Risk taking is an important part of childhood. It helps with cognitive, emotional and social development.
However, as adults we’re often afraid to release control over our children’s welfare in order that children can access these benefits.
Risk taking is generally associated with outdoor play-based learning.
In the outdoors we have less control over the conditions of children’s play environments. There are sharp, dangerous, tricky obstacles that children need to navigate in outdoor environments that we remove from inside spaces.
As parents and educators, we need to start thinking about how we can encourage measured risk-taking so that we can tap into the amazing benefits of risk taking in early childhood. So, in this post I’ll outline the top benefits children receive from risky play.
Why Outdoor Play-Based Learning?
Play-based learning has been a fundamental feature of sociocultural models of learning and teaching. Educators like Vygotsky and Reggio Emilia believed that play helped children to develop socially and cognitively.
Here’s some benefits of play:
- Children can use their imagination to develop knowledge and understanding of the world;
- Children learn by ‘doing’ rather than observing or being told, which can enhance understanding;
- Children actively discover new things about themselves and their environments;
- Children talk to one another during play, which helps language development;
- Children’s socialization during play can lead to enhanced social skills such as negotiation, self-expression and sharing
Outdoor play adds that extra element of risk. Indoors we can control the environment. We can make sure the floors are soft, the doors are locked and there aren’t any loose objects or sticks that have blown in with the wind.
Here’s some specific benefits of outdoor play:
- The freedom to explore (especially with unstructured play);
- Opportunities to make unique, authentic discoveries of new objects, bugs and landscapes;
- The chance to manipulate natural objects and turn them into play tools;
- First-hand learning about weather, seasons and the natural world.
Examples of Risky Play in Childhood
- Climbing Trees: Enables children to gauge heights, develop grip strength, and understand spatial relationships.
- Balancing on Logs: Helps children fine-tune their balance, coordination, and proprioceptive senses.
- Jumping from Heights: Allows children to assess distances and the capabilities of their bodies, building confidence in their physical abilities.
- Play Fighting: Helps children understand physical boundaries, develop empathy by reading cues, and practice self-regulation.
- Exploring Alone: Venturing away from caregivers allows children to cultivate a sense of independence and boosts their navigational skills.
- Using Tools: Handling tools like hammers or scissors helps children develop fine motor skills and learn responsibility with potentially dangerous items.
- Building Forts: Gathering materials and constructing shelters promotes creativity, problem-solving, and cooperation with peers.
- Near Water Play: Engaging with ponds, streams, or the seaside teaches children respect for natural elements and develops their skills in assessing the dangers and joys of water.
- Rough Terrain Play: Navigating uneven grounds, hills, or rocky areas helps hone balance, coordination, and risk-assessment capabilities.
- Playing with Fire: Under supervision, understanding and respecting the power of fire can instill a sense of responsibility and awareness of natural elements.
Dangers of Risky Play
But play is often considered a serious risk to children’s wellbeing. Anyone with a parent knows that children have a propensity to run off and find themselves in dangerous situations in the blink of an eye.
So, while we know there are cognitive and social benefits to play, sometimes we look at it as a big risk.
This is particularly true when play takes place outdoors in environments we find hard to control.
But there are more reasons play is considered so risky (and why we’ve become so risk averse). These include:
- Bubble Wrapped Children: Taking risks in early childhood has been increasingly seen as a bad thing in the era of the ‘bubble-wrapped child’. We have increasingly seen our children as precious, innocent and in need of protection. I write about the bubble wrapped child syndrome in this related post on constructions of childhood.
- Stranger Danger: In an increasingly urbanized and multicultural world, our communities are less cohesive than they once were. We live together in suburbs, but often mix in different circles. We go to different churches, schools and social events. This has led to mistrust of our neighbors who we don’t know well. Instead of allowing our children out on the street to play, we coddle them and keep them inside for fear of the strangers down the street.
- Media Panic: In a world in which media sensationalizes the worst of the world, we’re exposed to stories of kidnappings, hit-and-runs and child exploitation on a daily basis. This has encouraged us to batten down the hatches and not let out children outdoors.
- Fear of Lawsuits: In an increasingly litigious world with occupational health and safety requirements here, there, and everywhere, we’re just too scared that if something goes wrong, we’re on the hook.
Risky Play as an Educational Philosophy
Play is popular among educational philosophies such as:
- Montessori Education: Where the educators try to take a hands-off approach to encourage children to learn by themselves.
