by Kim Bone

Thinking back to my own childhood, I remember many days of being outside from sun up until being called back inside for dinner, covered in dirt, scrapes and bruises.  Play involved climbing trees, making dams in the stream with the neighbourhood kids and sliding down the river stop banks on pieces of cardboard.  All these activities challenged me physically and emotionally and had an element of risk.  However, the pride and sense of achievement that I had when I was able to climb to the top of the tree and back down again, or sliding down the stop bank without crashing half way down made it a great day!

Unfortunately, in today’s risk adverse and litigious society, physical exploration and playful risk taking is becoming more difficult for children to participate in.  We tend to wrap our children up in cotton wool so that they are not exposed to any forms of danger. In doing so, we are further distancing them from the natural world (and all connectivity with Earth itself!) and ‘protecting’ them indoors or in highly regulated and secured playgrounds that lack adventure, wonder and stimulation.  If you promise yourself that you’ll never let anything happen to your child, then you will get just that – NOTHING WILL EVER HAPPEN TO YOUR CHILD – nothing bad, and perhaps also nothing good. Growing and learning come with aspects of risk, which is why we encourage “being OK with risky play”™. Note that we do not mean “dangerous play”, as this can often be the result of an ill-prepared, poorly thought through, impulsive, out of control, careless and even negligent scenario.

Allowing children to participate in healthy risk-taking activities is something we as adults need to be objective about.  We need to weigh up what is seen as real risk verses the perceived risk and what the potential benefits of that activity maybe.

For example:

  • your child wants to ride their scooter or trike down a ramp at the skate park;
  • your child has excellent gross motor skills and is a good problem-solver;
  • the skate park has levels of ramps and tracks, and your child has a helmet;
  • the risks of riding down a lower slope to begin with are relatively small, yet the benefit your child will gain from confidence and independence is high.

This would be considered a healthy risk or the risk benefit from the activity.  You can decide what ramp your child starts on and have some stipulations; ensuring that you are nearby, only using the lower ramps and making sure no other children are nearby.

“If you promise yourself that you’ll never let anything happen to your child, then you will get just that – NOTHING WILL EVER HAPPEN TO YOUR CHILD – nothing bad, but perhaps also nothing good”, adapted from original, Dori (from movie ‘Finding Nimo’)

Risky play helps to develop crucial dispositional learning such as creativity, curiosity, wonder, problem-solving, resourcefulness, resilience, persistence and making judgements about risk.  Children also learn that they need to be able to handle tools safely and with purpose. These traits are also linked closely to the Gaia (Earth) values that we have talked about worldwide in education conferences and forums across NZ, Europe, Sweden, Australia, Asia and USA.

A best practice early childhood centre looks a bit like teachers planning, facilitating, scaffolding, and guiding learning opportunities such as:

  • Empowering children to climb, jump and challenge themselves physically;
  • Providing lots of loose parts for play (e.g. objects such as wooden boxes, sticks, logs, plastic pipes and milk crates);
  • Being in touch with the core elements of nature such as supervised fire pits where children can roast marshmallows and learn about the value of fire and how we must act responsibly around it;
  • Providing carpentry tables that are supervised and develop children’s confidence and sensibility by using real tools such as saws, hammers and nails.

When providing these learning opportunities, teachers are aware of a child’s maturity and whether they are ready for this level of risk.  Teachers may offer some guidance to children to show them how to use tools safely, observe the children and modify the experience to provide the child more independence after developing more skills.

As adults need to focus on the positive when it comes to areas of risky play.  The physical skills the children can practice, the connection to being out in nature and using natural materials such as trees, rocks, or hills.  The use of positive language around children can build on their confidence.  Sometimes we are quick to say “that’s too dangerous, you’re too high”.  Try to say instead “Do you feel safe?  Where do you think you can place your foot next?”.  Keep the conversation going as this will help with a child’s decision making through the experience.

It’s important that we schedule a time for children to engage in physical play.  Allowing children to go to the park, play out in the garden or visit the beach or local river.  Being able to give your children time is critical in helping children become more active and have more confidence in their bodies.

By applying a good dash of common sense and knowing that risky play has always been a part of a natural childhood, this will set up our children with the best chances for a life of resilience, a life of balance and a life filled with seizing opportunities.

For more information about how Gaia Education & Development can support you:

  • Our Study Tours take you to centres around the world, where you can see, be inspired by and learn from teachers and children being OK with risky play.
  • Our 1-1 Mentoring is a supportive and reflective space for you to explore, test and develop your own sense of facilitating, guiding, scaffolding and planning risks in play.
  • Our Centre Quality Audits provide a good balance between ‘risky play’ and ‘risky business’.