Real Life Risky Play

On a fall afternoon, I was outside supervising a group of neighborhood kids playing in my yard and neighboring yards. I am a big fan of risky play, so watching them scale apple trees and climb up our rope swing was bringing me so much joy! (And yes, some anxiety. But I do trust them and their ability to know when it’s too much for their body.) 

At one point they found a ladder lying on the ground that they worked together to prop up onto a stump in the yard- yay for teamwork! They were using this ramp to climb up and down and hang on and jump off of it, it was great to watch. However, upon closer inspection, I realized that right under the propped-up ladder were several 2×4 boards that were full of rusty screws and nails. 

Instantly their risky play turned to dangerous play. 

I was able to take a second to gather my thoughts and plan my next move, how I reacted could drastically change the outcome of their work. 

There was danger, but nothing was immediate. Courses needed to be changed, but it wasn’t a life-or-death situation at the moment that I needed to swoop in right away. 

I offered them some awareness of the situation,
“Hey guys, let’s look around really quick. What do you see on the ground? Boards with nails in them? Yeah, that can be dangerous if we fall on them! What can we do to make this a little safer?” 

Their first solution was to move the boards away from where they were playing, but with the number of children and only myself there to supervise them, I didn’t feel like this would be a safe option to make sure all of the boards were picked up and moved without a nail going through someone’s hand or foot, so I had to tell them we needed to find a new option. 

After some more deliberation, they decided to work together to pick up the ladder and move it to a different area to prop up and play on again. After moving it, the ladder was taller and in a more risky position to play on, but the danger of it was gone because it was a safer landing than the alternative. 

They played with their setup for hours and hours with no incident! And maybe they would have played in their first location for that long with no harm to anyone either, but the danger there was not something I could ignore. 

Risky play is important and good and needed, but as a caregiver, it’s my job to determine when risky play turns into dangerous play.

There was so much learning in this situation, both for the children, and myself! I am not perfect and every situation isn’t handled this well every time. But with practice and time, I’ve learned more and more how to differentiate between risky and dangerous play and the best way to approach the changes we need to make in order to keep everyone safe, while still giving them opportunities to learn through risk. 

Other helpful articles on risky play: 

Risk Vs. Reward: Risky Play for Children

When Does Risky Play Become Dangerous Play? How to Find the Balance

If We Can’t Say Be Careful, What Do We Say?

So What Do We Say If We Can’t Say Be Careful?

When supervising risky play, it’s important to avoid saying “be careful.” I know, I know. This is hard to do, it’s a phrase deeply ingrained in our brains. I’m still working on it myself! Looking through the child’s lens, hearing “be careful” is such an empty saying. Be careful with what? How? Where? When?

The question I ask myself when I’m tempted to turn to the same phrase is instead, “Do they need advice or do they need awareness?”

Awareness: When I can see a bigger picture they maybe can’t or haven’t realized yet. 

Example: 3 year old climbing an apple tree, but doesn’t know that one of the branches is dead and not as sturdy as the rest of the tree branches. 

Situation 1: I call over- “Be careful!” The child grabs the branch, the branch breaks, the child falls out of the tree. I’m frustrated because I told him to be careful, he’s frustrated because he’s still not sure why he fell out of the tree. 

Situation 2: I move slightly closer and point out things he can make himself aware of. “Look at the branch you are sitting on, it’s so full of leaves and so strong! Is that next branch up also full of leaves? How does it feel when you grab it?” Child reluctantly grabs the branch, realizes it’s dead and not sturdy, then finds a new path to climb. 

Advice: The child is attempting a task for the first time and needs advice on how to find success. 

Example: A child walking along a fallen log to cross a slow, shallow river for the first time. 

Situation 1: I call over, “Be careful!” Child gets the footing wrong, falls into the water, and everyone is upset. 

Situation 2: I step closer and offer advice and coaching on how to help my child across the log so they can still perform independently and have this learning opportunity, but by adding in the coaching I just took the task from dangerous to risky. 

It’s a tricky mind shift and it takes a lot of practice, I know this from experience! However, choosing your words carefully when engaging children in risky play will turn out to become a huge benefit in the long run. 

Here are some other phrases that can help you make this conversation shift: 


“Do you notice how….”
“How is your body feeling?”
“Is this stable or wobbly?
“If you look up, do you see what I’m seeing?”
“What’s your plan?” 
“How do you want to accomplish this?”


“When I do this activity I like to…”
“You might want to try…”
“When using this tool, a good safety feature we need to know is…”
“The rules for using xyz include…” 

Now please do not get me wrong, if your child is in immediate danger, please take all necessary steps to keep them safe. But risky play is needed developmentally and is so good for the child in the long run. It’s forever a balance between risky and dangerous play! However, I can promise you that calling out, “Be careful!” will not make the activity any less dangerous. 