- Steiner Education: Where children are encouraged to learn in natural environments with hand-held tools.
- Reggio Emilia Education: Where children are taught to be powerful, competent and capable learners who have choice and control over how they learn.
Some alternative educational institutions have specifically embraced risky play as an educational philosophy.
Scandinavian countries are well-known for embracing risky play. Coming out of Scandinavia was the Forrest Schools movement which encourages children to learn in the outdoors in all-weather environments.
In Australia, they embraced Forrest Schools and gave it a new uniquely Australian twist: Bush Kinder.
Benefits of Risk-Taking in Early Childhood
So, let’s take a look at some of the benefits that taking risks might provide in early childhood:
- Exposure to new opportunities. If students don’t take risks, they will be less likely to come across new opportunities and challenges that will extend them.
- Experimentation with new skills. In environments that students haven’t come across before (and that involve an element of risk of failure), students need to develop new skills in order to successfully navigate those environments.
- Developing motor skills. Taking physical risks like climbing trees and balancing on tightropes can require students to focus on improving their fine and gross motor skills.
- Move through the ZPD. The ZPD is the ‘zone of proximal development’. It’s a term used to explain things learners can’t do alone, but can do with help (see image of ZPD in insert). Risky situations often sit right inside a young person’s zone of proximal development. This is the ideal zone to target to help children develop: doing things that are difficult but achievable with some effort.
- Improved confidence. Confidence comes from tackling challenges and conquering them. If we never expose young people to challenging situations, they will not develop the self-belief to overcome challenges in life.
- A growth mindset. When you have a growth mindset, you have the belief that you are in control of your own success or failure. People who lack a growth mindset don’t make any effort because they don’t believe they can do anything to influence their own success or failure. When we let children take risks, we show them that they’re capable of succeeding if they try, try and try again.
- Skills in evaluation of scenarios. We all need the ability to size up a situation and evaluate whether it is doable. As Hellen Little and Shirley Wyver of Macquarie University argue, restriction of risky play opportunities in schools can also lead to “reduced opportunities to develop skills in risk evaluation” (2008, p. 38). By contrast, if we give young people lots of opportunities to evaluate the risks in situations, they will develop greater skills in self-regulation.
- Greater understanding of their own abilities. When children are allowed to test their limits, they develop an understanding of their own capacity. This builds self-awareness and a realistic sense of self.
- Teacher interference is minimized. Cognitive-Constructivists like Maria Montessori argue that teacher guidance can often lead use to stifle children’s imagination. If we leave children alone to take risks, then we might see children reaching unique, marvellous and creative conclusions about themselves and the world.
Learn More about Types of Play Based Learning:
- Symbolic Play
- Cooperative Play
- The 6 Stages of Play
- Pretend Play
- Types of Play
- Parallel Play
- Child Initiated Play
You Might Also Like These Related Articles:
- 4 Different Classroom Layouts and what they Mean
- The Humanist Approach to Education
- Behaviorist Theory of Learning and Teaching
- Guided Practice: The I Do, We Do, You Do Method
- Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation in the Classroom
Scholarly Sources for your Essay
These sources are all listed in APA style. If you need to reference them in a different style, have a read of my referencing guide which will give you some pointers.
- Drew, C. (2018). ‘We call this “play”, however…’: Navigating ‘play anxiety’in early childhood education and care markets. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 17(2). https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1476718X18809385
- Lavrysen, A., Bertrands, E., Leyssen, L., Smets, L., Vanderspikken, A., & De Graef, P. (2017). Risky-play at school. Facilitating risk perception and competence in young children. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 25(1), 89-105. https://doi.org/10.1080/1350293X.2015.1102412
- Little, H., Sandseter, E. B. H., & Wyver, S. (2012). Early childhood teachers’ beliefs about children’s risky play in Australia and Norway. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 13(4), 300-316. https://doi.org/10.2304%2Fciec.2012.13.4.300
- Sandseter, E. B. H. (2012). Restrictive safety or unsafe freedom? Norwegian ECEC practitioners’ perceptions and practices concerning children’s risky play. Childcare in Practice, 18(1), 83-101 https://doi.org/10.1080/13575279.2011.621889
- Sandseter, E. B. H., & Kennair, L. E. O. (2011). Children’s risky play from an evolutionary perspective: The anti-phobic effects of thrilling experiences. Evolutionary psychology, 9(2). https://doi.org/10.1177%2F147470491100900212
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]