the wedge; others still walked to the edge and reached out a hand for me to hold as they jumped down; others were content to watch from a nearby vantage point. Over the period of an hour, many changed their approach and became visibly more confident and agile; others took one turn and did not return or came much later when the area was quiet to practice and get better acquainted with the concept. All engagement is welcome, celebrated and noticed. It is how we observe for learning, understand individual preferences and learning styles and recognise when the children move through one ZPD to the next one.
If you think about a baby learning to walk, there are so many stages of acquiring this skill before walking is actually achieved; lifting their head when placed on their tummy as infants; pulling themselves to a standing position from just a few months of age; sitting independently; rolling; crawling (this is also explored at speed); pulling themselves up on the side of the cot and coffee table; walking around something with the edge to support them and provide a strong base. And only once the muscles and strength are ready, balance and coordination acquired; will the baby be confident to take those first few tentative steps. Note also how these first steps are usually performed with the encouragement and close proximity of family positioned ready to encourage, cheer on and catch. In this same way we learn to climb, leap, use dangerous tools and navigate dangerous elements.
• Inspired EC Mini Course: Reflecting on Risk
• YouTube: Scarry Mommy; accessed July 2021
• Teacher Tom’s Play Summit 2021: Interviews with Lisa Murphy; Tom’s Risky Play Masterclass; Jan White
• The HeArt School: Kimberley Crisp: URGES Webinar, June 2021
• Beate Hansen Sandseter, (2009), Characteristics of risky play as featured in Journal of Adventure and Outdoor Learning, June 2009.
• CVP Service Philosophy: revised 2021
• Adamstown Early Learning Centre (AELC) Instagram, 2021, accessed 9th July, 2021
• http://www.science direct, 2021, cited Media and Information Literacy in Higher Education, 2017, accessed on 12th July 2021.