What phrases do you use with your child instead of “Be careful?” 

Cover photo by Mallory Wilcox

When Does Risky Play Become Dangerous Play? How to Find the Balance

I posted earlier this week about the importance of risky play for children, but now I want to expand on one specific aspect of risky play that I feel is one of the biggest struggles caregivers have regarding risky play. 

When does risky play become dangerous play? 

I wish I could give you a straightforward answer, I really do. Because I would love a straightforward answer myself! But there is a lot to this question that we have to analyze ourselves to answer it. 

The first question is- what is the experience level of the child performing the task? Age is irrelevant here. Child A can be an expert at climbing a ladder at 18 months and child B can still be learning the concept at 3 years old. 

Next, you need to analyze the situation. If they fall or fail at what they are doing, what’s below them? Cement or grass? Hardwood floors or carpet? Is there a corner of a table nearby that you need to be aware of? 

My son loves jumping from our couch onto a crash pad on the floor, which is typically an okay activity for him. However, one particular day I noticed a wooden kitchen table chair positioned perfectly next to the crash pad that if he jumped just right, it could harm him. It was a simple conversation, “Hey buddy, do you see this chair next to your crash pad? That might be a problem if you accidentally jump into it! Let’s put it back into the kitchen so we don’t have to worry about it being a problem!” Dangerous play went right back to risky play. 

How much and how close supervision does the child need for the specific activity? And how much supervision can you realistically give them at the moment? 

My 6-year-old loves climbing our ladder to pick apricots off our tree from the tallest branches. However, she is still fairly new at ladders and it’s well above 6 feet off the ground. This task requires closer supervision and most likely some coaching to get her through it, and if I can’t give her that for some reason, then this risky play just turned into dangerous play and should be avoided. With enough time and practice, she will be more confident and able to climb a ladder by herself, making less supervision not dangerous anymore. 

Safe, risky, and dangerous play is always ebbing and flowing. It can change day to day and even hour to hour as children work hard at their play, fail and falter a few times, analyze how they can do better, and try again. And as time goes on, you also become more experienced and better at determining what is risky and what is dangerous for your child.

Really, risky play is just one big science experiment for them to do over and over, analyze, and then learn from. I think if you can allow yourself to step back and foster their risky play, you might be amazed at how much they really can accomplish on their own. 

Secrets of the Apple Tree

girl climbing apple tree picks fruit

I’ve been on this Earth for many years now,
Long enough to witness the different stages of life, multiple times.

The one I’m perpetually drawn to is childhood. 
The innocence of a child is unlike any other
Because they pick and climb and run and scream
All without a single worry about what tomorrow brings.

Always running.
Always climbing.
Always wondering.
Always growing. 

It doesn’t matter the time, the decade, or the season,
I’ve discovered one constant truth-
That children need movement and play and risk. 
They are drawn to me for that exact reason.

The constant I am in their lives, 
And have been in the past for others,
And will continue to be in the future 
To those that wander in. 

For I am the apple tree
That has nourished bellies
And held strong for endless climbing. 
My leaves provide them with shade 
And my branches hold them sublimely. 

As the years go on, 
As children grow,
I know they will lose interest with time.
But I worry not. 

The next generation will come
And pick and climb and run and scream.
All without a single worry about what tomorrow brings.
For there is a gravitational pull that an apple tree yields.

Risk and reward.  
Peace and tranquility. 
Havoc and uncertainty. 

We truly were created for one another,
The child and the apple tree. 

Photo by Zen Chung

Risk vs. Reward: Risky Play for Children

Risky play is such a buzzword in the parenting/ academic world right now. It’s the idea that kids play in a way that has an added level of risk- they climb trees and ride bikes down big hills and give their bodies the opportunity to fail or falter, in order to learn how to change their course of action to find success eventually. 

Think of walking on a balance beam that’s positioned a few inches off of the floor. A 2-year-old may be fairly proficient at walking and running, but asking them to walk on a balance beam for the first time is a harder task for them, they have to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other in order to move forward. 

It’s inevitable that they will walk wobbly or maybe even fall off entirely. This is adding a layer of risk into play. 

Safe to them would be walking slowly on a flat, even surface. 

Risky would be attempting a balance beam a few inches off the floor. 

Dangerous would be attempting the same balance beam independently, but a few feet off of the floor instead of a few inches. 

Again, this is all for a two-year-old with no prior practice on a balance beam. The level of safe, risky, and dangerous play for any given child at any given age is constantly changing and evolving based on their experience level. 

What is the why behind risky play? Because it is one of the best things you can do for a child’s development. The list of skills that are developed during risky play is as follows, but is not limited to: 

Problem-solving skills
Cause and effect
Executive functioning skills
Brainstorming capabilities
Language development
Risk assessment
Life skills

Yes, you can get all of this and more by allowing your child to engage in risky play! It’s a no-brainer. 

But I know there are concerns surrounding risky play because I have those same concerns. When does risky play become dangerous play? How do you allow risky play while also avoiding trips to the emergency room with broken bones? It’s a delicate balance and with most things in life, becomes easier with time and practice. 

Your role as the caregiver or responsible adult over any number of kids is to determine where the line between risky and dangerous is… not for yourself. But for the child. 

Things to consider when supervising risky play:

-The overall situation. Are there any sharp objects, heavy furniture, or other dangerous factors that need to be avoided, pointed out, or considered? 

-The age, ability, and skill level of the child or children playing. 

-How much supervision you can allot to the risky play? Some risky play needs more supervision than others, and if your attention is divided too much at the moment for the child to engage in a certain activity that needs closer supervision, it’s okay to say no. 

Time and experience are on your side with all of these. Utilize it. It gets easier over time to analyze risky vs dangerous play. There is so much more to be said about risky vs dangerous play and even the language we should be using when supervising risky play. But those will be saved for another day! 

Until then, let the kids climb the apple trees and ride their bikes around the block. Take a breath (and probably a step back) the next time you see them scaling the rock climbing wall on the playground or turning the curb into a balance beam. Learning is happening. 

How Educational Is The Zoo- Really?

My daughter’s school is on a 4-day week schedule, making Fridays a stay-home day. The first few weeks of this new change proved itself somewhat challenging, she would be home during the day on Friday and struggle with being in a slower-paced routine of staying home. As a very extroverted soul, she needed human interaction, fast-paced, and as much learning as she could cram in. An in-person school situation really is where she thrives. 

On a random Friday nothing, in particular, was happening, so I made a very last-minute decision that we needed something to do for the day, so right then and there, our Friday Field Trips started. We packed sandwiches in a lunch box and took off to the capital city of Idaho for an afternoon at the zoo. 

I had the goal of making it educational for my daughter since that’s typically what she lacked on her day off from school. And educational, it was! Both through direct and indirect instruction. 

On the drive to the zoo, about 1.5 hrs from our home, we turned on the GPS and used the car mount to place it where everyone could see it. We had a very natural discussion about GPS, what it does for us, and how they’ve changed and evolved over the years (didn’t you have a huge, separate system in your car back in the early 2000s?!) 

We talked about Boise, Idaho. The capital city of Idaho and what it means to be a capital city. This led us to a light discussion on government and politics. Yes, I was talking government and politics with my 5-&-3-year-olds.

The GPS led us straight to the zoo. We packed up the stroller and headed to the gates. Once inside we looked at the pricing board and found what age range each of us landed under and how many dollars each of us would have to pay. It was especially fun when we realized that our baby was FREE! After some quick math and money exchange at the front gate, we were on our way! 

We used the park’s map to navigate to each animal enclosure we wanted to see. We read, read, read all about every animal to learn more about what they ate and where they slept, and what they liked. 

After seeing all of the animals we played on the zoo’s playground. Playgrounds are always a great, indirect learning experience, giving children hands-on experiences in physics, science, cause and effect, social-emotional skills, learning empathy, and more. 

After an afternoon at the zoo, we made a stop at the grocery store before we went home. Which came with so, so much learning as well! When kids are involved with grocery shopping trips it teaches them many, many valuable skills such as vocabulary, math, and so much more. 

I knew I wanted our day to remain educational, but what I didn’t realize was how much natural and indirect learning came from our outing. The vast majority of our conversations were natural and simple curiosities my children had. 

“Why is the GPS telling us to turn left?” 

“What is this star thing on the bottom of the zoo map?” 

“Why are the giraffes and zebras in the same enclosure?”

“Why are the penguins all standing together right now?” 

“What happens inside of the capitol building?” 

“Why are some things on a cold shelf in the grocery store, but others aren’t?” 

“How does your credit card pay for our stuff when you put it into the machine?”

Sloth bear, nostrils open.

Just taking time to answer these questions and have discussions, leading to more questions, made the entire day incredibly educational for all of us. Thank you, Google, for helping me figure out that red pandas mostly eat bamboo, but also like to snack on fruits, insects, and lizards. Also, did you know the sloth bear can completely close its nostrils in order to keep out dirt and bugs when they are invading others’ nests searching for food? Neat, huh!

I think more often than not I am caught up in getting through our daily errands and checklists, but dedicating one day a week to answering all of the questions and having the discussions is what our whole family needs. We didn’t have a clipboard of worksheets or checklists on animals to find. There wasn’t anything we were set on learning, we just took the day minute by minute and I went with where their curiosity took them. So you’ll be hearing a lot more about our Field Trip Friday adventures and what we’ve learned that day! The natural learning of our day is always worth it.

Cover Photo by Kevin Bidwell